Soon, dairy farms sprang up around Wisconsin, and farmers began producing cheese to preserve excess milk. In 1841, Anne Pickett established Wisconsin’s first commercial cheese factory, using milk from neighbors’ cows. A century later, Wisconsin was home to more than 1,500 cheese factories, which produced more than 500 million pounds of cheese per year.
Wisconsin has long been identified with cheese; in the words of a 2006 New York Times article, “Cheese is the state’s history, its pride, its self-deprecating, sometimes goofy, cheesehead approach to life.” Wisconsin has claimed the title of the largest cheese producing state in the United States since 1910, when it passed New York. In 2006 Wisconsin produced 2.4 billion pounds of cheese and held onto its top ranking, despite concerns that California’s faster-growing cheese industry would soon surpass Wisconsin’s production. In 2007 Wisconsin again held onto its lead, and it was reported that its lead had begun to grow slight. In 2010 Wisconsin’s cheese production rose to 2.6 billion pounds (requiring the state cheese industry to import a substantial amount of milk from other states to meet production needs).
Today, approximately 10,000 dairy farms, with over 1.27 million cows producing an average of 21,436 pounds of milk each per year, continue the reputation for quality milk from Wisconsin. Cheesemakers use approximately 90 percent of this milk to produce cheese at 126 plants.
Wisconsin has more skilled and licensed cheesemakers than any other state. These cheesemakers must complete rigorous studies in dairy science and cheesemaking before they can be licensed. They also may serve as an apprentice under a licensed cheesemaker. Additionally, Wisconsin is the only state to offer a Master Cheesemaker program, patterned on the rigorous standards of similar programs in Europe.
These fine craftsmen produce over 2.8 billion pounds of cheese each year, over 25 percent of all domestic cheese. These quantities continue to grow to meet the nation’s demand for quality and variety of cheese from Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland.