Monday, September 19, 2016

Montchevre in Belmont Goes Non-GMO

Because baby goats are cute.
You'd think with my hometown of Belmont, Wisconsin being only an hour away, I'd get back home more often. However, the closest I usually get is Mineral Point, where we meet my parents most Sunday nights at the Midway Tavern for homemade pizza and five games of Euchre (we have a running score of who wins each game - women vs. men - written in pencil on the bottom of the Green Bay Packers poster on the wall).

But last week, with an invitation from fourth generation French cheesemaker Jean Rossard to visit the ever-expanding Montchevre goat cheese factory in Belmont, I made the trip to my hometown. With a population of 986 people, this thriving metropolis has gained exactly 160 people since I left home in 1994, and I'm pretty sure they all work at Montchevre.

That's because Montchevre employs 250 people. In a small town, that's a big deal. And when you combine that number with another 200+ working at the Lactalis President Brie factory just down the street, French-style cheese has eclipsed Belmont's one-time claim to fame of being the state's first capital. Heck, even the village's homes are powered by methane gas from Montchevre's anaerobic digester - the first digester installed at a goat cheese factory in America.

Touring a cheese factory these days is complicated. With increased regulations and sanitary requirements from the Food Safety Modernization Act, most won't let you in at all. But Jean got me suited up in a full-body jumpsuit, booties to cover my shoes, a full head hairnet with openings for my eyes and mouth, and a long white jacket. I looked like I was ready to go cook a meal on the moon. And no, I'm not posting a picture. Let's just say the outfit was not slimming.

As one of the largest goat cheese factories in America, Montchevre makes an astounding number of different types of goat cheese, all in the same facility, and it does it very well. Jean and Arnaud Solandt founded Montchevre in 1989 in Preston, Wisconsin. In 1995, they moved operations to Belmont and took over the old Besnier America factory on the southeast side of town. When the pair started, the Belmont factory was a rather outdated 30,000 sq. ft, historic cheese factory. Today it is a 110,000 sq. ft. modernized wonder and takes up nearly an entire city block.

The "Welcome Cheese Geek" cheese platter full of Montchevre cheeses,
including from left: 10 flavors of chevre, mini brie and goat cheddar.
In the beginning, Montchevre produced three different cheeses; Le Cabrie, Chèvre in Blue and Chevriotte—all of which are still in production today. Since then, Rossard and Solandt have added more than 50 different cheeses to their family, including a full line of non-GMO fresh chevre logs in a variety of flavors ranging from cranberrry/cinnamon to tomato basil to garlic and herb.

Montchevre is the first goat cheese manufacturer in the United States to produce non-GMO chevre, and Jean acknowledges it took his team nearly a year to make it happen. All feed for animals certified non-GMO must be sourced from non-GMO seeds, which sounds A LOT easier than it really is. Montchevre worked with heritage seed companies and feed mills to source non-GMO seeds, provide seeds for farmers to grow, and then worked with feed mills to separately process harvested non-GMO crops into protein pellets (soy-based with minerals) that goats are fed at milking time. (Eighty percent of a goat's diet is alfalfa hay, which must also be grown from non-GMO seeds).

A few varieties of the new non-GMO Montchevre goat
cheese 4-ounce logs.
All of Montchevre's non-GMO milk is currently produced by a group of farmers in central Iowa. The milk is trucked and processed separately at the Belmont cheese factory. The Iowan farmers are part of a vast network of 360 farms Montchevre supports in the Midwest. That means 360 farms depend on Montchevre for their livelihood, and that's a responsibility Jean Rossard does not take lightly. He visits farms regularly, and the company employs three full-time field employees to work directly with goat dairy farmers to troubleshoot problems and solve challenges.

The current pay price for goat's milk in Wisconsin is about $38/cwt (100 pounds of milk). That price is holding steady because of a constant growth in demand for cheese. In comparison, the current pay price for Class III cow's milk (milk processed into cheese) is $16.34/cwt. It takes about 10 goats to equal the milk output of one cow, hence the higher pay price for goat's milk.

Goat dairy farmers Elaine and Dennis Schaaf graciously pose with a cheese
geek who peppered them with questions for a good hour.
Dennis and Elaine Schaaf are dairy goat farmers who ship their milk to Montchevre. The pair farm near Mineral Point and got into the dairy goat business nine years ago. Before taking on goats, the couple milked cows for 30 years. "Physically, there's no comparison in milking a cow versus a goat," Dennis says. "A cow steps on your foot, you're going to hurt in the morning or take a trip to an emergency room. A goat steps on your foot and you just shoo it off."

The Schaafs have successfully converted their former cow barn into a goat milking parlor, and just this summer, built a new open-air free stall goat barn, where goats are free to roam large, open pens filled with fresh straw bedding. Free choice alfalfa hay and fresh water are always available. Goats also have access to pasture, but Dennis says they hardly ever go outside.

"Goats don't like sun and they don't like water. That means if it's raining, they stay inside. If the sun's out, they stay inside. About the only time you'll see them in the pasture is at night when it's not raining."

The Schaafs milk 240 goats twice a day, and are breeding 350 goats this fall in anticipation of expanding next year. Goats milk seasonally, so the Schaafs generally have a break from milking in December and January, but are trying to shorten that window by breeding females year-round. This helps Montchevre maintain a more consistent flow of milk to make into cheese year-round. The Schaafs' herd is made up of a cross of Saanen, Toggenberg and Alpine breeds of goats.

In a young industry, Dennis and Elaine have milked goats long enough to serve as mentors to up-and-coming dairy goat farmers. They say three farmers in their area have switched from milking cows to milking goats just this year, with one farm turning operations over to their child to become the first second generation goat dairy farm in Wisconsin.

Milk is picked up about every three days from the goat dairy farms and hauled to Montchevre, where three shifts of employees make cheese 363 days a year around the clock. The demand for goat cheese is ever increasing in a nation where eating goat cheese is a relatively new phenomenon. "We're already planning another expansion," Jean says. "Our goal is to process 100 million pounds of milk this year, and we're well on our way to meeting that goal."

My favorite picture from my day spent with the talented Montchevre crew, pictured from left: Cheesemaker and co-founder Jean Rossard, Milk Supply Manager Cody Taft, Packaging Manager Jeff Amenda and Quality Control Manager Craig Howell. Jean bought us lunch at downtown Belmont's McCarville's My Turn Pub, which coincidentally, used to be called the Heins Pool Hall (my maiden name is Heins) and where I a) grew up playing cards with my dad after chores were done and b) hosted my wedding reception with my husband, Uriah. Sometimes life comes full circle.

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