In Americas Dairyland, many a citys claim to fame is its local cheese factory. But one village in southwest Wisconsin is taking its cheesy reputation to another level, with nearly half the town employed making either brie or goat cheese.
In Belmont, Wisconsin, population 986, more than 250 people work at Montchevre, an ever-expanding goat cheese factory, while just down the street another 200 are employed by the Lactalis President Brie plant. In fact, French-style cheeses have eclipsed Belmonts one-time claim to fame of being the states first capital. Even the villages homes are powered by methane gas from Montchevres anaerobic digesterthe first digester installed at a goat cheese factory in America.
But Montchevre isnt your average cheese factory. Its the largest goat cheese factory in America and makes an astounding number of different types of cheese, including fresh chvre, goat brie, goat cheddar, and a variety of aged specialty cheeses. French cheesemaker Jean Rossard and Arnaud Solandt founded the company in 1989 in Preston, Wisconsin, but then moved operations to Belmont in 1995, when they took over the old Besnier America factory on the southeast side of town. When the pair started, the Belmont factory was a small, outdated cheese plant. Now, it takes up nearly an entire city block.
Today, Montchevre is making headlines by being the first goat cheese manufacturer in the United States to produce non-GMO chvre, or fresh goat cheese. Attaining non-GMO status starts with the animals. All feed certified non-GMO must be sourced from non-GMO seeds, which is difficult because in North America 88 percent of all corn, sugar beets, soybeans, canola, and cotton are GMO grown, and more than 70 percent of all packaged foods contain GMOs.
To meet a growing public demand for non-GMO cheese, Montchevre worked with heritage seed companies and feed mills to source non-GMO seeds, provided those seeds for farmers to grow, and then worked with feed mills to separately process harvested non-GMO crops into protein pellets (soy based with minerals) that goats are fed at milking time. Eighty percent of a goats diet is alfalfa hay, which must also be grown from non-GMO seeds.
All of Montchevres non-GMO milk is produced by a group of farmers in central Iowa. The milk is trucked and processed separately at the Belmont cheese factory. The Iowan farmers are part of a vast network of 360 farms Montchevre supports in the Midwest, most of them in Wisconsin. That means 360 farms depend on Montchevre for their livelihood, and thats a responsibility Jean does not take lightly. He visits farms regularly, and the company employs three full-time field employees to work directly with dairy goat farmers to troubleshoot problems and solve challenges.
Dennis and Elaine Schaaf are dairy goat farmers who ship their milk to Montchevre. The pair farm near Mineral Point and got into the dairy goat business nine years ago. Before taking on goats, the couple milked cows for 30 years. Physically, theres no comparison in milking a cow versus a goat, Dennis says. A cow steps on your foot, youre going to hurt in the morning or take a trip to an emergency room. A goat steps on your foot and you just shoo it off.
The Schaafs have successfully converted their former cow barn into a goat-milking parlor and, last summer, built a new open-air free-stall goat barn, where goats are free to roam large, open pens filled with fresh straw bedding. Free choice alfalfa hay and fresh water are always available. Goats also have access to pasture, but Dennis says they hardly ever go outside. Goats dont like sun and they dont like water. That means if its raining, they stay inside. If the suns out, they stay inside. About the only time youll see them in the pasture is at night when its not raining.
The Schaafs milk 240 goats twice a day, and bred 350 goats last fall in anticipation of expanding this year. Goats milk seasonally, so the Schaafs generally have a break from milking in December and January, but are trying to shorten that window by breeding females year-round. This also helps Montchevre maintain a more consistent flow of milk to make into cheese year-round. The Schaafs herd is made up of a cross of Saanen, Toggenberg, and Alpine breeds of goats.
In a young industry, Dennis and Elaine have milked goats long enough to serve as mentors to up-and-coming goat dairy farmers. They say three farmers in their neighborhood switched from milking cows to milking goats last year, with one farm turning operations over to their child to become the first second-generation dairy goat farm in Wisconsin.
Milk is picked up about every three days from the dairy goat farms and hauled to Montchevre, where three shifts of employees make cheese around the clock 363 days a year. The current pay price for goats milk in Wisconsin is about $38 per hundredweight (100 pounds of milk). That price is holding steady because of a constant growth in demand for goat cheese. In comparison, the pay price for Class III cows milk (milk processed into cheese) ranges from $12 to $22 per hundredweight, and is set by a federal milk marketing order. It takes about 10 goats to equal the milk output of one cow, hence the higher pay price for goats milk.
Jean says more farmers are becoming interested in switching from milking cows to milking goats, and the demand for goat cheese is increasing every year. Were already planning another factory expansion, Jean says. Our goal is to process 100 million pounds of milk this year, and were well on our way to meeting that goal.
Jeanne Carpenter is a cheese geek and food writer living in Oregon, Wisconsin.