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Producer Profile: Cedar Grove Cheese

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Producer Profile:
Cedar Grove Cheese

Innovation Finds A Home At 100-Year old Dairy
Lynn Olson
Member Services Manager

Cedar Grove Cheese is the last remaining dairy in the southwest corner of Sauk County—a region that once boasted over 22 in a seven-mile area. Now over 100 years old, Cedar Grove is the first to install an uncommon and innovative machine to handle the potentially hazardous amounts of wastewater created in making cheese. Enter the Living Machine™—a virtual Little Shop of Horrors on a botanical level. The Living Machine™ is an ecologically engineered system that combines elements of conventional wastewater technology with the purification processes of natural wetland ecosystems. In it, tropical plants (papyrus, Elephant Ear, lilies, Marsh grasses, rubber trees, etc.) grow an average of six inches a week.

Where is all of that water coming from?
The cheesemakers at Cedar Grove Cheese, located in Plain, Wisconsin, craft over 3.5 million pounds of cheese per year. This level of production requires a steady rush of water in order to wash and sanitize each pipe, vat, tank, wall and floor. Six to seven thousand gallons of water a day end up in a holding tank before being slowly released into the Living Machine™, in a greenhouse/bio-habitat located behind the dairy. As an organically certified processor (OCIA), Cedar Grove Cheese must also use large amounts of water to thoroughly wash nearly every surface in the factory before changing production from organic to conventional and back again.

In 1989, when Beth Nachreiner and her husband Bob Wills purchased Cedar Grove Cheese from Beth’s parents, the opportunity presented itself to install the rare, largely unknown water treatment facility designed by Living Technologies. Four years ago, through a state initiative to improve water quality, the Wisconsin Department of Commerce granted Cedar Grove the money to install The Living Machine™. “There’d never been one of these in a cheese plant. There were only about a half dozen in the world at the point that we built it. It’s great technology. It’s efficient. It has no moving parts to speak of, no chemicals,” Bob marvels.

Instantly an award-winning system, Bob describes the net effect of the project, “What’s really fabulous about [The Living Machine™] is that it changed the way people think. People suddenly cared about what went down the drain. Before the system came in it was ‘it’s down the drain, it’s gone... forget it.' Now what goes down the drain matters to people and is part of the way they think. So, we don’t lose product. We’ve got more efficiency, and people just function with a concern for the impact of what they’re putting down the drain."

Intentionally designed to mimic a wetland, water from several local sources including Wisconsin River marshes, a water treatment plant and their lagoon, was initially loaded into the machine. After the water was loaded, Bob says, “We just let whatever was in there grow, so we’ve got leeches and snails. Frogs wander in here and live in the greenery. A lot of times we’ll grow fish and mussels and all kinds of stuff in here. Between the warmth of the water coming in and the solar we haven’t run supplemental heat in here [the greenhouse] for two years now.” Over time Bob has discovered other uses for the greenhouse, “We’ve replaced the tropicals and planted basil, cucumbers, a lot of things. We don’t sell them, but I like to eat them.”

How does it work?
Through a series of ten round four-and-a-half inch high, open top cement tubs, wash water from the plant is slowly fed into the first tub from the wash water holding tank. Microbes added to the water in the first vat will continue to assist in breaking down the milk in each tub until finally, after the water has passed through all ten vats, a clear, nearly pure product is ready to be released into their lagoon.

“The water comes first into this tank,” Bob explains, as he points to one of the only two covered tanks. “We take microbes from the end of this system and we return them back to the beginning, so they’re hungry at the end. We start adding oxygen, which will take care of any odors so it doesn’t smell bad, and the microbes start eating the nutrients. [The water] flows through the first two flow tanks, then it gets to the next [open] tank which is planted with tropical plants.” Bobbing on top of all of the open tanks are the huge plants, rooted into plastic crates that float freely on the top of the water. Bob explains the role of the plants in the system, “They play several roles. They help the efficiency of the oxygen transfer because their root systems break up the bubbles under water and help to get the oxygen transferred into the water which allows the microbes to grow better. Also, the roots provide a housing for the microbes and provides a cushion if we have a (milk) spill and it takes the oxygen levels way down, the microbes will survive better.”

Water flows through piping between each tub by gravity—down the first row of vats, across in back and down the other side. By the time water makes it to the eighth tank it is basically clean and microbes that have been eating the nutrients have sunk to the bottom of the tank. After those have settled down to the bottom they are airlifted back to the beginning.

