Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Pagel's Ponderosa Dairy: More Cows, More Milk, New Cheese

Wisconsin media reported last week that while the number of Wisconsin dairy cow farms dropped below 10,000 for the first time in generations, both cow's milk production and specialty cheese numbers in America's Dairyland are up. How can that be?

With the high cost of land and feed, farms today must get bigger to stay profitable and compete on a national level. It is no longer viable for the average farmer to milk 10 cows and still make enough money to take a vacation or send kids to college. That's why we're seeing more family farms combine herds, add cows and grow larger.

Here's a breakdown of farm and cow numbers in Wisconsin, according to the last agricultural census: about 1,300 farms milk 19 cows or less; 3,200 milk 20-49 cows; about 4,200 operations milk 40-99 cows; 1,580 farms milk 100-199 cows; 815 farms milk 200-499 cows; 256 operations milk 500-999 cows; 106 farms milk 1,000 to 2,499 cows; and 25 dairies milk more than 2,500 cows.

Despite the overall lower number of farms, Wisconsin dairies are producing more milk. In fact, the state's 1.27 million cows produced a record 27.7 billion pounds of milk last year, a record high.

Speaking of records, the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service released the latest Specialty Cheese numbers this week. In 2014, Wisconsin maintained its ranking as the nation's no. 1 cheese producing state, with specialty cheese accounting for 23 percent of all cheese production,  up from 15 percent in 2006.

Of the state's 127 cheese plants, 91 craft at least one type of specialty cheese. Feta accounts for the largest share of specialty cheese production, with Blue, Havarti, Hispanic types, specialty Mozzarella, Parmesan and specialty Provolone all remaining popular. Italian Fontina production rose a record 27 percent over the previous year, while Romano wheel production was 20 percent higher.

And while the number of cheese plants in Wisconsin continues to increase, one Wisconsin dairy family announced this week it plans to expand that number even further. John Pagel, owner of Pagel's Ponderosa Dairy in Kewaunee, announced construction is underway for a 2,500-square-foot cheese plant on the family farm.

The Pagels milk 5,000 cows and have been experimenting with cheesemaking since last summer, having a nearby cheese plant craft cheese with their milk. During a Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute meeting in September on the Pagel farm, attendees were treated to a prototype Ponderosa Dairy cheese of garlic and herb cheddar. John says he's been working with the Center for Dairy Research in Madison to develop a unique farmstead cheese that will carry the Pagel's Ponderosa Dairy Farm label, and on May 1, hired Master Cheesemaker Steve Hurd as farm cheese plant manager.

The Pagels already see between 10,000 to 12,000 visitors on their farm every year, John says, so building an on-farm cheese plant is the natural next step. "I've got four kids working on the farm now, and 10 grandkids eager to get into the business."

Expanding his farm over time has been key to the Pagels' success. John took over the family farm from his father in 1980, milking 150 cows. In 1995, the farm expanded to 450 cows, and in 2000, the farm built a double-20 parlor, expanding to 1,500 cows. In 2008, the Pagels built an on-farm methane digester that creates enough energy to power 1,200 homes, and in 2009, installed a 72-cow rotary milking parlor that milks 525 cows an hour. The herd is primarily Jersey-cross breed and Holsteins.

The 72-cow rotary milking parlor at Pagel's Ponderosa Dairy.
Last year, John purchased Ron's Cheese in Luxemburg, Wisconsin, and signed a lease to launch the Cannery Public Market in downtown Green Bay, a proposed local foods center. He plans to use Ron's Cheese as both a retail outlet and wholesale distributor, and to sell the farm's cheese at the new Green Bay facility, next door to Titletown Brewery. Prototypes of Ponderosa Cheese made and aged at a nearby cheese plant is now for sale online.

"We're hoping to create an atmosphere that consumers will enjoy and supply it with our own beef, cheese and dairy products," John says. He's working to create a one-stop destination at the farm where visitors can see cows milked, energy created and cheese manufactured. "People will be able to watch a number of technologies happen all in the same location."

Congratulations to the Pagel family! We look forward to eating more of your cheese very soon.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Year of the Beagle

Bagel the Wonder Beagle
The Chinese may still be arguing over whether it is the Year of the Goat or the Year of the Sheep, but at my house, there is no doubt: 2015 is the Year of the Beagle.

