An expansion of the Mt. Sterling cheese factory will assure the 100-year-old operation will continue producing their popular goat milk cheese, according to Patricia Lund, the Marketing Director of the Mt. Sterling Co-op Creamery.
The local cheese factory, built in 1912, is the last remaining cheese producer in Crawford County. Originally a dairy cow milk plant, the operation shifted to using goat milk in 1983 and has been producing award-winning goat cheese since then.
The dairy goat co-operative, which owns the factory, looked at several possibilities to expand the production facility, but settled on converting a residence on an adjoining property into retail, office and dry storage. Remodeling the residence, located just west of the factory, will allow the factory space to be used exclusively for cheese production.
The expansion plans also assure the cheese factory in Mt. Sterling will stay open and the seven or eight full-time jobs and an equal number of part-time jobs will remain in the area, explained David Connolly, Executive Director of the Crawford County Economic Development Corporation.
“For county level economic development, this was a great outcome,” Connolly said.
Connolly explained that prior to making the decision to expand at the current site, the dairy goat producers cooperative had considered relocating the entire operation to an industrial park in Waukon, Iowa. Although the goat milk producers used to be located in Wisconsin, as well as several other states, the current 16 producers are all from Iowa.
Bjorn Unseth, the cheese maker in Mt. Sterling, likes the expansion plan for a couple of reasons. Having been raised in the area, Unseth prefers working here and is very proud of being a Wisconsin cheese maker. In fact, he’s looking forward to becoming a Wisconsin Master Cheese Maker in the not-to-distant future.
On a more practical level, Unseth is pretty excited about removing the retail cheese business from the factory. The cheese maker explained that during the busy apple-buying season, tourists stopping to buy goat cheese make moving the cheese from the production area to the cutting area difficult.
Having the retail shoppers next door at the remodeled residence directly to the west of the current factory will be a welcome relief for the cheese makers and cutting room staff.
How crowded can it get during the fall?
Very, very crowded is the answer according to Unseth and his cheese making assistant, Lucas Applebee. Even though the factory opens a retail site in an adjacent building, both that additional site and the store are filled with shoppers on busy days in the fall.
Lund explained the expansion into the remodeled residence will provide a better store and a nicer experience for shoppers.
What makes Mt. Sterling’s dairy goat cheese so popular?
Without a doubt, it’s the quality. Cheese from the factory is constantly being selected for awards. Recently the co-op’s raw sharp cheddar cheese took second place at the American Cheese Society and the butter took a second place at the World Cheese Championships. However, those awards are just part of a long list of honors the cheese and now butter have earned for the Mt. Sterling Cheese Factory.
The cheese and butter is constantly winning the awards for a couple of simple reasons. The producers deliver a high-quality dairy goat milk and Unseth and his assistants take care in producing their small batches of cheese.
In addition to the 40-pound blocks of pasteurized cheddar cheese that Unseth and Applebee were working on last Monday, the dairy goat co-op also produces a variety of jack cheeses, a feta cheese, mozzarella and most recently a bleu cheese. Then, there’s Sterling Reserve. The two-pound cheddar ‘daisies’ or small wheels are aged in caves in northern Wisconsin.
Patricia Lund, who milks 120 goats near Waukon in addition to handling marketing for the co-op, credits the increasing popularity of goat cheese to a more subtle flavor of much of the goat cheese these days. Although unique from cow milk cheese, much of the modern goat milk cheese is less “goaty” than it once was, according Lund.
The veteran goat farmer has seen an evolution in the dairy goat operations in the over 20 years that she has been milking for the co-op. Most noticeably the producers have increased the size of their operations. Operations milking 75 to 100 goats 10 years ago are now more likely to milk 200 to 300 goats.
With producers like Lund and cheese makers like Bjorn, it looks like consumes will be buying cheese from the 100-year-old cheese factory in Mt. Sterling for some time to come.