Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Cosmic Wheel Creamery

A southern gal who grew up in Louisiana, moved to Minnesota to attend art school, and then fell in love on an Upper Midwestern vegetable farm, is today making some of the best new artisan cheeses in Wisconsin.

Cheesemaker Rama Hoffpauir founded Cosmic Wheel Creamery in 2015 with the goal of crafting a product that would compliment the certified organic vegetables she and her husband, Josh Bryceson, grew on their 80-acre farm near Clear Lake. Today, the family (with two children, ages 3 and 6) offer seasonal CSA shares of fresh vegetables, meat and artisan cheese from their Turnip Rock Farm to nearly 200 customers. (CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and allows urban folks like me to purchase a “share” of food grown by a local farmer).

Rama earned her Wisconsin cheesemaker's license in 2014, but her cheesemaking journey started in 2010 when she and Josh, who had developed a love for livestock after working for Heifer International, purchased a Jersey cow named Carl. Yes, Carl. After playing with Carl's milk in the kitchen and making a few stove top cheeses, Rama consulted cheese recipe books and starter culture catalogs to get a feel of what kind of cheeses she wanted to make commercially. "I knew I needed to make at least a half dozen different kinds, because people don't want the same cheese each week in their CSA box," Rama said. "The folks at Dairy Connection in Madison really helped me select some styles of cheese that would compliment our milk."

The milk going into Cosmic Wheel cheeses is pretty special. What started with one Jersey cow has grown into a small herd of 20 Jerseys. Josh, Rama and their livestock manager, Liberty Hunter, rotationally graze the cows on fresh pastures and cover crops. The cows calve, and thereby start giving milk, in the spring, and then "dry off," or end their natural lactation cycle, around Thanksgiving. This is the old-fashioned way that dairy farmers used to farm: by following the seasons. As a result, Rama only makes cheese in her small, farmstead creamery from May through November. All of her cheeses are 100 percent grass-fed, boasting the beautiful golden color that results when cows are allowed to digest the beta carotene naturally found in grass and then pass it through their milk.

Rama makes a variety of aged, raw milk, natural rind cheeses using a small, 80-gallon vat, and then ages them in a small room connected to the creamery. My two favorites are Circle of the Sun, a Tomme style made in a 12-pound wheel, tightly pressed, then aged nine months. It features bright, herbal and grassy notes on the tongue. Then there's Moonglow, an alpine style cheese resembling a French Beaufort, aged one year. Both are available starting today at Metcalfe's Market Hilldale in Madison (Rama ships us wheels as they become available, but because she makes less than 7,000 pounds of cheese a year, quantities are obviously limited).

Cheesemaker Rama Hoffpauir, left, and
Livestock Manager Liberty Hunter at
Cheesetopia 2017 Minneapolis.
"I feel like 2017 may finally be the year our cheeses make it out of our neighborhood," Rama laughs, noting that in her third year of cheese production, she's grown to a point where she can offer a limited quantity of wheels to select retailers. For her CSA boxes, she also crafts Antares, a cow's milk Manchego; Deneb, a Gouda-style; Lyra, a creamy and mild cheese; and Moonshadow, an alpine-style made in early spring when cows are still eating hay. She makes a variety of fresh, pasteurized cheeses as well, including cheese curds, Quark, whole milk ricotta, and feta.

"I don't feel like I'm working a lot of magic, because our milk is so flavorful. The cows really do all the work," Rama says.

I have a feeling most everyone who tastes Rama's cheeses for the first time will beg to disagree: the milk coming from Turnip Rock Farm may be stellar, but the magic in the make room at Cosmic Wheel Creamery is second to none. I'd say we're pretty lucky this Louisiana girl ended up in Wisconsin.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Landmark Creamery: Cheese With Heart

Wisconsin artisan cheesemaker Anna Landmark
Five years ago, Anna Landmark sent me a letter, applying for a $2,500 Beginning Cheesemaker Scholarship through my organization, Wisconsin Cheese Originals. Dated January 29, 2012, she thanked me for considering her application, which listed her current position as a policy research director for a non-profit advocacy organization, along with past jobs in communications consulting, political campaign management and community organization.

