If you see a large sculpture of a mouse holding a slice of cheese, you know you are in Wisconsin. Across the country, we are known as Cheeseheads, but how much do you actually know about the “dairy” in America’s Dairyland? Back in 1841 Anne Picket used milk from her neighbors’ cows and established one of our first cheese factories in Lake Mills. Today Wisconsin produces twenty-five percent of all domestic cheese. It takes a lot of cows, people, and investment of time and labor. Jamie Fahrney, a master cheesemaker, has been making cheese since he was a teenager.
Jamie Fahrney | Monroe, WI
I remember my dad taking me to a nearby cheese plant when I was about five or six years old. It was a Swiss cheese plant, and I had a piece of that cheese. That’s back when they made the big 200-pound wheels, and it was like candy to me. I love that stuff.
After that, I wanted to work in a cheese plant. My sophomore year, my parents told me I had to have a job when I turned sixteen after school was out. My mother took me to Monroe, and we did a bunch of job applications at different places. But a couple of weeks later, I hadn’t heard anything. My dad called me during his lunch hour and asked me if I wanted to work in a cheese plant. He knew Albert Deppler, who was the manager at Chalet Cheese Cooperative. I didn’t have my driver’s license yet, but I started working here the day after I got my license. I worked after school and on weekends.
After I graduated high school, I didn’t have any plans on going on to college, so Albert offered me a full-time job. I started working here full time in 1980. In 1985, I got my cheesemaker’s license. Albert sent me to the class at the UW-Madison Center for Dairy Research. They had a class for beginning cheesemakers, and you could get your license through the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture.
When Albert retired, Myron Olson took over and encouraged me to get into the master cheesemaker program through the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. It’s a pretty intense course, and Wisconsin is the only state in the U.S. that has this level of certification. It’s a three-year program. You have to have your cheesemaker’s license for 10 years before you can even be accepted into it. You have to take courses at the UW, and they evaluate your cheese to make sure it’s all up to their specs. Then you have to take a grueling test at the end. I think it took me 42 hours.
After you pass that, you become a master cheesemaker. I think there are now 80 masters in Wisconsin. Sid Cook from Carr Valley Cheese graduated the same year I did from the program. I was a master certified in Baby Swiss and Brick. And in 2018, I became the director of operations at Chalet Cheese Co-op.
After Myron retired, I got back into the master program again for Limburger and Swiss cheese. I just finished up my three years of cheese evaluation. Now I just have to write another test for those two. Then I’ll be master certified in four cheeses.
Our plant still uses the hands-on approach—we think it is the best way. We don’t have the push-button vats where you’re not even involved in it.
When I started here, we had fifty-two farms. Now we have thirteen, but we’re getting more milk from those thirteen farms than we were getting from the fifty-two. They have all evolved with the times, and are producing more milk than they did years ago. But they all still are family farms. Some of them are still here from when I first started, like Voegeli Farms, Barker Farms, and Riedland Farms. Everybody’s within a 15-mile radius of us. We get the milk in here fast, and we can get it produced the next day. We contract with Lars Transportation and they drive to each of the thirteen farms every day. They’re here by 4:30 in the morning.
I’m usually here by 3:45 to start my workday. I go into the ‘warm room’ and check the eye [hole] development on the Swiss cheese. I go into the maker room and talk to the cheesemaker who started at midnight, to see if there are any issues, like if the pasteurizer wouldn’t work or the automatic cleaning system. Or if you overfill the vat. I’m not in the maker room a lot more anymore. I go out there when someone is on vacation or if they have questions on how to do something. And if I developed a new cheese, I go there and show them how to do it.
We’ve won a lot of awards with all of our cheese. I think my best one is the HP Mulloy Memorial Award. That’s pretty much what every Wisconsin cheesemaker strives for. It’s the average score between the United States cheese contest and the Wisconsin contest. In 2015, I got first place in the world with a Baby Swiss—a milder, creamier version of Swiss with smaller eyes [holes].
The biggest challenge is employees. We have a hard time retaining them because it’s hard work, grueling work sometimes. There’s no automation in any of it. We were struggling for the last 10 years, but since covid hit, it’s been really bad. Right now, we have a pretty good group of guys, and hopefully, we can retain them. There’s twenty here, and four at our other plant, Deppler Cheese Plant, south of Monroe.
I’d like to be out of here in another six, seven years if it all works out right. I don’t want to leave the company high and dry. It took me forty-three years to learn what I’ve learned. I told our farmers that I can do consultations for them if I leave. I still would like to work here past my retirement. If I’m working here two or three days a week, labeling Limburger or whatnot—something to do for grocery money, beer money.
