On one of the many ridge tops in southwestern Wisconsin’s Driftless Region, the tiny village of Mt. Sterling (pop. 207) is home to the Mt. Sterling Co-op Creamery and their historic cheddar factory. There have been many changes and advances for the cooperative since it was incorporated as the Southwestern Wisconsin Dairy Goat Products Cooperative in 1976, but the cheese—specifically the raw milk goat cheddar-style—has consistently remained their signature and award-winning product.
For the very early history of this cooperative, one need only ask Bob Queen, Madison’s own music festival producer extraordinaire (Waterfront, Fête de Marquette, Willy Street Fair, Orton Park Fest). While operating his own goat farm in 1976, Bob became instrumental in the formation of the Southwestern Wisconsin Dairy Goat Products Cooperative. In a recent conversation about the Co-op, Bob said, “[It] was a very informal alliance of goat milk producers who were certainly back-to-the-land ’60s radicals who wanted to create a new means of production rather than seize one.”
Patricia Lund, Vice President and Marketing Director for the Cooperative is one of several active farmer-members who took a few moments from her farm, Yellow River Dairy in Monona, Iowa (15 miles west of the Mississippi River) to discuss the Cooperative. With the exception of two cheesemakers, an office manager, a plant manager and five to seven other workers who cut and wrap the cheese, all other aspects of the business—accounting, marketing, farmer advisory and other roles as identified by the Board of Directors—are routinely assigned to elected officers and farmer-members of the Co-op.
Patricia and her husband have been members of the Co-op since 1989, and have each held or are holding a seat on the Board. “My husband, by trade, is an accountant,” Patricia explained, “and so he kind of got into the financial end. Then in 1994, we went to our first marketing event and, ever since, I’ve been handling the marketing off and on, and now, I’m back on their Board. Any producer could do that—become involved—that’s the nice thing about a cooperative; you can become involved, know exactly where your product is going and what you’re doing, or you can choose to simply not be involved,” she concluded.
Detailing some of the innovative ways their co-op has changed over the years to meet the individual needs of their members, Patricia spoke about one of their newer programs. By providing access to members to the creamery and cheesemakers, members are creating their own farmstead cheeses using just their farm’s milk. Allowing each farm the right to take the products that are produced on their farm and sell them through their own accounts provides a practical alternative to owning or constructing their own creamery. Members are then able to independently sell to retailers and at farmers’ markets. Mt. Sterling Cooperative members now benefit from the shared asset without impinging on production of their combined award-winning cheeses.
Farmers in the Mt. Sterling Cooperative share a general philosophy about goat farming that includes humane treatment of the animals and as much grass grazing as possible. Every farmer is required to sign a contract ensuring they will not use growth hormones, which, as Patricia reported, “Doesn’t work on goats anyway.”
Testing of the milk is conducted at each farm before it is pumped onto the truck to make certain it is consistent with the Cooperative’s high-quality standards. And when, or if, there’s a problem, field representatives are assigned to begin working with those farms that aren’t meeting the requirements.
With 20 farms currently in the Cooperative and herd sizes ranging from 100 to 175 goats, the Co-op is able to pool enough milk to produce a full line of plain and flavored cheddars. They contract with a milk hauler to pick up at each farm and deliver the fresh milk to the creamery, which was acquired by the Cooperative in 1983.
Beyond that, the Cooperative supports independent decision-making for each farmer, but advises members to limit the size of their herds. “The best way to stay milking goats,” Patricia commented, “is not to get too big too fast. If you do, you’re gonna go out of business. There is a limit to how many you can have and be able to effectively handle them.” Instead of farms and herds getting bigger, Patricia says the cooperative looks for more producers when they need more milk. “We don’t really want to encourage someone to go out and start milking 500 goats,” she declared.
Patricia mentioned that it takes about two-and-a-half hours to milk her herd and, like the rest of the members in the Co-op, she uses a pneumatic milking system that keeps the milk sanitary and collects it most efficiently through a pipeline to a cooling tank. “The concept that this many goats would be milked by hand doesn’t really work. You’d get really tired out,” she said.
The goat cheeses offered by Mt. Sterling include raw milk cheddars, jack-styles, feta, soft fresh chevre and several other seasonal and specialty flavors. Over the years they have received multiple awards from the American Cheese Society, but the most recent accolades came from the 2008 World Dairy Expo where the Pasteurized Cheddar and Smoked Raw Cheddar took home the ribbons for second and third respectively in the mixed milk category.
In response to the many customer comments and requests we’ve gotten over the years at Willy Street Co-op, we had to ask if Mt. Sterling Co-op has ever considered making goat butter and Patricia was happy to report that they had just received a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to begin making goat butter. Patricia says they hope to have the butter ready to sell sometime this year, but most likely we wouldn’t see it in stores until autumn.
For more information about Mt. Sterling Cooperative, please see their website at: www.buygoatcheese.com or feel free to stop in if you’re in the area to see their retail store and if they’re making cheese when you get there, they have a viewing window for you to watch the process.