I thought to myself: why on earth does this woman want to be a cheesemaker?

And then I turned the page. It read:

"My first recollection of eating cheese is at my grandparent's dairy farm in Mount Horeb. They always had a large block of Swiss cheese sitting under a glass dome on the kitchen table. It would be brought out for breakfast in the morning and generally left on the table until the end of the day when it was wrapped up and put into the refrigerator. My grandfather was a stout Swiss farmer, his grandfather one of the original settlers of New Glarus, and milk, cheese and butter were staples. Swiss cheese with breakfast, with dinner, and with supper. Sometimes aged and sharp as can be, sometimes Baby with a mild bit and perfect elasticity. I loved it all."

Heart. The girl had heart. Her application would go on to say she had started taking cheesemaking courses at UW-Madison, that she and her husband had bought a small farm near Albany, and that her grandfather was enjoying watching her return to the cheese world. But the sentence that sealed the deal was: "My grandfather is still skeptical anyone on a small scale can really make a living doing it. But I want to find out: can I build a successful business making sheep milk cheeses?"

Needless to say, Anna Landmark won that year's scholarship, went on to earn her cheesemaker's license, and today owns and operates Landmark Creamery with business partner Anna Thomas Bates. She crafts seasonal sheep, cow and mixed milk cheeses, renting space at Cedar Grove in Plain and Thuli Family Creamery in Darlington. At both the 2017 and 2015 U.S. Championship Cheese Contests, her fresh sheep’s milk cheese, Petit Nuage, won a Gold Medal, and she continually wins awards for her cheeses each year at the American Cheese Society competition.

Today, readers of Cheese Underground, you have a chance to help the dynamic Anna duo complete their dreams. That's because Landmark Creamery is nearing the end of a Kickstarter campaign, where it is seeking $25,000 in seed money to build a cheese aging space and to purchase more efficient equipment, allowing the Annas to create new cheeses and buy more milk from Wisconsin family farms. With just five days to go, they are only $4,000 short of their goal.

And, while the past five years have witnessed the birth and early success of Landmark Creamery, with your help, dear readers, it can go even further. Here is Anna's statement from 2012, describing her business 10 years in the future:

"In 2022, I hope to have nine years of making and selling sheep milk cheeses under my belt, and to be anticipating enrolling in the UW's Master Cheese Making program. My goal is to have my own cheese plant, growing to produce 100,000 pounds of cheese per year, with distribution regionally and to the elite markets on the coasts. I feel so inspired when making cheese. I hope my business will be a credit to the dairy industry in Wisconsin, and that my cheeses will be delicious and unique enough to become Wisconsin Originals."

Mission accomplished, my dear. Now let's help you write the next chapter. Your grandpa would be proud.

Donate here.
Anna Landmark and Anna Thomas Bates of Landmark Creamery

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Summer of the Year I Turned 45

My mother got sick the summer she turned 45. A cigarette smoker since age 16, she stopped smoking that spring because she was already having trouble breathing. So at age 13, I inherited her job of driving the hay baler that summer, listening hard to understand the shouted directions of how to navigate corners and contours from my father standing on the wagon behind me. He stacked the small square bales chugging out of the chute one by one, grabbing each with a hook in his right hand and throwing them above his head with his left, until a load of almost 100 bales were stacked to withstand the bumpy trek back to the barn by the hired man.

My mother never got better. She was diagnosed with asthma, a condition that afflicts many people and a word that I had heard before. So I never really worried. That fall, I stopped taking the morning bus to school and took over my mother's chores on the farm, taking a quick shower when we were done with the cows, curling my hair as fast as I could in the mirror over the sink upstairs, and then having dad drop me off at school. I grew up in farm country, so it shouldn't have been embarrassing to be dropped off at school in an old farm truck, but when you're a 13-year-old girl, everything is embarrassing. I am ashamed to say I worried more about the look of that farm truck than I did the health of my mother.