And we’ll smear that piece of cheese on our Limburger boards. At that time, it does not stink, does not have much taste. It’s the consistency of feta. The next day, we’ll start putting a Limburger smear on it. It’s a bacteria solution, a saltwater solution; it’s called bacterium linens. That’s what makes the Limburger smell. It will work into the cheese and break down the fatty acids and the protein. That’s what makes it soft.
The shelf life is only about six months. Then it starts to get ammoniated. People can’t eat it after that; it’s too strong. With other cheeses, like cheddar, you can go up to twenty years. We make mild, medium, and aged Limburger. Mild is going to be one to two months, medium three to four, and aged Limburger takes five to six.
The mother culture, the bacteria, we’ve had since 1885. The original plant was at the bottom of the hill. But this plant was built by five farmers as a joint venture with Kraft in 1948. At the time, it was a state-of-the-art Limburger place. Kraft bought all their Limburger from here.
We keep the mother culture, we’ll brush it into the saltwater, and we’ll keep it. Each piece has to be rubbed individually, with a rag, twice in a 7-day period. It’s a lot of hand labor. There are about 3,500 pieces in a vat, so it takes about two hours. We don’t make nearly as much as we used to, though. The whole cellar used to be filled with Limburger.
We still make 450,000-5,000 pounds a year. This is our claim to fame. We want to keep going as long as we can.
We’ve all heard or seen the cartoons with Limburger in them—there was one where a cat disguises himself as a skunk using the scent of Limburger. Unfortunately, they’re all true. Limburger does smell, yes. But there are a lot of cheeses out there that are the same way. But Limburger, the granddaddy of them all, gets the bad rap.
Limburger is declining in sales. I think it’s due to the fact that the younger generation coming up was raised on Kraft slices. They don’t know what a full-flavor cheese is. We only make one or two vats a week now.
But if people would try Limburger, there’s an easy way to take the smell off of it. You just cut the rind off, a little sliver of the rind. It’s amazing how many people have never had it. Then they try it and say, ‘Well, that’s not so bad.’ It does stink, but if we took our Limburger and gave it a fancy French name, it would be a different story, I think. It’s all got to do with the marketing end of it. But there’s still plenty of people who like a full-flavor cheese, so I don’t see us ever stop making Limburger.
We are the last Limburger factory in the United States. There is another one in Canada. Limburger originated in the 15th-century in the Duchy of Limburg, which is in Belgium, by Trappist monks. When the Europeans started moving over here in the 1800s, they started making Swiss cheese here in the 1800s. From what I’m told, at every intersection, there used to be a cheese plant. In the 1930s there were over 300 cheese plants in Green County alone. Limburger was first made in the U.S. by Swiss immigrants in Green County and was considered a working man’s cheese. The factories all made the big wheels of Swiss, my all-time favorite. But Swiss was more expensive than Limburger, so they would make Limburger for themselves. A lot of them couldn’t afford to buy meat, so they had Limburger sandwiches, and potatoes with Limburger on them. There was also a lot of construction on the path from Wisconsin out to New York City, and that path is where the most Limburger was sold, affordable sandwiches for the workers.
I didn’t like Limburger when I first started here. My boss, Albert, would try to get me to eat it. I always thought, ‘uh-uh!’ But then one day I tried and said, ‘Well, this isn’t so bad.’ I like the older stuff when the cheese is runny. You leave it out at room temperature for a couple of hours, and you can just scoop it up and put it on crackers or bread.
These days, you can get a Limburger sandwich at Baumgartner’s in Monroe. They use pumpernickel bread, with raw onion and a sweet hot mustard or a stone-ground mustard. Then they give you a little Andes mint candy on top of it—for your breath.
Wisconsin has been making cheese for more than 175 years—even before we were even a state. Check out this video from Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin.
Most of the earliest commercial dairy operations in Wisconsin made cheese because it kept longer than milk or butter at a time when storage and transportation were limited. You can learn more about the history of cheese making in Wisconsin from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the National Historic Cheese Making Center.
Image of two men in 1937 working at a machine making cheese curds. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Wisconsin is home to more than 1,200 licensed cheesemakers who make over 600 varieties of cheese. Making great cheese requires training and investment. Wisconsin has the only Master Cheese Maker program outside of Sweden. Becoming a Master Cheesemaker is a three-year commitment, dedicated to the art of cheese. You can learn from the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin what it takes to become a master cheesemaker.
Image of Ronald E. Johnson in 1958 with the world champion cheddar cheese at the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association contest. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.