Friday, August 15, 2014

Made in Wisconsin: the World's Best Cheese
This post was, of course, inevitable. There's obviously one about beer coming some time in the future, as well.

But I know you're interested in more than just the simple assertion of a loyal Wisconsinite who hails from Dairy Farming stock. 

In this post, I'll explain historically how Wisconsin emerged as the undisputed leader of the dairy industry in the United States.

Still America's Dairyland

Wisconsin became the nation's largest producer of dairy, including milk, in 1915. It would remain the largest milk producer outright until the 1990's. In 1993, California surpassed Wisconsin in overall milk production. In 1998, California passed Wisconsin for the largest number of dairy cows.

But keep in mind that Wisconsin has just 1.8% of the total US population.  California has 12%. So Wisconsin is obviously producing enormously more milk per capita than California. And Wisconsin still is outright producing more cheese than any other state. Therefore Wisconsin still has every right to continue calling itself "America's Dairyland."

How Did We Get There?

The explanation of how Wisconsin emerged in 1915 as the largest milk producer, with cheese production in tow, is a combination of historical accidents and good planning.

When Wisconsin became a state in 1849, lead mining was one of the leading industries. Shortly after statehood, Wisconsin invested in an extensive rail network, which would allow it to more efficiently move any of its products to other parts of the country.

Encouraged by cheap (or even free) land, many people already experienced in dairy farming from areas like New York State began moving to Wisconsin. 

The University of Wisconsin-Madison also had a significant impact in helping Wisconsin achieve high dairy production. The relationship between the University and the governmental and economic interests is quite unique to Wisconsin. So much so, that it is termed the "Wisconsin Idea." The UW-Madison actively encouraged dairy farming in its agriculture school and the percentage of farmers raising cows for milk steadily increased.

People such as my ancestors, Norwegian on my Mom's side and Swiss German on my Dad's, brought their Old World expertise in cheese making. 

Granted, people from Switzerland who knew how to make cheese also settled in Minnesota. But it was the combination of the steadily rising production of milk due to the factors I described above, as well as the introduction of talented cheese makers from abroad that resulted in Wisconsin beginning to dominate the cheese market as well.
Now, at this point Wisconsin cheese making has over a hundred years of tradition and cumulative expertise. California is close on our heels for overall cheese production, just about four percentage points behind. But even if they ever do make more of the stuff, people will still gravitate toward that "Made in Wisconsin" label, because they will know the tradition and the quality.

My Cheese Recommendation
If you're ever in Madison, Wisconsin, I strongly urge you to go to a restaurant on the Square called The Old Fashioned. They serve classic Wisconsin food. Make sure you get an order of their deep fried cheese curds. Best I've ever had! 

Here's a picture of them from Jeanne Carpenter's blog "Cheese Underground." Click to visit her blog and learn more from a true expert and connoisseur of Wisconsin cheese! I love her motto: Have fun. Do good. Eat cheese.

Keith Massey was born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin. He has his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Biblical Hebrew, with a minor in Arabic. After 9/11, he served as an Arabic linguist at the NSA. He is currently a Latin teacher at a public high school in New Jersey.

Keith is the author of Intermediate Arabic for Dummies. His fiction novels follow the adventures of Andrew Valquist, roughly patterned after himself--a man born and raised in Wisconsin who gets pulled into the world of international intrigue. 

Keith's novels are A Place of Brightness, Amor Vincit Omnia: An Andrew Valquist Adventure, Next Stop: Spanish, and In Saecula Saeculorum.