My mother died the summer she turned 53. The eight years between diagnosis and the grave were not pretty. She became confined to the four walls of the old farm house's living room, filled with the whir of machines that helped her breathe. By the time I finished high school, Mom wasn't getting better. So Dad made me a deal that if I turned down the scholarship to the journalism school I'd been offered, and instead commuted from home to the local college, helped him farm and take care of mom, he'd pay my tuition. So I did. And I am ashamed to say I resented that decision because I worried more about missing the full college experience than I did the health of my mother. Her asthma won during the summer between my junior and senior year of college. The next year I moved to Idaho to become a news reporter. The year after that, my dad remarried. And life marched on.

This is the year I turn 45. And summer will soon be upon us. I was 21 when my mother died. Sitting in the church pew next to my father during her funeral, I counted in my head how many years there were between ages 21 and 45. I've never been good at doing math in my head, which has always frustrated my father, a math genius, to no end. I suspect that's why he taught me how to play cribbage when I was six years old: he figured making 15's and 31's and counting cards would help. It didn't. To this day, I have to find a pen and paper or a calculator to do even simple addition or subtraction. So at age 21, sitting in that church, I kept myself from crying by trying to figure the math of how many years I had left before I got sick like she did. And I've been on a dead run ever since.

During the past 24 years, I've been described several ways, the nicest perhaps being "pushy," the not-no-nicest starting with a "b" and ending with "itchy." One boss described me as a snowplow. Another told me I was like a bull in a china shop. When my daughter was young, she would choose the jugs of milk at the store by which Sassy Cow Creamery "cow card" they carried. You can imagine her delight the day she found one that read: "Darlene: her pushy personality always gets her to the front of the herd." She immediately removed it from the jug, thrust it at me, and said, "This cow is just like you, Mom!" It's been on our fridge ever since.

For the past 24 years, I've lived my life in anticipation of this summer, trying to get as much accomplished as possible, traveling to as many places I can, and earnestly raising my daughter to adulthood, because the most significant woman in my life got sick when she was 45 years old. I'm in good health. I've never smoked. I've never found a brand of alcohol I enjoy, and I seem to be one of the few people who's never tried drugs. There's no doubt that I need to exercise more, and I probably drink too much coffee. But I'm doing fine. No life-threatening diagnoses so far.

That's why a Friday afternoon two weeks ago meant so much to me. My husband and I took my dad and stepmom (who after 22 years in my life, I've started introducing as "mom") to Baumgartner's in Monroe for Limburger sandwiches and a game of Euchre. A group of Green County cheesemakers walked in and bought each other a beer. Several came over to say hello, so I introduced them to my parents. And then something amazing happened.

One of the cheesemakers, who knows my personality, and graciously chooses to overlook the "itchy" parts, shook my father's hand and told him: "your daughter is changing the world." I nearly broke down in tears. Is there any bigger compliment from a colleague? I don't know if my father heard him, because the tavern was full, his hearing aid wasn't working properly, and we would soon leave to find a quieter place. But I heard him. And it made all the difference. The summer that I turn 45 will come and go and I will keep on keeping on. I know I've got another 45 years in me.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Got (too much) Milk? As Wisconsin Dairy Gets Bigger, Progress Comes With a Price

When this week's news hit that Grassland Dairy in north-central Wisconsin was ending milk contracts with between 65 to 75 Wisconsin dairy farmers, my first thought was: this is the beginning of the squeeze on medium-sized, Wisconsin-owned processing plants. Sure enough, news soon leaked out that nearby Nasonville Dairy in Marshfield, had also sent letters to about 20 area farmers on March 17, informing them their dairies would be dropped from pick-up because that cheese factory had recently lost a cheese contract and no longer needed their milk.

