The sadness and joys of Wisconsin cheese

John Oncken
Fresh curd about ready for the form or packaging.

Wisconsin produced 3.36 billion pounds of cheese last year thus assuring our state remains the nation’s  #1 cheese producing state, far ahead of number two California’s 2.4 billion pounds. 

The 3.36 billion pounds of cheese figures to be just over 25 percent of the 13 billion pounds of cheese produced in the US. And, as it has for many years, Wisconsin produces 100 percent of the nation’s limburger (The only factory in the nation that makes Limburger is Chalet Cheese Cooperative near Monroe.). 

Lots of cheese makers

The most recent Wisconsin Dairy Plant Directory lists 141 cheese factories – some of which are part of national organizations that process millions of pounds of milk daily, some process sheep or goat milk, some are very small startups and others are small co-ops or family-owned factories.

The empty parking lot at the closed Maple Leaf Co-op.

Maple Leaf still closed

You may remember last fall that the state lost a small, local cooperative cheese factory with the closing of Maple Leaf Cheese Co-op located in Twin Grove a few miles southeast of Monroe in Green County.

Note: This was a unique style of operation that included two parties: Maple Leaf Cheese Cooperative (the farmers) and Maple Leaf Cheesemakers, Inc. (who make and market the cheese).

MORE: Maple Leaf Cooperative files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy

The farmer-owned cooperative was notified by Maple Leaf Cheesemakers Inc. that they would no longer be making cheese at the Monroe facility beginning Nov. 20, 2020.

“They told us it wasn't economically viable for them to keep making cheese at our plant," Co-op Treasurer Bob Bade said. 

According to a statement released by Maple Leaf Cheesemakers Inc., "Dairy market volatility coupled with the coronavirus pandemic has forced them to make the tough decision to discontinue production of their award-winning cheese at the Monroe facility.” 

Bade noted that the cooperative had been in negotiations with Maple Leaf Cheesemakers for the past year in an attempt to fashion a better contract for the co-op.

No cheese has been made at Maple Leaf since last November and the factory is silent and vacant.

110 years old

The cooperative was established in 1910 by a group of farmers in order to establish a consistent market for their milk. 

According to the agreement formed in 1982 between the two entities, the cooperative owned the facility on Twin Grove Road and provided the milk and hired the Maple Leaf Cheesemakers group who owns most of the equipment and provides the labor, including the cheesemakers.

The plant ceased operation in November and has stood idle since with apparently some equipment being removed by the Cheesemaker group. The plant is now involved in the judicial system as a result of the Cooperative’s move  to bankruptcy last December and all is forlorn and silent on Twin Grove Road. 

Part of the cheese shop crew.

Meanwhile, not quiet at all

Meanwhile it was far from quiet at Decatur Swiss Cheese Cooperative, another small farmer-owned cheese factory just west of Brodhead, where I stopped on this travel day to buy some great cheese curds. The cheese store was crowded with people standing in line to buy cheese or a cone/dish of ice cream. 

Decatur Swiss Cheese Co-op dates back to 1942 when the farmers from a nearby cheese factory replaced their outdated and too-small factory with a new building and a new name. In 1960, another local cheese operation-closed, and most of the milk came to the Decatur Co-op. 

MORE: Gov. Evers visits Brodhead cheese plant, Janesville farm

Roy Stettler became the cheesemaker in 1973, and in 1982 his son, Steve Stettler, succeeded him as cheesemaker and co-op manager. 

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.

Master Cheesemaker Steve Stettler at Decatur Dairy.

A “Master”

Steve Stettler 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. He is a “Master Cheesemaker” which puts him in a special class of cheesemakers; there are less than 60 Master Cheesemakers in Wisconsin.

There is a lot going on at this cheese factory as the milk from some 60 dairy farms is turned into cheese each day and the cheese store serves customers from near and far.

Eating cheese is happiness!

Don’t forget the curds

And don’t forget the cheese curds, those fresh, squeaky, habit-forming pieces of cheese the factory turns out in a dozen varieties. But be careful; they may be habit forming

When you have the urge to take a day off, head toward Decatur Dairy or another of the remaining small family run cheese factories scattered across the state; maybe take a tour, buy cheese and make new friends. 

Check the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin website for places to visit. Take a trip, eat some cheese, enjoy.

John Oncken can be reached at 608-837-7406, or email him at