After the water has made its recovery in the Living Machine™ it is then released into their lagoon which flows into the Honey Creek and ultimately into the Wisconsin River Basin, with 99% of the impurities removed from it. As Bob says, “We come in with an oxygen demand of 1500 ppm and it leaves here at seven and our discharge limit is 200 so we’re way below what we’re required to have.”

Before the Living Machine™ was installed, wastewater was collected and sprayed directly onto nearby fields or was released, untreated into their lagoon across the highway. The labor cost alone for that system was three cents per gallon. The Living Machine’s™ operational budget has worked out to half-of-a-cent per gallon. Additionally, the Living Machine™ has created its own by-product: fertilizer (spare dried microbes), but it is not yet commercially available. They have been testing the potency of the fertilizer by experimenting with perennials. By growing flowers with and without the dried microbes, it is clear to them that the dried microbes offer a significant growth advantage. Ultimately, commercial development of the fertilizer would make this facility virtually self-sustaining.

What about the cheese?
There is a year-round stream of tourists arriving on buses and in cars. They’re coming to see an authentic, accessible Wisconsin dairy, and they come, of course, to taste the cheese. Everyone on the tour can see the production room through steamy glass vistas while cheesemakers go about the many tasks of making cheese. Giant overhead machinery whirls and stirs, then steely machines on rudders are moved over the vats as blubbery slabs of curd are tossed then shredded (think paper shredder) through the curd making device. At this time they’re making those famous cheese curds Willy Street Co-op shoppers have become accustomed to picking up fresh, every Friday, in flavors of dill, garlic and cheddar. Additionally, they make a full line of rBGH-free, GMO-free, Vegetable Rennet or Organic White Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Jalapeno Pepper Jack, Tomato & Basil White Cheddar, Farmers Cheese, Reduced Fat/Salt White Cheddar and the lesser known Butterkaese (a traditional buttery German cheese).

“What we do here is the traditional, slow, proper way of making cheese and the ability to continue to do that depends on people learning about why that’s important. And what the difference is between good product well made and the types of product that dominate the marketplace right now, which involve adding solids that come from California or overseas and taking a lot of shortcuts in the production,” Bob explains. “We really enjoy giving tours because it connects people to the source of their foods.”

Concerns About Packaging and Plastics
For centuries, cheesemakers have preferred using a wax coating to store and preserve cheeses. Presently, our foods usually take a much longer journey to reach our shelves and the cheeses get mishandled along the way, so wax has become more problematic. Cracks created in shipping or handling let in oxygen under the wax and spot-molding occurs. Bob explains the decision to use an additional layer of plastic directly over the cheese before the wax casing is applied. “We’ve been able to determine [this plastic] doesn’t have the phthalates and diethylhexel and the things that are concerns for hormone-mimicking kinds of stuff.”

Happy Accidents
As legend would have it, one of Genghis Khan’s servants originally made the discovery that when milk was hastily stored in a fresh cow’s stomach it eventually hardened and thus became a flavorful mistake. Until science could catch up to cheesemaking, only animal enzymes had been used to make cheese. Thanks, finally, to the development of a microbial version, the industry has begun to see a shift in the method of curdling the milk. “One of the challenges has been to get enzymes which will leave the cheese tasting good and not getting bitter, but will enable the milk to solidify. For a long time the animal enzyme made the best cheese and then they came up with these clone things where they transferred the genes from the animal into either bacteria and came up with a mimicker and that’s what most companies are using now. But there are a lot of ways to make that enzyme so you don’t need to use the animal enzyme,” Bob says. Developed entirely from vegetable sources, vegetable rennet is becoming more widely used and Cedar Grove Cheese uses it exclusively.

Staying Synthetic-Free
Staying ahead of the rest isn’t a new phenomenon for Cedar Grove Cheese. Back in 1993, they became the first dairy in the country to assure its customers that its products were rBGH-free. Affidavits from each of their supplying farmers verify they have abstained from using synthetic growth hormones to artificially increase their cow’s milk production. Even though the USDA has strict regulations on the use of that information, Cedar Grove Cheese has steadfastly maintained their position on synthetic hormones with annual reviews of each of their twenty farm owners supplying milk. All of their other ingredients are also GMO-free.

For more info about Cedar Grove Cheese, check out their fantastic website at, or to arrange a tour call them directly at (608)546-2805. Check out the Willy Street Co-op cheese department to grab a taste for yourself.





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