Keep in mind, these are not small factories. They are good-sized facilities employing hundreds of people. Grassland processes more than 3 million pounds of butter, cream cheese and milk powder a year, while Nasonville makes more 2 million pounds of Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Asiago, Brick, Muenster, Hispanic styles, Parmesan, Romano and Provolone at two different state-of-the-art facilities.

While Grassland's predicament can be blamed on Canada (our neighbor to the north just implemented a new milk pricing structure, making it more cost efficient for Canadian processors to purchase milk from their own dairy farmers), the action taken by Nasonville, and I fear more Wisconsin-owned factories in the immediate future, is troubling.

To put it simply, big Wisconsin cheese factories that are not locally owned (more on this shortly) can and do purchase out-of-state milk cheaper by the semi-tanker than they can from the 10 small local dairy farms down the road. With a glut of milk in the upper Midwest, it's a buyer's market, and many big factories take advantage of cost differences by bringing in cheap milk from afar.

It wasn't always like this. In the past 15 years, dozens of family-owned cheese factories that had decades of relationships with multi-generational local dairy farms and who forged long-term contracts with farmers who were essentially their neighbors, have either merged or been bought out by big companies. And most of those companies aren't American. Today, of 127 cheese plants in Wisconsin, more than 15 of the biggest are owned by foreign companies.

For example: 
  • Saputo Inc., a Montreal-based Canadian dairy company that is the tenth largest dairy processor in the world, owns and runs some of the state's biggest cheese plants, whey processing plants and dairy processing facilities in Green Bay, Fond du Lac, Waupun, Lena, Black Creek, Reedsburg and Almena. 
  • Agropur, a large agricultural cooperative headquartered in Quebec, owns four ingredient-processing and cheese plants in Luxemburg, Weyauwega, LaCrosse and Appleton. 
  • Arla Foods, an international cooperative based in Denmark, and the largest producer of dairy products in Scandinavia, owns a huge cheese plant in Kaukauna.
  • Emmi, a Swiss milk processor and dairy products company listed on the SWX Swiss Exchange, owns Roth Cheese in Monroe and Platteville. 
  • Last, but, oh my, certainly not least, is Lactalis, a multi-national dairy products corporation based in France. Lactalis is the largest dairy products group in the world. It owns two large cheese plants in Belmont and Merrill and cranks out more President Brie than one can imagine.

What does this mean for Wisconsin dairy farmers?

It means the local cheesemaker up the road they've been selling milk to for the past 20 years - and the same factory that their father probably sold to before that - is now owned by a stranger who values the company's stock price over a handshake deal with a local farmer trying to earn enough money to send his kids to college.

It means that large dairy farmers who have spent the past decade spending money to get bigger rather than getting out are now worrying whether they will have a milk contract in 30 days.

It means small dairy farmers trying to break into the business are trying to find a buyer for their milk. Take for example, T.J. Grady, who will turn 21 in May. T.J's a good-hearted kid who I've watched grow up into a hard-working man and build a small dairy near Oregon, Wisconsin with his father. T.J. has been slowly and steadily building his herd of 25 cows with a dream of farming full-time. In 2015 and 2016, T.J. took classes at UW-Madison, earning a dairy farm management certificate, a pasture based dairy certificate, and completed courses needed for a certificate from the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers.

A few months ago, a neighbor who was milking 50 cows sold out due to a combination of health and financial reasons. "I was doing some research about getting an FSA loan and buying his herd, and renting their facilities. But I don't think I would be able to find anyone to pick up extra milk, with the over supply in the market right now," T.J. says.

T.J. took the news of nearly 75 farmers losing their milk contracts with Grassland especially hard, as most were small dairy farmers like him. "This is very disheartening to me, as someone who studied farm management and hopes to operate my own dairy someday. I can't imagine how terrifying it would be to get a letter in the mail saying that your milk will no longer be picked up. I had a professor in school that said, 'In Wisconsin, it used to be that if you milked 10 or 1,000 cows, there would be a market for your milk.' Unfortunately with the ups and downs of today's commodity market and the consolidation of dairy farms, coops, and milk processors, that doesn't seem to be the case any longer."