“What is agriculture?” I often ask youth to define the term for me. Many focus on the second half of the word, culture. They speak of customs that have taken place in Wisconsin’s history that make Wisconsin the dairy state. One bright young man inspired me by saying agriculture is our past and our future.
Certainly, our society would not be what it is today without agriculture and the ability to produce food for a continually growing population. While Wisconsin was once a wheat state, special moments in our state’s history helped shape the dynamic dairy industry and create a cheese culture.
The decades of Wisconsin’s cheesemaking history have been carefully outlined by Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. Pioneering Wisconsin farm wives made “kitchen” cheese as early as the 1830s. By 1841, Anne Pickett of Lake Mills made the first official Wisconsin cheese by adding milk from her neighbor’s cows to that of her own small herd. Wisconsin produced 400,283 pounds of cheese in 1850, according to census records.
Wisconsin residents soon began crafting their own creations. A Wisconsin-original brick cheese was invented in 1877 followed by Colby, named after Colby Wisc., in 1885. While cheeses are flavorful and fun, producing a high-quality product was something early cheesemakers took seriously. Wisconsin became the first state to grade its cheese for quality in 1921. The state’s central location and high cheese standards helped the industry grow rapidly.
Today, Wisconsin is home to nearly 150 cheese plants that craft almost 3.4 billion pounds of cheese each year. That is 27 percent of the United States’ total. Almost half of all specialty cheeses made in the nation come from Wisconsin, which is no surprise considering our state makes more than 600 varieties, types
and styles. Some are not found elsewhere in the country. For example, Green County is home to 12 cheese manufacturers that craft more than 60 varieties of specialty cheeses. Part of Green County’s heritage is hosting the historic Cheese Days festival every other September. I was honored to have the biannual celebration occur during my year as Alice. During Cheese Days, I had the chance to witness Old World tradition and Swiss heritage in Wisconsin.
Cheese is an important slice of Wisconsin agriculture as 90 percent of the milk produced in Wisconsin is made into cheese, and 90 percent of that cheese is sold outside Wisconsin’s borders. Markets all across the globe seek products from America’s Dairyland, bringing millions of dollars back into the economy.
Markets are tough for dairy farmers, but wheels are still turning in the industry. There have been 45 million pounds of increased annual Wisconsin cheese sales since 2013, according to Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. Specialty cheese accounted for 62 percent of that increase. In fact, total milk usage for dairy products such as cheese has increased by almost 80 percent in the past 35 years. As farmers continue to be more efficient and productive, new domestic and international markets are sought for Wisconsin’s quality agricultural products.
Rather than asking what agriculture is, I now ask what we can do for Wisconsin agriculture to maintain its
strength in the future. When you see cheese with the Proudly Wisconsin logo, you are a witness to a quality product perfected throughout the history that made America’s Dairyland. The history gave farmers like my parents an opportunity to pursue their passion in the dairy industry. While flavorful and fun, Wisconsin cheese has a serious impact on the state and can open career opportunities in unexpected ways for the next generation of farmers, livestock nutritionists, cheesemakers, software developers and more. Purchasing Wisconsin cheese is a way of showing support for Wisconsin’s dairy culture and the many faces that defined it in our past and will create new standards in the future.