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Wisconsin is a major cheese producer, providing Americans with more than 1.5 billion kilos of product in 2017 and accounting for 27 percent of cheese production in the country. The origins of the industry can be traced back to the early 1800s with the arrival of colonial Europeans. In 1831, settlers began producing cheese in the Koshkonong farm and develop a small industry in neighboring counties like Sheboygan, New Glarus in the southeast portion of the state. In 1841, cheese producers established the first artisan cheese factory in Wisconsin. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, wheat producers could no longer compete with those in the Western Plains. As a reaction to the growing population, they substituted the crop and created an alliance with grass producers and milk farms.
Origins of Wisconsin Cheese
Nicholas Gerber, in 1868, opened the first Limburger cheese factory in Green County, in the southern section of Wisconsin, and was one of the 53 factories that formed part of the cooperative group established between 1864 and 1874. Gerber was a Swiss immigrant who spent time in the commercial Mohawk Valley region of New York producing Limburger cheese. After 1874, Green County and the rest of the country were never the same. The development and reach of the nation’s railway system provided excellent routes that expanded the market in ways that, at the time, were unimaginable. At the turn of the century, producers established the production of foreign cheeses like Swiss and Brick backed up by over 300 factories. Monroe, headquarters of Green Country, was the epicenter of the commercialization of foreign cheese. Plymouth, in Sheboygan Country toward the east of the state, became the commercial headquarters for American and Cheddar cheese.
The Growth of the Population and Industry
The cattle population increased considerably between 1900 and 1950, reaching 2.5 million cows. With such growth, the production of milk increased by 20 percent above the national average. Consequently, the production of cheese also increased reaching 363 million pounds in 1925 and then increasing to 561 million pounds by 1950. In the 1920s, the area had over 2800 factories which were negatively affected by the great depression and the two world wars. Nevertheless, the resilient industry survived and thrived, and Wisconsin’s leadership in milk and cheese production continued into this century.
The best practices in cattle production and nutrition have resulted in major improvements in the quality and quantity of milk; today, over 11,000 milk farms with over 1.27 million cows produce an average of over 21,000 pounds of milk each year. Wisconsin cheese producers use 90 percent of this milk to produce more than 2.8 billion pounds of cheese in over 110 plants.
The success of the cheese industry in Wisconsin is due, in large part, to the influx of European immigrants to the United States. These individuals came into the country and brought with them a strong work ethic, determination, and family traditions and secrets. This passion for cheese combined with a strong desire to succeed in the New World produced an industry that is still strong and resilient today. Furthermore, the diversity in immigration patterns created an environment where top producers from all over Europe imported the best practices from each country. It was immigrants from Germany, Poland, Italy, and Ireland that built cities like Milwaukee.
The history of Wisconsin cheese covers more than 180 years and is an integral part of the state’s economy, including covering counties like Saint Croix in the west to Kewaunee in eastern part of the state. Such tradition has produced over 600 different varieties of artisan cheeses, earning countless national and international prizes. Those visiting Wisconsin need to consider cheese tours around the state, as these are not only historic but also delicious! And don’t forget to check out cheese apps, yep that’s right, there are things to help you find good pairings of cheese to go with your wine like Wisconsin Cheese Cupid or The Complete Cheese Directory. Just make sure to visit one of the many AT&T stores in Wisconsin to ensure you have the best cell phone to find your cheese app, and to make sure you’re up-to-par with the latest in smartphone technology for traveling across the state.