Breaking the cheese ceiling

Technology is lightening the load and helping women to once again take a leading role in cheesemaking.

“One hundred-fifty years ago, cheese making was considered woman’s work,” said Carie Wagner of Organic Valley in LaFarge. “But as the farm-made cheese evolved into a business, production increased, the equipment got heavier and then it became ‘man’s work.’”

Wagner was the first woman Master Cheesemaker in Wisconsin in 2001. She is considered a master at Asadero, Havarti, Monterey Jack and Cheddar. Raised on a La Crosse dairy farm, Wagner says none of her fellow cheesemakers see gender, “because it’s all about the shared passion for cheese.”

Wisconsin, the fourth-largest cheesemaker in the world, is the first and still only state requiring cheesemakers to be licensed.

Today, becoming a Master Cheesemaker means committing to a 13-year training process. “Five years to learn the craft,” one cheesemaker said, “and then another five to perfect it.” Then, 10 years of experience before you can even apply to enter an intensive three-year master’s program for each cheese specialty.

Perhaps the most seismic industry change is that cheesemaking is no longer just “man’s work.’’ In 1982, Julie Hook of Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point, became the only woman to win the World Cheese Championship. Since then Katie Fuhrman of LaClare Farms in Malone won the 2011 United States Cheese Championship just two years into her career. And two other Wisconsin women have attained Master Cheese Maker status.

John Umhoefer, executive director for the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association, goes a step further and credits the person, man or woman, who runs the process. “We have the equipment and the robotics to streamline the process,” said Umhoefer. “But at the end of the day it’s still the cheesemaker who can tell a good batch of cheese from a bad simply by the aroma.”

Umhoefer says he’s somewhat surprised it has taken as long as it has for women to move back into the ranks of cheesemakers. “Before the robotics became practical the job called for more brute strength to process cheese, but now brains are much more integral than muscles.”

In 2015, Wisconsin stirred, sniffed, and pressed more than three billion pounds of cheese.

That’s just over fifty pounds of cheese for every man, woman, and child statewide. According to the State Milk Marketing Board, both milk and cheese production rose just over 25 percent between 2005-2015.

All cheese starts as a bacterial culture, and Umhoefer sees the evolution of those cultures as the next seminal change in the industry. Twenty years ago, a handful of cultures would yield the more common varieties of a cheese.

“Now, you can almost dial in a cheese before it gets to the factory floor,” said Umhoefer. “You can make a cheddar that’s not as likely to crumble or one that will melt more easily. Instead of a few core choices, a cheesemaker can now work with dozens of options.”

The varieties are endless, and so are the stories.

Ten years ago, Dutch-born Marieke Penterman had a dream. She had already moved to Wisconsin, but desperately missed her hometown Gouda cheese. “I woke my husband up and said we should make Gouda,” said Penterman, “and like a good husband he said, ‘can we talk about this in the morning?”

Ten years later, Penterman has made a name for herself by creating some of the most authentic tasting Gouda on this side of the Atlantic with what must be some of the state’s happiest cows at Holland’s Family Cheese in Thorp. Fans, rotating back scratchers, and no stalls mark their unique operation.

Fuhrman was 16 years old when she knew she wanted to be a cheesemaker. “I had gone to a cheesemakers contest with my parents and got so excited listening to the stories,” said Fuhrman, “and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Today Fuhrman leads a team of five cheesemakers at LaClare Farms – four of them women – and is often mentioned as a rising star in the Wisconsin cheese industry. In addition to winning the U.S. Cheese Championship in 2011 with her goat milk Evalon cheese she placed in the Top 16 in the World Championships in both 2014 and 2015.

“For me women put a more creative flair into their cheesemaking.” said Fuhrman, “Anyone can make cheese, but not everyone is a cheesemaker.”

“I teach my team to ‘listen’ to the cheese. Sometimes you want to cut a bit of fat, maybe stir it longer or shorter, and we’re always conscious of the aroma. Then we’re touching the cheese to see how it feels, and at the end we taste it.”

The dairy industry is a massive driver of Wisconsin’s economy, generating some $43 billion dollars a year to the state; that dwarfs Florida’s citrus harvest ($9 billion) and Idaho’s potato crop ($4 billion).

Technology has made cheesemaking more cost effective and safer than ever.

But in the end, just as it’s been for more than a century, Fuhrman says the important question isn’t whether the cheese was made by a man or a woman, but how does it taste?

An answer that’s worth billions of dollars a year in Wisconsin. And growing.

— By Jerry Huffman
Huffman is an Emmy Award-winning television news producer and the owner of, a media consulting firm in Madison.