In a country with a strong diversity of delicious curds, labeling those brightly colored processed squares the all-encompassing “American” has always felt off-putting. So in my blog series, Pure Unprocessed American, I aim to detail what makes up the wide spread of real American cheeses, looking into the practical history of cheese in the States, reporting on official state cheeses and notable cheesemongers, and how different environments, from the Rockies to the Redwoods, affect the milk and the means for making cheese. Missed my introductory post? Check it out here!
I’m going to end this blog series on a high note with earthy undertones and the biggest producer of cheese in the United States—the one and the only Badger State—America’s Dairyland—Wisconsin! Wisconsin is a veritable dairy monster, making over 30% of all US cheese and producing three billion gallons of milk per year. The 9,900 farms across Wisconsin mean more to the economy of the state than potatoes do to Idaho or oranges do to Florida. Over four times as much, in fact. To put it simply, if someone ever spilled milk in Wisconsin, they would be more likely to turn into cheese than cry over it.
So, why Wisconsin? Although the state is largely made up of vast and green lowlands, it lacks the same year-round warmness you’d find in the South or parts of California. Wisconsin has a humid continental climate, meaning it can have very warm summers but equally frosty winters. While the openness of the state makes it perfect for farmland, the most important thing that makes Wisconsin so special to cheese isn’t actually the land itself, but rather the settlers that stuck around and made it significant.
Cheese hadn’t always been the number one product of the state. Throughout the 1800s, the main product harvested on farms was wheat. This soon turned out to be a mistake, as farmers realized their single crop—ways led to nutrient-depleted soil. This error, combined with general erosion, demanded a turn in what could be produced on a large scale. Fortunately for them and American cheese, farmers joined with a mixture of dairymen and -women who had moved from New York and newly settled European immigrants who had come to the country with their own curdy background.
These days, we don’t have to worry about many of the factors that were a huge part of life back in the 1800s. As this was an industry in the making, the farmers lacked supplies and—most importantly—the livestock to start everything. Once everything came together, genuine demand rose as wheat began to falter, along with a need to preserve a whole bunch of extra milk. Without refrigeration milk did not last long, so cheese became a much more efficient way to use that milk and turn it into something that could last and be brought to market.
One of the earliest cheese businesses, which now would be considered “artisan,” was created in 1841 by Anne Pickett. It wasn’t at all a big, booming business by any means—it was essentially just a cheese cottage next to a neighboring farm. Neighbors would supply her with milk that she would make into cheese, and thus Pickett started Wisconsin’s first co-op and initiated the first “cottage” cheese industry.
The up-scaling of the industry as a whole was rolling right along, and although Chester Hazen is credited for starting the first self-sufficient, large-scale cheese factory, his journey was not initially footloose or fancy-free. No one had gone quite so far as Hazen, and most thought he would just fade out of this test of the cheese industry. But he proved them wrong, going from a herd of 100 cows to 1000 in six years. With his success, Hazen worked to bring all curd-producing farmers together, creating the Wisconsin Dairymen’s Association to unify the industry. This became the push to spread the cheese production out to other states, expanding Wisconsin’s reach more closely to what we know have today.