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. Lacy Duran, distribution manager at Carr Valley Cheese, is one of those people.
Lacy Duren | Madison, WI
My parents passed away when I was in high school, and my brother still runs the farm. He milks about forty cows and has about 300 acres that he farms. He and his wife had a baby, so we’re excited there’s a fifth generation on the farm.
I remember being a teeny tiny kid riding around in the tractors in the fields and my dad picking me up to push the buttons to unload silage into the barn and stuff. I was a shrimpy little kid and I had a stool so I didn’t get kicked by the cows when they were milking.
We got to go on school field trips to the Carr Valley cheese factory and see them make and wax cheese. On Saturdays, we’d go there and get fresh curds straight out of the vat, which is always fun. Sid [Cook] has known me my entire life. Three generations of my family have sold milk to the company. So Sid knew my grandpa, he knew my dad, and now he knows me and my brother too.
I started working for Carr Valley when I was sixteen as a cashier. All my best friends from high school worked there too. If you weren’t helping on the farm, a lot of people applied to work at Carr Valley Cheese.
I went to college at UW-La Crosse and got an accounting degree. But I realized being an accountant was not for me. Sid kind of caught wind of that and he needed another sales rep, so he gave me a call and said, ‘Hey, I could use you.’
That place has not changed. It’s like you’re in a time capsule. It’s like the 1950s when you walk in Carr Valley. There’s Dave and Lester who’ve been working there since they were in high school. And now they’re in their 80s. This is the very Carr Valley way. You start there, and you stay there.
Growing up on a dairy farm, you can’t really just pick up and go on vacation. So, we never really traveled too much when I was growing up. I didn’t really like to travel. I didn’t even get on a plane until I was eighteen.
So now here I am—I’m a national sales rep for Carr Valley. Pre-Covid, I was doing a lot of traveling, setting up displays, and sharing our products. I would fly to the east coast and west coast and all over the place going to trade shows or customer meetings all across the country. We have cooler boxes full of cheese that I check—the people at the airport knew us with our cow-print boxes.
In March 2020, twelve hours before I was supposed to fly out to Boston, I got an email, ‘Hey, everything’s canceled.’ And then all the rest of the cancellation emails started coming in. I was like, I might as well just tear out every single page in the calendar.
I have a lot of passion for the dairy industry in Wisconsin. Obviously, I have personal ties to it, and especially if I’m promoting products to be sold, that means more milk to be sold—like the milk from my family’s dairy farm. We have to support the cheese companies that support small dairy farms. A lot of small dairy farms that are going by the wayside, and the ones that supply milk to Carr Valley are few and far between.
I love craft beer, and artisan cheese is like craft beer. It’s like a total craze right now, so that’s really cool to be a part of and know that you’re selling a quality product too.
I didn’t eat blue cheese when I was a kid. Kids who like it are few and far between. But working for Carr Valley for so long, I definitely acquired a taste for high-end cheese really early in life. When I was working in the store, we’d always have samples out. I’d always try everything. But I didn’t really start loving blue cheese until I got into this role, and I was eating so much of it.
When it’s sitting on a plate in front of you for six hours at a trade show or you’re just snacking on it, eventually, I guess you acquire a taste for it. It’s amazing how much cheese I eat. I just told somebody, ‘I think I had three pounds of cheese the other day. Honestly.’ I always joke that I am accidentally on a keto diet because when I go to food shows, olives, salami, and cheese are all I eat.
I always have the cheese. It depends on where I’m going, but typically I bring a bag of the freshest cheese curds I can get a hold of. And then a few of my favorites, probably our Penta Creme blue, and our apple-smoked cheddar. We have a mixed milk one called Gran Canaria that I’m all about right now. I try to bring along five or six cheeses and stock up my friends’ fridges and then get back out of there before I eat it all.
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.
“Alice in Dairyland” got her start in 1948 when state officials started the program to promote Wisconsin’s dairy industry nationwide. The first “Alice in Dairyland,” Margaret McGuire Blott, was the host of the Wisconsin Centennial Exposition at State Fair Park in West Allis. Today Alice can be found at the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. You can read more about the history here. (Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society.)
Check out the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin website to find all sorts of cheese-based recipes. If you scroll through their website you can also meet some of the dairy farmers and cows who make all this cheese possible.
(Image of a woman in 1920 using a metal utensil to press why from the curd and a hoop strainer to make cheese. Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society.)