About a year ago, our 18-year-old daughter adopted a 9-year-old Beagle from an animal rescue. Gunner, as he was known then, was turned over to the shelter by his original owner, who had raised him from a puppy. A three-page hand-written letter came with the dog, detailing favorite foods, toys, likes, dislikes and a complete medical history. However, the last question was the most telling. It asked: "Reason for giving up animal." The answer simply said: "Wife."

So Gunner came to live with our daughter and was renamed Bagel the Wonder Beagle. The name was in honor of a former exchange student we had hosted from Thailand, who often confused the words bagel and beagle, as in: "I'd like a beagle for breakfast." My daughter decided then and there that if she ever got a dog, it would be a Beagle and his name would be Bagel. I added the Wonder Beagle.

Fast forward to two months ago, when our daughter and Bagel the Wonder Beagle came home to live with us. The 18-year-old discovered the real world was expensive and begrudgingly came home to roost. Of course, the dog came along, too. We were rather less than thrilled. After all, we are cat people. We have always had cats and currently are parents to three: Louie, Sammy and Sylvester. With Bagel and Lionel Richie, our daughter's rescue cat, we were now home to four cats and a dog. Yes, we are actually outnumbered by pets, none of whom of course get along. Our house is literally a five-ring circus.

Soon after she moved back home, it became apparent that with our daughter's work schedule, Bagel was not getting outside often enough. After a few days of coming home to find pee puddles and poop piles in my living room, I begrudgingly took over the dog walking schedule to save my house from ruin. Let me clear, I was not happy about this. I am a cat person.

At first, I thought walking Bagel might give me some exercise. As a cheesemonger, I am on my feet 8 hours a day, but let's face it, that isn't really exercise. It's standing, squatting, bending, reaching and lifting. I figured that walking a dog would be a nice change of pace.

Turns out that walking a Beagle doesn't really involve much walking. It's mostly starting, stopping, and standing while your Beagle sniffs the trail of a squirrel that crossed the lawn eight months ago. Walking a Beagle is a lot like watching paint dry. You stand in the same spot for a long time, walk five steps, then stand in that spot for a long time. And then you repeat that for as long as you are willing to "walk" the Beagle.

After about a week of becoming frustrated with the non-walking of walking the dog, I started to notice stuff. Like, the next door neighbors have a fire pit in their backyard. The neighbors two houses down have a banner that says "Congratulations Zach" hanging in their living room. I've lived down the street from these folks for 12 years and I don't know who Zach is. The neighbors across the street have three boys - this I knew because I've seen them waiting for the bus - but they also have a dog named Buddy who is a cross between a Beagle and something else (they can't remember). I didn't even know they had a dog.

Walking down the street further, I learned the house five houses away has a waterfall in their backyard. I know this because I can hear it when Bagel is sniffing their garden hose for a solid three minutes and I have nothing to do but stand there and listen. I learned there are a lot of trees on our street. We've got ash, maple, oak, poplar, a whole bunch of blossoming bushes and an entire family of pines just in a one-block radius. I know this because I've stood and studied them in depth while Bagel has sniffed a dandelion for four minutes.

Walking Bagel around our block takes a solid 35 minutes. The first half block is a breeze - usually, Bagel almost runs until you turn right. He's not thrilled about that first turn, but he does it without putting up a fuss. The second right turn is more of a struggle. He wants to go straight, left, up, down, anywhere but right, because he knows that is one more turn closer to home. But eventually he turns, and is pretty happy along the way. Between the second and third turn, I've gotten to know neighbors who live one street away from me that I never knew existed. I know the names of their dogs, the names of their kids, and how often they weed their lawn.

The third right turn is when we start to hit a roadblock. Bagel does not like the third turn. By the fourth and final turn toward home, we have a serious slowdown. Walking the half block back to the house literally takes as much time as the entire walk before the final turn. Bagel has been known to actually lay down in protest in the lawn at the fourth turn. In good news, the neighbor that lives on that corner is also my plumber, so we often talk shop while Bagel the Wonder Beagle lays with his head on the ground,  his big sad puppy eyes looking up as if to say: "Just one more time around the block?"

