WisBusiness: Small cheesemakers get competitive help

By Brian E. Clark

Badger State specialty cheese will get a shot in the arm in coming months, thanks to a $4 million initiative unveiled recently by U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis.

Kohl announced the grant July 25 at the American Cheese Society’s annual competition in Milwaukee, where fourth-generation La Valle cheesemaker Sid Cook took top honors from among 725 other cheeses from around the country.

He did it with his Gran Canaria, a mixture of sheep’s milk cheese aged in olive oil that has the texture of Parmesan. It sells for a whopping $23 to $27 a pound in gourmet food stores.

Better yet for Wisconsinites: Badger State cheesemakers tied their California counterparts for the total number of blue ribbons earned — 15 apiece. In the past three years, California has dominated the contest and is on a pace to overtake Wisconsin as the top cheese-producing state. Because many consider that inevitable, Wisconsin cheesemakers are being encouraged to concentrate on the more exotic and pricier varieties.

Kohl’s initiative, which matches $2 million in federal dollars with $2 million from the state, will create a Dairy Business Innovation Center that will focus in part on so-called boutique cheeses.

"Specialty cheese will revitalize the dairy industry," Kohl said. "We (in Wisconsin) have the expertise to come up with specialty cheeses that can’t be imitated in other states."

Gov. Jim Doyle also praised the new program.

"The Dairy Business Innovation Center will focus on developing high-end dairy products. That means more dollars in the hands of farmers and cheese plants," Doyle said. "Our goal is to reverse the trend of cheese plants leaving Wisconsin and heading west and help keep Wisconsin a world leader as ‘America’s Dairyland’".

With competition fierce in the dairy sector, both in the United States and abroad, Wisconsin’s multi-billion dollar milk and cheese industries have remained flat in recent years.

But production of specialty cheeses – with names like Chipotle, Romano, Asiago, Pepato, Kasseri and Gran Canaria – is one of the few exceptions, rising 8 percent to 302 million pounds in 2003, according to the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service.

The Dairy Business Innovation Center will offer technical assistance to farmers and cheese processors for product development, business planning or market development.

Dan Carter, founder and retired CEO of Dan Carter, Inc., a consulting and sales company promoting the small to medium sized cheese factory, will serve as the center’s manager.

To learn more about the Dairy Business Innovation Center team, visit: http://www.datcp.state.wi.us/mktg/business/marketing/val-add/initiative/pdf/bios.pdf