Any way you slice it, state's specialty cheese business is whey betterThey're calling it a "dairy renaissance."
By: By Allison Geyer, La Crosse Tribune, Wis., Superior Telegram
They're calling it a "dairy renaissance." And for Wisconsin cheesemakers, the time is ripe.
Wisconsin is the nation's No. 1 producer of specialty cheeses, accounting for 25 percent of the total domestic market in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent data.
More than 70 percent of the state's 126 cheese plants manufactured at least one type of specialty cheese last year, for a total of 586 million pounds.
This is up 3 percent from 2010, and experts expect the trend to continue gaining momentum.
The Dairy Business Association and the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association hosted a tour of the Swiss Valley Farms Mindoro plant Tuesday, offering elected officials a rare, behind-the-scenes look at a modern cheese factory.
The plant produces about six million pounds of blue and Gorgonzola cheese a year.
The demand for quality, high-end cheeses has grown drastically over the past few years, said John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.
"This is a new phenomenon in Wisconsin," he said. "The process (for making specialty cheeses) is more sophisticated, but our cheesemakers are flexible and know the basics."
Umhoefer has seen Wisconsin cheesemakers adapt to the emerging trends. Many plants that used to make "easier" cheeses like Colby and cheddar have begun to dabble in Havarti, feta, Gouda and more.
"A lot of people don't understand how the industry is changing," he said. "We want people to see the modern dairy industry, because it's the future of Wisconsin."
Formerly the Mindoro Cooperative Creamery Association, the Mindoro plant was acquired by Swiss Valley in 1997.
It operates 365 days a year and sells to distributors in all 50 states and internationally, plant manager Monte McIntyre said.
"We're even pushing sales in Asia," he said. "That's due to the persistence of our salespeople and distributors."
One of the largest emerging markets for specialty cheeses is Latin America.
"The No. 1 export place is Mexico," said Chris Hoeger, Swiss Valley vice president of procurement. "And especially in the Central American states, it's growing faster than ever."
The Mindoro plant keeps it local and fresh with ingredients, though. The milk is stored no longer than 72 hours in silos and is all sourced from the 50 neighboring farms within 60 miles.
"We celebrate farms, families and great cheese," said Swiss Valley natural cheese vice president and general manager Jeff Jirik.
The success of the Wisconsin cheese industry helped soften the blow of the economic recession in the state, he said.
"Wisconsin built five cheese factories during 2008 and 2009," Jirik said. "Right when the recession was at its worse, we were adding jobs."
The Wisconsin dairy industry contributes $26.5 billion annually to the state's economy. It's so important, "cheese is one of the few bipartisan issues" in the state today, said dairy industry lobbyist Shawn Pfaff.
"Lawmakers have been very supportive," he said. "We're seeing the industry expand and grow."
Right now, Jirik said, "cheese is the place to be." He expects the Mindoro plant will expand in the future.
"Cheese today is where wine was 20 years ago," Jirik said. "I'm very optimistic."
(c)2012 the La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wis.)
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