Looking for the perfect holiday gift? Say cheese!

John Oncken
The new cheese shop at Decatur Cheese was built a year ago, but the crowds will be limited this year because of the pandemic.

Traditionally Thanksgiving is the end of fall (autumn to some) and the beginning of the biggest holiday season of the year. It also means the start of the serious snow season. Radio, TV and the social media are full of advertising devoted to the buying of gifts for family, friends or Santa Claus giving.

The worry season

Of course, this is also the season for some serious worry and concern centered on what kind of gift too buy for friends who have done you a favor, relatives living far away and for family members living nearby. We worry because we think Uncle Jim and Aunt Mary have about everything they need during their retirement days in Florida; have no idea what the neighbors who helped build the new calf barn would even accept as a gift or most important what son John in Grand Forks could use, appreciate and enjoy. 

And, during these pandemic/quarantine days you probably best stay close to home to do your gift buying. 

Hennings Cheese at Manitowoc is a family operation that sells many varieties of cheese.

An easy answer

There is of course is a simple answer: Wisconsin cheese! Thus leaving you with only one major decision: What kind of cheese?  Should it be a mild Swiss, a mellow Butterkaase, a Muenster with a blend of Jalapeno peppers, an aged, crumbly and tangy sharp Cheddar or one (or several) of the dozens (actually hundreds) of Wisconsin cheeses that make the perfect Christmas gift?

All color, size and style fit

You needn’t ponder if the size is correct. Or if the color fits. Or even if the style is “in.”  With that decision in hand your worries are over and you can be assured that your gift will be a real hit because it is pre-assembled, requires no fancy tools and has no mumbo-jumbo directions before it can be used. It’s just open, slice, eat and enjoy.

What if you are totally cheese ignorant? Warm up the computer and dial in, a 'tell it all' website run by the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin (formerly known as Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board) that lists Wisconsin cheeses and where to buy them. Then order on the internet or stop at the local cheese factory and do it all in one stop. 

Decatur Cheese Cooperative sits high on a hill west of Brodhead.

My plan

Here’s what I usually do: I make the 50 mile (or so) trip to Decatur Dairy near  Brodhead, that Master Cheesemaker Steve and his wife Glennette ‘George’ Stettler operate, and buy a variety of cheeses for the neighbors who have helped me over the year plowing snow, going to the town refuse site and other favors. Then, I also pick out a few more cheeses that within moments are weighed, wrapped, packaged and ready to be shipped to North Dakota. In a week or so my son and his family will be eating World Champion Cheese from Wisconsin. 

Making cheese is not an easy job.

Still time, but...

You still have lots of time to make your gift order but get it done by mid-December or earlier if it’s going a long way, like to the West Coast. 

I called Decatur Dairy this morning asking if they had seen more interest than normal in gift cheese because of the pandemic?. “Not yet," they said, "but it’s early  and we see the possibility of more than the normal gift orders. And yes, our cheese sales shop at Decatur Dairy is open but with a five person (with masks) limit, shouldn’t be a problem."

Environmentally and politically correct

Cheese also fits what many folks want these days: local, natural, sustainable and if you buy from a small cheese factory like Decatur Dairy which is a farmers cooperative with a small number of farmer members (about 80) , whose names are well known to Stettler.  

Some history

Decatur Swiss Cheese Co-op dates back to 1942 when farmers from the nearby Coldren Cheese factory replaced their outdated and too-small factory with a new building and a new name. In 1960, another local cheese operation – the Jordan Prairie Cheese Factory – closed, and most of the milk came to the Decatur Co-op. Roy Stettler became the cheesemaker in 1973, and in 1982 his son Steve succeeded him as cheesemaker. Steve presently manages the co-op.

Most of the state’s cheesemakers are very good at what they do.

The Decatur Swiss Cheese Co-op is one of the small group of cheesemaking cooperatives, sort of unique to Green County, where the farmer members own the building and the cheesemaker owns the equipment and makes and markets the cheese.  Note: One of that small number of cooperatives – Maple Leaf Cheese of Monroe – is apparently closing with the departure of the longtime cheesemaking team.

Steve and Glennette “George” Stettler lease the building from the co-op, and Steve holds the cheesemaking license. They manufacture and market the cheese made from farmer-patron milk under the Decatur Dairy Inc. name. Thus the two entities bring milk from the cows, make it into a wide range of cheeses and sell it to stores that bring it to cheese lovers from Minnesota to the East Coast.

Great cheese. How?

How does a small cheese factory, on a county road in Green County, compete with the huge automated factories built in recent years, some of which have hundreds of employees and process millions of pounds of milk a day?

First and most important, Decatur Dairy has made good, even great cheese for a long time. Much of the cheese is actually sold to stores that market it under their own private label. This means that they and their customers must like it or reorders don’t come.

Wisconsin is known as the cheese state with about 130 cheese factories.

Steve Stettler, who is a Wisconsin Master Cheese Maker, has been making cheese all his life, and he’s good at it, as the ribbons and trophies, including world championships covering one wall of his office, attest. Havarti and Muenster are among the most popular of the many cheeses made at Decatur Dairy. Farmer’s cheese has increased in popularity each year, Stettler points out. “It’s really mild,” he says. And don’t forget the cheese curds, those fresh, squeaky, habit-forming pieces of cheese the factory turns out in several varieties.

You are still able to visit and look, sample and buy cheese by the time deep winter sets in. Or easier yet, do what the current rules say, “Stay at home” during the quarantine and go to or call 608-897-8661 and get acquainted with the cheeses from Decatur Dairy and make your order. 

A great result

The result will be a lowered “worry level”. Happy cheese eaters who got your gift. Happy farmers who saw their milk go to happy customers and a happy you as you accept the “thank you.”

John F. Oncken, owner of Oncken Communications can be reached at 608-837-7406 or e-mail him at