Growth Strategies

Artisan Cheesemaker's Whey of the Future

In a surprisingly competitive world of artisanal cheesemaking, one Wisconsin producer has a taste for helping others.
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Writer and Author, Specializing in Business and Finance
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This story appears in the November 2011 issue of . Subscribe »

For the first decade after Bob Wills and his wife, Beth Nachreiner, purchased her family's Plain, Wis.-based Cedar Grove Cheese in 1989, "the whole Wisconsin dairy industry seemed to be going out of business," Wills recalls. Determined to keep the 133-year-old company alive, Wills shifted Cedar Grove's focus to organic, natural, grass-based cheeses as well as artisanal cheeses made from cow, goat, water buffalo and sheep's milk. A key ingredient: teaming up with other small-scale cheesemakers and dairy farmers.

With the help of 35 employees, Cedar Grove produces 4 to 5 million pounds of cheese per year.

Cedar Grove Cheese's natural water-treatment system handles an average of 7,000 gallons of wash water per day.

In three to four days, the water is cleaned using natural bacteria and tropical plants, then filtered several more times, emerging pure enough to be deposited into a nearby creek. Much of the remaining solid residue is used to fertilize fields.

Wills began working with grass-based organic and Kosher farmers to create distinctive varieties for his own and private-label sales. Because of the competitive nature of commodity cheese pricing, adding limited-batch specialty cheese production helped the company grow, and pumped up the revenue for the dairy farmers who supplied his raw materials.

Wills also infused Cedar Grove with his long-standing commitment to green practices. In the 1970s, the cheesemaker worked for Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who helped plan the first Earth Day in 1970. Cedar Grove operates with reduced environmental impact, incorporating energy-efficient refrigeration, heating and lighting, as well as a chemical-free water-treatment system that efficiently cleans wash water that results from cleaning milk trucks, tanks and cheesemaking equipment.

Last year, when Wills heard about a green building that was being constructed on the south side of Milwaukee, he was intrigued. After the planned core tenant--a restaurant--backed out, the management asked Wills to build a cheese factory on the first floor.

"We saw this as a great opportunity to learn about how food production can be taken to where people are and to provide employment opportunities in a community that really needed it," he says.

Set to open in early 2012, the Clock Shadow Creamery will be one of the only inner-city cheese factories in the U.S. Wills plans to use the creamery as a training facility for the next generation of artisan cheesemakers. His young hires will oversee production and work with local community members to learn about and develop hard-to-find ethnic and fresh cheeses, which will be sold at the facility's retail store. Clock Shadow will also offer cheesemaking internships and serve as an incubator for other small specialty cheesemakers--a practice Wills started at Cedar Grove. In the world of artisanal cheese production, Wills' decision to share knowledge and help his future competitors is a rarity.

The new facility will also give some of the area's small dairy farms the chance to put their cows back to work. "We've identified a couple of farms that are in the urban fringe and under development pressure," Wills says. "But by working with them and getting them a higher value for their milk, it helps them resist development and keep farming."

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