Thursday, November 30, 2006

Silver Lewis: Old World Cheese

A story published in today's The Capital Times (view it here - credit to John Oncken for photo at right) about Silver Lewis Cheese Co-op in Green County, Wisconsin, brought back good memories of the first time I walked into the 109-year-old cheese plant.

It was the summer of 2004 and the plant was for sale. Owner and longtime cheesemaker Bob Gmur was looking to retire after a long and succesful career in the business and a colleague and I were trying to help him find a new owner.

No one wants to see a Wisconsin cheese plant close, no matter how big or small, and this one was tiny. But it was and remains part of the heart of the Monticello dairying community, with 12 area dairy farmers depending on it to purchase their milk at a premium for making cheese.

When you walk into the Silver Lewis plant, you know right away the place has soul. It's old - and I mean old as in ancient. Built in 1897, the last major remodel was finished in 1948. The "retail store" consists of a counter directly outside the make room. You can view cheese being made, packaged and ready to ship without moving a step.

Turns out someone else not only felt the plant's soul, but is adding their own story to its history. Josh & Carla Erickson successfully purchased Silver Lewis in August 2004 and are now making 40 vats of farmer's, brick and muenster cheese a week (up from 14 vats when they bought it).

The Ericksons have developed a loyal following, too - while much of their cheese ends up on the East Coast and Texas, I'd say a fair share of it gets eaten locally. Just try finding a better "day-old Brick" - a mainstay at area church dinners, weddings, funerals, family holiday gatherings, and yes, my fridge.

Keeping with the soul of the place, the Ericksons are not only crafting Old World cheese, they sell it that way too: by word of mouth. As John Oncken writes in today's story: "The Ericksons don't produce a holiday catalog. They don't have a website. Yet they get calls from cheese lovers across the country. They can be contacted at 608-938-4813."

Enough said.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Crave Brothers Selected for Show

The Crave Brothers Farm near Waterloo, Wis. - home to Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese - has just been selected as the site of the 2009 Farm Tech Days, one of the largest outdoor ag shows in the country.

The Craves have long been known for pushing the dairy envelope in Wisconsin with cutting-edge technology in both their dairy barn and their farmstead cheese plant. They'll now spend more than two years gearing up to host 100,000 people over three days in July '09.

The farm is run by four brothers, their wives and children. Charles & Joni do the bookkeeping, building maintenance and run the calf program. George & Debbie take care of the cheese factory. Tom & Janet run crops and machinery for the farm's 1,600 acres while Mark & Tina are the herdsmen and employee managers.

Visiting the Crave Brothers Farm is like visiting a well-oiled machine. Everyone knows their role and everbody is happy to fill their role while leaving the others to manage other parts of the operation. The dairy plant - a 6,000 sq. ft. cheese factory built on the farm in 2001 - makes cheese at least five days a week using fresh milk pumped through a pipeline under the road between the milking parlor and dairy plant.

George & Debbie recently finished adding an affinage room to the cheese plant where they now age their Les Freres and new Petit Les Freres cheeses. George also crafts fresh mozzarella, fresh Mascaropne and a Farmer's Rope from part-skim mozzarella - their biggest seller - it's uniquely formed into a rope shape. It also took a best in its class at the 2005 American Cheese Society contest.

Congratulations to the Crave Brothers for once again putting Wisconsin on the dairy trendsetter's map - 2009 will be here before we know it.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Another Farmstead Dairy Breaks Ground

In exciting news, one more Wisconsin dairy artisan has broken ground on a new dairy plant. Todd & Sheryl Jaskolski of Black Creek moved the first shovel of dirt last week and are now building their own goat dairy where they plan to be making farmstead goat's milk yogurt by spring.

The Jaskolskis already use the milk from their herd of 400 Saanen and Alpine dairy goats to craft a goat's milk yogurt under the brand Caprine Supreme. For the past year, they've been using another Wisconsin dairy artisan facility to craft their product - a unique all-natural creamy goat's milk yogurt with live, active cultures.

Unlike some of the other goat's milk yogurts on the market from other states (Caprine Supreme is the only goat's milk yogurt being produced commercially in Wisconsin), the Jaskolskis' product is smooth and doesn't carry a strong goaty flavor. Flavors currently available include vanilla, blueberry, black cherry, peach, strawberry and plain. The blueberry is my favorite.

The Jaskolskis' farmstead dairy plant is part of a hot trend in Wisconsin - more than a dozen dairy farmers have built their own dairy manufacturing plants in the last two years, all with the intent to produce a farmstead product from the milk of their own animals. It's a great way to bring in more family members into the business while adding value to the farm. Plus, they're making fabulous products - it's a win-win for Wisconsin.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Driftless: New Sheep Milk Cheese

Goats aren't the only small ruminants in the Wisconsin media lately - dairy sheep are now getting their fair share of fame as well.