Just another day in paradise.
Once we get home, Bagel is always back to his happy self, ready to eat, drink and nap. He particularly enjoys laying next to my husband on the couch. Sylvester our cat usually perches on his lap, and Bagel the Wonder Beagle lays on the side. I'm usually in charge of separating the other fighting cats.

Having Bagel in our house, even for what will likely be for a short time, has given me a new appreciation of dogs. I can understand why people enjoy coming home to an animal who is actually happy to see them, rather than three cats who meow in protest that no one has been home to feed them for eight hours.

Walking Bagel has also given me new insights into a neighborhood in which I've lived 12 years. When you're walking a Beagle, people stop what they're doing to say hello. When you're walking a Beagle, people cross the street to pet your dog and chat. When you're walking a Beagle, you notice things you're normally too busy to see. During the course of the past two months, I've met more people in my neighborhood than I have in the past 12 years. Turns out Bagel the Wonder Beagle was just what I needed.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Colby Makes A Comeback with The Robin

In 2009, Jon Topp of Chesterfield, Missouri, sent me an email and attached a spreadsheet listing dozens of Colby cheeses he had ordered from Midwestern cheesemakers during the past several years, in a quest to find the Colby of his youth. Growing up in the 1960s in central Iowa near a small country store that carried the "absolute best Colby cheese," Jon remembered eating Colby in longhorns, wrapped in cloth and wax.

He said he could remember the taste like it was yesterday: mild, deliciously nutty, firm and laced with small holes. Most importantly, like much of the Colby made today, it was NOT mild cheddar. It was dry, not rubbery, gooey or wet and had the perfect salt to moisture ratio.

In short, it was perfect. And Jon Topp could no longer find it. Since then, I, too have been on a quest to find true, original Colbys (and found them at Hook's Cheese and Widmer's Cheese Cellars). This week, fellow cheese peeps, I found another one.

Introducing Deer Creek The Robin, named for Wisconsin's state bird, this Colby is a partnership between Henning's Cheese in Kiel and Chris Gentine of The Artisan Cheese Exchange in Sheboygan. Turns out Chris, too, has been on a quest to find true Colby, so he worked with the Colby masters at Henning's to create a young cheese with a firm, open and curdy body. It is not made in longhorns (good luck finding many cheesemakers who want to hand-punch curd into a longhorn form anymore), but it is made in12-pound tall wheels, bandaged with linen and dipped in wax.

The result could very well be the end of Jon Topp's journey: a true Colby of years gone by, with a fresh, dairy flavor, buttery, yet curdy texture with nutty notes and nice salty finish.

If you're wondering why this is such a big deal (I know what you're thinking - I can buy Colby in any supermarket store in America), let me give you a brief background on this iconic cheese. Colby was invented in Wisconsin by Joseph F. Steinwand in 1885. He named it for the township in which his father, Ambrose Steinwand, Sr., had built northern Clark County's first cheese factory three years before.



The Code of Federal Regulations - as specified in Sec. 133.118, describes the requirements for making Colby cheese. The key difference between cheddar and traditional Colby is that during the make process, the curd mass is cut, stirred, and heated with continued stirring, to separate the whey and curd. Then, part of the whey is drained off, and the curd is cooled by adding water, with continued stirring, which is different from cheddar (no added water/rinse with cheddar). The Colby curd is then completely drained, salted, stirred, further drained, and pressed into forms, instead of being allowed to knit together like Cheddar.

Back in 2010, after Jon Tropp initially emailed me, I contacted cheese industry guru John Jaeggi at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison, and he told me this traditional make method allowed Colby a curdy texture with mechanical openings. The flavor was slightly sweet with a slight salty note. Best of all, John said, the cheese had a dairy, milky note.

All this was grand until 1998, when the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture changed the state standard of identity for Colby cheese -- here is a link to the original document with the original wording - you'll have to scroll down to 81.50(2) and note the the hand-written notation with the change in statute -- and amended ATCP 81.50(2) by adding this little gem of a sentence:

"Wisconsin certified premium grade AA colby and monterey (jack) cheese shall be reasonably firm. The cheese may have evenly distributed small mechanical openings or a closed body."

