A Look Back at the Rural Cooperative Creamery

Edible Culture Fall 2017 Issue

A Look Back at the Rural Cooperative Creamery

By Jeanne Carpenter | Photo By Wisconsin Historical Society 0

While it may seem as if Wisconsin has always been known as the dairy state, America’s Dairyland actually started out as America’s Breadbasket.

During the 19th century, Wisconsin was better known for its wheat production. In the later part of the century, however, the rapid failure of wheat in the region started a dairy revolution and the creation of rural cooperative creameries. Today, rural co-ops continue to make a difference in the lives of thousands of dairy farmers in Wisconsin.

So how did Wisconsin transition from making bread to making cheese? First, a bit of history. In the early days of Wisconsin’s rise to agricultural dominance, wheat was a natural choice for farmers. It required little initial investment, and it was relatively easy to grow and could be harvested twice a year, leading to double the profit opportunity. However, it exhausted the nutrients in the soil, and farmers did not yet know the science of fertilizer or rotational cropping. As a result, yields tended to vary greatly year to year and steadily declined.

Then in the late 1870s, the price of wheat crashed, causing farmers to look for alternative crop options. By this time, advancements in soil science determined the soil and climate in Wisconsin was better suited for growing crops fed to animals. Farmers took notice of the success that other states with similar climates, such as New York, had found with dairy, and by 1899, more than 90 percent of Wisconsin farmers were raising and milking dairy cows.

With such a large number of dairy farms, Wisconsin had to find a way to use the increasing amount of milk produced each year. Many farmers favored making cheese over butter because of its longer shelf life. Farmers knew they had to organize to build cheese factories and find cheesemakers.

One of the earliest commercial cheesemakers in Wisconsin began making cheese in Jefferson County in 1837. By 1841, another dairy farming family had settled in Jefferson County, and along with several other farmers, they created the first dairy cooperative in the nation. The new business model allowed the dairy farmers who produced the milk to control the business and hire a cheesemaker to make and market the cheese produced from their milk.

While the first rural cooperative creamery in Wisconsin comprised just five families and 10 total cows, dairy cooperatives soon began to grow in popularity. The democratic nature of the business model and the potential economic benefits for all involved were attractive to both farmers and cheesemakers.

Before long, rural cooperative creameries were a mainstay in the state. Many still exist, including Chalet Cheese Cooperative near Monroe, the only remaining factory in the United States still making limburger. In 1885, five dairy farmers founded Chalet Cheese Cooperative, and it continues to flourish today with 21 farms. Forty years ago, the cooperative hired a Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, WHS-23041 young man named Myron Olson to be their cheesemaker.

Today, Myron not only manages the creamery, he has earned his Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker status in baby Swiss, brick and limburger. He’s joined by another master cheesemaker, Jamie Fahrney, who received his cheesemaking license in 1985 while apprenticing under another famous cheesemaker, Albert Deppeler. Jamie went on to study under Myron at Chalet Cheese and today is certified as a Master Cheesemaker in baby Swiss and brick.

While the model of rural cooperative creameries is more than 100 years old, newer co-ops have sprung up in the last few decades, including one of the largest and most successful: CROPP Cooperative, better known by its brand Organic Valley, based in La Farge, Wisconsin.

In the late 1980s, many family farms were being bought by larger corporations or going out of business. Some farmers in southwest Wisconsin’s Coulee Region did not want to follow the “get big or get out” model, so in 1988, following one of the worst droughts in Midwestern history, they decided to take their fate into their own hands. They called a meeting and decided to continue farming together in a sustainable way, and they knew they wanted to form a cooperative. The new venture began as an organic produce cooperative, and it brought on dairy farmers soon after. Nearly 30 years later, Organic Valley remains committed to the same ideals it was founded upon, as well as to its small town roots. More than 2,000 family farmers scattered across the United States now belong to the cooperative, and its dairy products are available both nationally and internationally in 25 countries.

While the business model of the rural cooperative creamery is more than 175 years old, dozens continue to thrive, and several new cooperatives are emerging. The original democratic principles that founded rural dairy cooperatives continue to work today, perhaps because a cooperative’s member farms are committed to the same beliefs and ideals and because all members work toward a common goal.

One of the original goals of the first rural cooperative creamery continues to ring true: farmers work together to craft high-quality milk while working collaboratively with a cheesemaker to make high quality cheese. It’s a system that seems to work well in Wisconsin.

Jeanne Carpenter is a former farm girl turned cheese geek, writing and talking about cheese for a living. As the specialty cheese manager at Metcalfe's Market-Hilldale in Madison, she works with Wisconsin cheesemakers to bring new products to market. Her motto is "Have Fun. Do Good. Eat Cheese."

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