I often talk about various agricultural clusters, citing one of the most famous in the Napa Valley. I challenge my audience, that Napa Valley didn’t start out as a dominant wine cluster but happened with a couple of wine producers and others followed their lead. I firmly believe that cheese and other specialty ag products have the same potential.
Sheila Nyberg, head of ED in Clark County, WI had written to me that she felt Clark County had such potential and after visiting last week, I would have to heartily agree. Colby cheese was invented in the county, one of the few cheeses that didn’t originate in Europe. Ken Dix, former mayor of Colby told me, “Joseph Steinwand invented it when he mistakenly put cold water on the cheddar cheese he was making. He thought that Steinwand wasn’t a very marketable name and choose the name of the township where he lived.”
Nyberg explained to me, “We have more cows than people. We have about 68,000 cows compared to our 34,000 residents. There are about 1000 farms in the county with 600 or so producing milk with an average of about 100 cows/farm. The largest farm in the county has about 1,800 cows. We have six cheese makers in the county along with the largest family owned butter maker in the country.”
We visited the North Hendren Dairy, a coop of 35 farmers, located just north of Willard, WI (population 539). For 80 years North Hendren has produced commodity cheeses like Cheddar, Pepper Jack, Jack & Colby. Five years ago they decided to specialize in the craft production of Blue Cheese and Gorgonzola. They’ve won over 20 first and second place ribbons in statewide and national competitions since then. I took a wheel of both to our local renowned chef Niall Campbell of the Firefly Grill who told me, “That Gorgonzola was the best I’ve ever had and their Blue Cheese was right up there.”
Nyberg recently organized the Countryside Crafters, a group of 42 county crafters, that she hopes to develop into a tourist draw. I think that she is on the right track, especially if she combines the two into a “Cheese and Crafters” combination and promotes it well.