This annotation, especially the portion I've highlighted in red, led to significant changes in the make process of Colby by Wisconsin manufacturers. Because mechanical openings were no longer required of Colby, many processors today simply (and I'm going to get in trouble for saying this, but it is the truth) make a cheese that resembles mild cheddar but label it as Colby.

But it's not just the change in state statutes that doomed Colby in Wisconsin. Jaeggi notes technology improvements have also changed Colby. "I think cultures are faster. Older cultures were slower single strains, resulting in slower make times. These slower cultures tended to make for a sweeter cheese," Jaeggi says. Another change is the curd wash, he says. Many large manufacturers now do a curd rinse (no hold) after dropping the curd pH down to a 5.60. Old time Colby makers used to drain whey to the curd line while the curd was still sweet - at 6.00 pH or higher. Then after the whey was drained to the curd line, water was added to drop the curd temperature to a set target. After 15 minutes, the whey/water was drained off the curd and then the curd was salted. Most of the acid developed in the press. The reason this changed was larger plants understandably did not want to process all that water along with the whey.

Lastly, the hoop sizes and pressing of the cheeses is much different today than it was back in the day. Traditional Colby was made in the longhorn shape and pressed in 13 pound horns. They were then waxed for sale. Other plants made Colby in 40 pound blocks.

Which gets me back to Deer Creek The Robin. This Colby is a true anomaly - it is crafted in a 12-pound wheel, but has the taste, flavor and texture of longhorn Colby cheeses of years gone by. I got a chance to taste the cheese this week when Gentine shipped me a wheel at Metcalfe's Market-Hilldale in Madison. We cut open the wheel, and then stood in awe, as we smelled the old-time milkiness of true Colby and could literally count the openings in the curd like stars in the sky.

Deer Creek The Robin is just now making its debut in national markets, and I am excited that Metcalfe's Market-Hilldale is one of the first stores to carry it. We have it proudly displayed on our Deer Creek shelf, sandwiched between Deer Creek The Stag and Deer Creek The Fawn, two Grade AA Cheddars Gentine has also created with the help of Henning's Cheese.

So, Mr. Topp - wherever you may be - while you may never find the Colby you grew up with (Jaeggi says most traditional Colby was made by small cheesemakers, each factory had their own unique flavor profile, and sadly, most, if not all, of those factories are now closed) -- you may want to try Deer Creek The Robin. It may very well be a close second to the the Colby of your childhood.


Thursday, April 09, 2015

Your Next Future Wisconsin Cheesemaker: Christopher Eckerman

A University of Wisconsin-Madison student aiming to develop his own brand of sheep milk cheeses is the recipient of the 2015 Beginning Cheesemaker Scholarship from Wisconsin Cheese Originals.

A committee of industry leaders selected Christopher Eckerman, Antigo, for the $2,500 annual award. As you know, Wisconsin is the only state to require cheesemakers to be licensed, an 18-month process that involves attendance at five university short courses, 240 hours of apprenticeship under a licensed cheesemaker, and passing a written exam at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture.

Eckerman is a full-time student at UW-Madison majoring in Food Science. He grew up on a sheep farm of 200 milking ewes in Antigo. He is a member of the Dairy Product Evaluation Team on campus, and hopes to apprentice this summer in the Babcock Dairy Plant under Master Cheesemaker Gary Grossen. His long-term goal is to continue the family farm and craft his own brand of seasonal sheep milk cheeses.

This marks the sixth year Wisconsin Cheese Originals has offered a $2,500 scholarship to a beginning cheesemaker. Past recipients include:

•    2014: Sandra Acosta, dairy goat farmer in Port Washington, Wis. She is continuing to work toward obtaining her cheesemaker’s license.
•    2013: Jennifer Digman, licensed cheesemaker and dairy farmer in Cuba City, Wis.
•    2012: Anna Landmark, licensed cheesemaker and owner of Landmark Creamery. She won a gold medal at the 2015 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest for Petit Nuage, a fresh sheep’s milk cheese.
•    2011: Rose Boero, licensed cheesemaker and dairy goat farmer in Custer, Wis.
•    2010: Katie Furhmann, licensed cheesemaker at LaClare Farms in Pipe, Wis. At the 2011 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, she took Best in Show for her goat's milk cheese, Evalon, and was named U.S. Champion.

Congrats to Christopher - we can't wait to watch you grow in this industry!