Leading the way are Dean & Brenda Jensen, a pair of artisans near Westby, whose "Driftless" fresh sheep's milk cheese is catching the attention of retailers and chefs in the Twin Cities. Premier Cheese Market, 5013 France Ave. South in Minneapolis was carrying it earlier this year - look for it again in January when next year's milking season starts up again.

The Jensens have christened their business Hidden Springs Creamery and are making four flavors of fresh cheese from their herd of 150 East Friesen and Lacaune ewes. This season's flavors included lavender & honey, natural, basil and olive oil, and pumpkin & spice. Brenda is the lead cheesemaker and is planning to craft even more flavors next year after she finishes her own own farmstead cheesrie. She also plans to experiment with raw milk aged cheeses.

Dean, meanwhile, runs the farm and uses draft horses instead of tractors for fieldwork. They use zero antibiotics on their animals and no pesticides on their crops - visiting their farm is very much like taking a trip back in time.

Of course, their kids think they're nuts, but the grandkids think they're awesome. The pair didn't grow up farming - they both left successful professional careers for a rural lifestyle. Not only are they committed to hand crafting and marketing a high-quality artisan sheep's milk cheese, once their cheesrie is open, they plan to host cheesemakers to teach classes. They are also in the midst of finishing a bed & breakfast attached to their home. Once that's done, the Jensens plan to invite chefs to stay and see the farm and cheesemaking process.

Right now, they're looking for someone to help with milking and lambing, so if you know of anyone, give them a call at 608-634-2521 or email

Friday, November 03, 2006

Changing America's Dairyland

OK, so I'm on a roll about goats. I can't help it - the media is suddenly in love with Wisconsin goat cheese. I've seen two tv interviews with Wisconsin goat farmers this week and two feature stories during October in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story by Karen Herzog really put Wisconsin goat cheesemakers and farmers on the map. Rumor has it there's even a story coming in the Washington Post on Sunday about Wisconsin's dairy goat industry.

Now I find out that the state just released its first ever official stats on dairy goats and dairy sheep. Ten years ago, I think you would have been hard-pressed to even find someone milking a sheep - now it's an entire "industry." So how many people are actually milking goats and sheep for a living?

The Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service, in a report released yesterday, says the state's 165 milking goat herds produced 27.6 million pounds of milk in the last year, with total receipts of $7.57 million and an average price of $27.90 per hundredweight. Wisconsin’s 11 licensed milking sheep herds produced 829,300 pounds of milk, with an average price of $55.50 per hundredweight.

Of the 165 licensed dairy goat herds, 90 farms milk between 1-100 goats, while 56 farms milk 101-200 goats. Nineteen farms milk more than 200 goats. Ever milked a goat? I'm not sure I'd want to milk 200 of them, but since you have to have 7-9 goats to get the same amount of milk as you would one cow, I guess you would have to have quite a few.

On the sheep milk survey, the state’s 11 licensed sheep dairies are milking 2,250 ewes. Sixty percent of the operations have sold sheep milk for six or more years. None said they planned on discontinuing production in the next five years, while more than half plan on increasing the size of their milking herds.

That's a lot of numbers. But what I think is most telling is that more than half of all dairy goat and sheep farmers say they're going to increase their herds in the next five years. What does that mean for us? More Wisconsin goat and sheep's milk cheese. Because 90 percent of all milk produced here - whether it comes from a cow, goat or sheep - is crafted into cheese.

America's Dairyland isn't just about the black and white bovines you see alongside back roads anymore. Tomorrow's America's Dairyland is going to be more diversified with a growing population of dairy goat and milking sheep operations taking over the faded red barns in the countryside.

This is good news for Wisconsin. More milk means more award-winning cheeses.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Felix Cheese Update

Good news for those of you in Illinois - here's a short update to the last post about Felix Thalhammer's award-winning Capri Cheesery Smokey Bear cheese.

Eric Larson of
Marion Street Cheese Market in Oak Park, IL is now one of the first retailers in the nation to carry this award winning hickory-smoked goat wheel (up to now, Felix has sold most of his production at the Dane County Farmer's Market in Madison, Wis. - I see big things in the future for our favorite Wisconsin Swiss-American cheesemaker).

Eric got the chance to meet Felix at the Madison farmer's market a couple weeks ago (pictured above). He says Felix's fetas are "possibly the best feta cheese made anywhere in the United States." He's also now carrying St. Felix (a washed rind gouda style goat cheese) and Govarti (a gouda/havarti goat milk original from Felix) in his store on Marion Street.