By Jeanne Carpenter
It's not often you meet a cheesemaker who has earned a Ph.D. in economics, a law degree from the University of Wisconsin, and who once worked for the U.S. senator who founded Earth Day.
Then again, Bob Wills is not your average cheesemaker.
Wills, 54, didn't start making cheese until age 35. In fact, the thought never crossed his mind until the day he met Beth Nachreiner, whose parents happened to own Cedar Grove Cheese, a small cheese factory in southwest Wisconsin. The pair met while Wills was working as an economist for the United States Department of Agriculture, and Nachreiner was working in Wisconsin as a political advisor. Three years after getting married, the couple took over her retiring parents' cheese factory in tiny Plain, Wis., and Wills left a promising academic career as a research associate at the University of Wisconsin.
He's never looked back.
"I never really liked the academic world. I always had a sense of wanting to own my business, although why, I don't know -- it's a crazy and stressful thing to do," he says laughing. "But the truth is I can't imagine doing anything else."
In Wisconsin, home to more than 1,200 licensed cheesemakers and 127 cheese plants, making cheese is usually a family profession. Many hail from second, third and even fourth-generation cheesemaker fathers. Here in America's Dairyland, working as a cheesemaker is not seen as merely a job - it's a way of life - and often a tough way of life full of long (and weird) hours - most cheesemakers leave for work when the rest of the world is still sleeping and return home 12 to 14 hours later, six days a week. To top it off, very few cheesemakers ever get rich -- Wills admits he's still waiting to strike it rich nearly 20 years into the journey. But Wills, like most who enter this hallowed profession, say they do it for more than a paycheck.
"It's a great lifestyle and a good way to raise kids," says Wills, who with his wife, have sent son, Bo, and daugther Emma off to college, while son Owen, 13 is an eighth grader at the local middle school. "Plus, people seem to appreciate the creativity of what we're doing here at Cedar Grove. We have fun, we're open to new ideas, and I get to work with some of the most exciting people in the industry every day."
That's because Wills - in a strategic move one might expect from this button-down-shirted former professor - decided nine years ago to open his specialty cheese plant to farmers interested in having a custom product made from their milk and to up-and-coming cheesemakers looking to rent a cheese vat to experiment with new recipes.
Today, Wills, a Master Cheesemaker in his own right (Wisconsin is the only state to both license its cheesemakers and offer an advance certification program), has helped launch at least seven cheese brands, including arguably the most famous cheese to ever come from Wisconsin: Pleasant Ridge Reserve, crafted by Mike Gingrich of Uplands Cheese. Gingrich produced his award-winning Beaufort-style cheese the first four years at Cedar Grove before building his own farmstead cheese plant in 2004. But Pleasant Ridge Reserve isn't the only award-winner to come out of Cedar Grove. In fact, of the 91 awards captured by Wisconsin cheesemakers at the 2008 American Cheese Society competition, 14 were won by cheesemakers mentored by Wills, or by cheeses currently made at Cedar Grove.
Take Bleu Mont Dairy's Willi Lehner, for example. A second-generation cheesemaker, Lehner rents time at Cedar Grove to make his award-winning cheeses, including his Bandaged Cheddar, named in the September 2008 issue of Wine Spectator as one of "100 Great Cheeses" of the world. Wills says renting his cheese plant to outside cheesemakers during off production hours is a win-win situation. "I learn something from every one of the people making cheese at my plant. Cheesemakers like Willi - who's always trying something new -- are an absolute delight to work with. They constantly teach me new things, and I offer advice when asked. It's definitely a two-way street."
Because of stiff competition, strict environmental standards and confidentially issues, very few cheese plants across the nation open their facilities to other cheesemakers. Nobody knows that better than Mike Gingrich. In 2000, Gingrich and his wife, Carol, decided to experiment with making a seasonal alpine-style cheese from the milk of pasture-grazed cows on their farm near Dodgeville, Wis. The initial investment of building a farmstead plant with an unproven product was intimidating, so instead, they approached area cheesemakers to see if any would be willing to rent out their plant for a few hours a week. Wills was the only cheesemaker to say yes, and the endeavor has since paid off for both parties.
"I can't imagine how we could have gotten started in this business without Bob's cooperation," Gingrich says. "For the first four years we made cheese at Cedar Grove, we doubled our production every year and put all of our profits back into the business so we could keep growing. There's no way we could have done that if we had a mortgage to pay."
Wills, in his modest way, downplays the impact he's had on start-up cheesemakers such as Gingrich, and instead focuses on the bigger picture: "I'm interested in finding ways to empower farmers and partner with others to better market and distribute Wisconsin cheese. Ultimately, life is about people. It's about relationships and helping people change the way they look at their food."
In a testament to his personal philosophy of helping others' realize their dreams, he harbors absolutely no ill will when some cheesemakers, such as Gingrich, leave Cedar Grove and graduate to building their own farmstead plants. Instead of looking at it as losing business, he focuses on finding another opportunity to partner with a neighbor and create another start-up cheese business. "Something always comes up," he says, smiling.
