Today, Wisconsin is the nation’s largest producer of goat cheese, and the industry is growing. While cows have always been part of the dairy state landscape, dairy goats fill more of the scene than ever before.
Consider it the Montchevre effect. The largest producer of goat cheese in Wisconsin, Montchevre stepped into production almost by accident. When a trade dispute and high tariffs threatened goat cheese imports from France in 1987, Arnaud Solandt considered his options. If his company couldn’t sell goat cheese, perhaps it could make it.
“Wisconsin was the logical place,” said Solandt, who commutes from his home in California. “I found a little co-op that would be able to sell us some (goat’s) milk, and it was easy to find a cheese plant.
“I called my boss and said, I think I found something, goats, a building, the perfect setting. By that time, the sanction had been lifted. I told him he should check it out. If he wasn’t going to, I thought about doing it myself.”
Jean Rossard and Arnaud Solandt started Montchevre inside a small former cheddar factory in Preston in 1989. They rapidly outgrew that space and moved about 30 miles down the road to Belmont. They bought the facility from another cheese company, Lactalis, which moved to a new building next door to make French cheeses, including President Brie.
Montchevre and Lactalis are now the two largest employers in Belmont, a small town in southwestern Wisconsin where the population hovers around 1,000.
And Montchevre can be found in all major retailers nationwide. The early years meant wooing customers and introducing them to fresh chevre. Since then Montchevre has expanded production exponentially because of increased demand.
At the same time, Wisconsin is seeing an increase in dairy goats and production of goat cheese. As of Jan. 1, Wisconsin led the states for milk goat inventory, according to the latest USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service – Sheep and Goats report.
Working with 423 independent farms in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Missouri, Montchevre collects 70% of its milk from within a 200-mile radius of its plant. Forty percent of that milk comes from 141 farms in Wisconsin. Milk is collected every two to three days, depending on the farm.
“We started with a milk agreement from a co-op for 5,000 pounds of milk, which was a giant amount at the time,” Solandt recalled. “That’s all we could have at the beginning, (enough for) about 600 to 700 pounds of cheese. Now it wouldn’t be enough for our equipment.
“I spent the first four or five years doing demos at stores,” he added. “So many times we had to fight the stereotypes that people had with the bad image of the goat. Then the popularity of the Mediterranean diet meant goat cheese became more acceptable.”
Solandt said Montchevre played a big role in making goat cheese mainstream in the U.S.
“Of course, we had to make every mistake possible at first,” he said. “We started thinking we had to have the product the way we would have it in France. We quickly realized in 1992 that we had to make something much more acceptable to consumers in the U.S.”
Source: Journal Sentinel