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.
Rosario Ibarra | Manitowoc, WI
My grandpa had a small farm with some cows and sheep, but I was never interested in that. I didn’t like to be outside—I didn’t like to be under the sun. I was going to be a lawyer or something like that. I really hated it when I was sent to help on the farm when I was a young girl. You could find me below a tree reading a book.
But life changes and takes you to different places for a reason. I went to college in Mexico, and for the first year and a half, I was studying business administration at Tecnológico de Monterrey–Campus Querétaro. I decided that it was too boring, and I needed a change.
I thought maybe I wanted to be an agronomist. At that point of my life, I started to realize that there was a lot of need for professional people in the agriculture industry to keep producing quality food and to produce food for everybody, and also there was a need to improve the efficiency of Mexican rural farming. In Mexico, an agronomist works with both animals and plants—so you get totally involved in the food production system.
So I switched careers. Of course, there was a big drama in my family because they were not happy about the change, especially knowing that I never enjoyed going out to the farm and touching animals. I asked for permission and they said, ‘No.’ So I stayed another semester in business administration until I took a class about organizational psychology. It was so many emotions involved that I told myself, ‘I don’t want drama. I don’t like people. I like to be alone. I want to work with animals!’ So I switched.
Of course, now I work with people all of the time. This always happens to me. When I run away from something, sooner or later it catches me. Lesson learned.
As a part of the educational program, we were required to do our professional practices in an agricultural operation. My college had a partnership with UW-Madison, so I applied for the program, and I was sent here to Wisconsin.
I was assigned to work on a small farm in New Holstein, forty minutes from where I live now. The farm was Gold Star Dairy Farms, owned by Deb Reinhart and Dave Geiser. To be honest, it was the first time that I saw a real dairy cow in my life. I was very lucky to land at one of the best farms in Wisconsin. I learned so much from the family and the employees, not just about cows, but also about passion and commitment at work.
The level of engagement that that family has with the land, with the animals, is incredible. I was there for two months, and I went back to Mexico for one semester, and then I went to Argentina for another semester. I graduated in 2006 and it was time to look for a job. My first opportunity was in Mexico, working with the Mexican dealer of Priority IAC (International Animal Products), a Wisconsin company that was just starting to export products to Mexico for the dairy industry.
Every year I was able to come, we brought a group of dairy farmers to the World Dairy Expo, and also to visit farms that were ahead of their time in terms of technology and animal well-being. After five years, I decided it was time for a change, and I asked the company if they had something for me here in Wisconsin, and they were very generous to open a position for me.
Years later I got married, and my husband Eric and I moved to northwest Wisconsin so he could have the opportunity to work at another really good farm, Legacy Farms. After one year we decided to come back to the Manitowoc area. I went back to Gold Star Dairy Farm, as a Calf Manager, and my husband went back to his family farm, Grotegut Dairy. At Gold Star I had the opportunity to be really full-time ‘hands-on’ with the animals–it was hard, but I got a lot of support.
Currently, I work at Grotegut Dairy Farm, a third-generation family farm. We milk around 2,800 cows in a rotary parlor, and milk three times per day. Our milk is used for cheese. As we operate 24 hours, 365 days per year, our people are the key to the success of the farm. We are really fortunate to have a great team and we’re always learning and trying to do better. My husband and I take care of the livestock, and Doug Grotegut, one of the owners, is in charge of the crops, harvesting, manure handling, and maintenance—plus overseeing the full operation. We are grateful we have his support to keep the family farm running.
When I was young, I was the girl who didn’t want to be at the farm. Now I am the girl who doesn’t want to be in the office. I say, ‘Oh, I’m bored. I want to see how the babies are doing.’
In this industry, the babies—the dairy calves—are the future of the farm. But unfortunately, not all the farms have the opportunity to raise them. Thanks to the generosity of the owners, we are able to raise the calves here on the farm. It’s a huge effort and investment to keep the little ones at home. We take care of around 300 babies at the farm, and they are doing well.
As any other farm in Wisconsin, we have daily challenges with the weather, but we have a good team of people that are making sure the animals are very well taken care of.
Our work never stops. It doesn’t matter if it is 100 degrees, if it’s raining, or if it is minus 20 degrees, the work needs to be done. We rely 100% on our workers. Some of them are immigrants who highly value the opportunities that we have here and help us to stay in business. We work with some agencies to have people from different backgrounds working at the farm. We used the TN Visa program, a work visa related to the trade agreement between Mexico and the U.S. In fact, that’s the type of visa that allowed me to work here in the U.S. years ago.
We are partners with BelGioioso Cheese. They have a delicious line of cheeses. We are committed to producing high-quality milk that is used for high-quality cheese. When I was growing up, I wasn’t in a position to be able to drink milk or eat cheese, or yogurt, on a regular basis, because those kinds of products were more expensive. So I wasn’t into dairy products, not because I didn’t like them; I didn’t have the opportunity to eat them as a part of my regular diet. And my experience in Argentina was similar. There were a lot of people without access to dairy products because of their price ranges versus income.
I think we are very fortunate in Wisconsin. Protein is protein, and it’s what is going to make you survive. So we have a huge commitment and responsibility to keep producing this type of nutrient for people who need that to survive and thrive.
What made me come back to Wisconsin (besides the ice cream), is that I always feel welcome. I don’t think I even realized that I was ‘different.’ I know I’m brown and short, but I don’t think it is something that people put first before knowing me. At least that’s my hope.
I also had the opportunity to learn and work with people that had a huge passion for what they are doing for the dairy industry here in Wisconsin, so I just feel comfortable living here and working here. I did not have the same opportunities in Mexico that I have had here.
I’m learning to interact with people in a better way every day but to be honest what makes my day is to know that animals are well taken care of. The calves are clean, well-fed, and healthy. And then you go to the parlor and you find the animals that you raised two years ago, reaching their genetic potential. Our animals are happy, calm, and they are producing high-quality milk to make high-quality cheese because we take care of them. And that just makes my day.
Animals surprise me every day. If you are familiar with Jurassic Park, you may remember the scene when that dinosaur opened the door? Well, the cows and the babies do that too! Once in a while ‘someone’ left the gate open and we have some fun. The usual answer from the caretakers is ‘It was the cows.’ Well, now we have to double-check because yes, we have caught the cows or the babies opening the gates with their tongues!
Of course, we also need to make sure that our people are well taken care of so they can take care of the animals. We do our best to make sure our people are safe, healthy, happy at work and that they have a good quality of life, and they can spend time with their families. Yes, farming is a job, but I don’t want our people to wake up every morning and say, ‘Oh, I have to go there because I have to pay my bills.’ Come here because you really like what you are doing and you enjoy it. Because what we do here matters.
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.