Lately, that something is a surge in demand from dairy farmers looking to add value to their farms by hiring Wills to craft specialty cheeses specifically for them. One example is the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative, based in northwestern Wisconsin. This farmer-owned cooperative pools its milk and ships it to Cedar Grove, where Wills crafts two award-winning cheeses: Dante, an aged, full sheep's milk cheese with a buttery, nutty flavor that took Best in Class at the 2006 American Cheese Society competition, and Mona, a mixed milk cheese made from sheep's and cow's milk and aged to produce an appealing, robust flavor. The cheeses consistently win ribbons at national and world competitions.
Wills also crafts an array of specialty organic cheeses for Next Generation Dairy of Mondovi, Wis., and Otter Creek Organic Farm in Avoca, Wis. In addition, he produces a line of certified kosher cheeses for Sugar River Cheese in Deerfield, Ill. His next customer might just be a neighboring start-up water buffalo farmer who is interested in making fresh mozzarella at Cedar Grove.
In all, Wills and his 35 employees - including his "secret weapon," cheesemaker Dan Hetzel, who has worked 52 years at Cedar Grove -- craft about 4 million pounds of cheese a year. Wills acts as the wizard behind the cheddar curtain - always coming up with new cheese varieties and then overseeing production with a core group of employees loyal to his mission of sustainable production and environmental leadership.
In fact, Wills was the first cheesemaker in the United States to label his cheese as rBGH-free in 1994. He was on the cutting edge of the controversy related to bovine growth hormones and genetically modified foods, and to this day, Wills does not feel comfortable using milk that comes from cows given artificial hormones. All farmers who ship milk to Cedar Grove commit to rBGH-free milk production. In addition, Wills is committed to exceeding the standards for waste water treatment and has sought out innovative methods to run his plant in an energy efficient manner (his Living Machine, an elaborate greenhouse system that mimics the water cleaning power of wetlands using natural microbes and plants is a story unto itself).
The core of Cedar Grove's own cheeses are specialty and organic varieties, such as flavored Monterey jack, cheddar, Colby, havarti and butterkase. Between different cheesemakers coming and going, and Cedar Grove pumping out its own cheese, the plant is rarely idle. One begins to wonder when Wills has time to come up with new varieties, such as his latest line of Layer Cheeses. Cedar Grove's Cumin & Cloves Dutch Style captured a Best of Class award at this summer's American Cheese Society Competition in Chicago. The cheese is striped with a layer of cumin and clove through the center of the wheel, surrounded by rich and nutty organic Cheddar. Rounding out the new line is Wills' Cracked Fennel in Organic Cheddar, Fenugreek in Butterkaese, Rosemary in Organic Cheddar, and a new favorite: Naturally Smoked Cheddar with Smoked Salmon & Dill.
Wills crafts all of his cheese with an eye to sustainability. In 2007, Cedar Grove Cheese, along with 13 dairy farms who supply milk to the plant, completed certification with the Midwest Food Alliance in Minneapolis, Minn., to be the first food processor in the United States to be recognized for its commitment to "green" technology. The Midwest Food Alliance evaluated several aspects of the businesses, such as environmental practices, labor standards and animal welfare issues.
Wills says his dedication to finding innovative ways to ensure the plant operates in an environmentally friendly manner stems from his childhood. Growing up in Brookfield, Wis., his father, a newspaper man, took him each year on a summer trip to the Boundary Waters, a region of wilderness straddling the Canada-United States border just west of Lake Superior. "I learned that it's all about the water - plain and simple," he says. He continues to apply that childhood lesson in every aspect at Cedar Grove - from the way he chooses to treat his waste water, to the way he powers his plant.
This philosophy is part of the reason Wills and the rest of Wisconsin's cheesemakers are seen more and more as innovation leaders in a state once better known for its foam cheese heads and commodity cheddars than its specialty and artisan varieties.
Wills compares the recent surge in Wisconsin's specialty and artisan cheese production to similar periods in history when a confluence of actors come together on one stage to challenge one another and make each other better. Wisconsin cheesemaking has entered one of those periods, he says.
"There are times and places to be, and this is one of those times," he says. In the past six years, the State of Wisconsin, including its Dairy Business Innovation Center, the Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute and Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, have all focused on helping Wisconsin cheesemakers create specialty and artisan cheeses, boosting their bottom lines as well as the public image of Wisconsin cheese. Wills is even bold enough to compare the current line-up of Wisconsin cheesemakers, who together are crafting more than 600 varieties, types and styles of cheeses, to the literature-rich period of Keats, Shelley and Byron, or the Beat Generation of American writers in the 1960s, or the time of London Music from 1750-1800.
"I've got Sid Cook (Master Cheesemaker of Carr Valley Cheese) just down the road from me - in fact, at one time, there were three Master Cheesemakers all living within a block of each other near here. It becomes a friendly competition. We watch what each other is doing and we strive to be better. In the past few years, the state's dairy infrastructure has really come together, and now consumers see the potential for American cheeses to be as good or better than their European counterparts," Wills says.
"All of this leads to cheesemakers stretching themselves to capture the public's imagination. We're generating more creativity and energy among all of us than we could ever do on our own. It makes each one of us better," he says.
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