If Wisconsin was a country, we'd be the the fourth-largest producer of cheese in the world.
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What to know about Wisconsin cheese industry including how much cheddar is made and why we're so good at cheese-making
Alpinage Cheese owner Orphee Paillotin brines a wheel of aged raclette in Oak Creek on May 12, 2022. The new cheesemaker specializes in raclette, aged French-style cheese made for melting.

Wisconsin produced more than 3.5 billion pounds of cheese in 2022 — a quarter of the nation’s total cheese production, according to a report from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

That’s equivalent to about 8,700 Boeing 747 airliners, or 158 Eiffel Towers.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel decided it’s a gouda time to take a look what types of cheese the state is producing and exporting.

What are the most common types of cheese produced in Wisconsin?

In 2022, Wisconsin led the nation in the production of specialty cheeses like cheddar, Muenster, feta, Limburger, Parmesan, Romano and provolone cheese.

Mozzarella and similar styles accounted for almost a third of the cheese by weight produced in Wisconsin in 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. American styles, like Colby, Jack, and Monterey, accounted for another 30%.

What to know about Wisconsin cheese industry including how much cheddar is made and why we're so good at cheese-making
What to know about Wisconsin cheese industry including how much cheddar is made and why we’re so good at cheese-making

Over the years, farmers have modified the types of cheeses they’re producing, according to the trade group Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin.

In 1978, more than 65% of cheeses produced in Wisconsin were American types like Cheddar and Colby and only 21% were Italian varieties, such as mozzarella and parmesan. In 2022, only 30% are American and more than 47% are Italian.

Veering toward the production of specialty cheeses gives smaller farmers an edge over mega-farms that can produce higher quantities at more competitive prices, said John Lucey, director of the Center for Dairy Research.

“If you move to another variety, and maybe you can make it a bit higher quality, that gives you an opportunity,” Lucey said.

Wisconsin cheese is exported to more than 140 countries

Historically, almost all cheese made in Wisconsin was sold within the U.S. That’s changed significantly in the past 20 years as there’s been a growing interest in catering to international markets, said Lucey.

Wisconsin exports 15% of its dairy output internationally, to more than 140 countries, according to the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin.

There’s also been increasing political support for dairy farmers to expand their export operations. In March 2022, Tony Evers signed a bill to increase Wisconsin’s dairy, meat and crop exports by 25% by June 2026.

Those efforts aren’t going unnoticed. In 2021, Green Bay-based Schreiber Foods was named U.S. Dairy Exporter of the year by the U.S. Dairy Export Council after exporting their products to more than 55 countries in 2020.

Why does Wisconsin produce so much cheese?

Wisconsin became a cheese-making hub due to early immigrants, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Swiss cheese was one of the first Old-World cheeses produced in Wisconsin, made by Swiss immigrants. Italians produced mozzarella, provolone and gorgonzola, while the French produced Camembert, brie, and blue cheeses, the Germans made Muenster and Limburger, and the English brought cheddar.

Wisconsin farmers gravitated toward making cheese because it kept longer than milk and butter, especially with limited proper storage and transportation methods.

While most cheese in Wisconsin was produced on individual farms, J.I. Smith of Sheboygan County acquired the state’s first cheese vat in 1858 and started shipping barrels of cheese to Chicago. With increasing demand, more dairy farmers moved production from the farmstead into the factory.

By 1870, Wisconsin had 54 cheese factories.

Despite hundreds of dairy farms closing in recent years, Wisconsin is still home to nearly 6,000 dairy farms — more than any other state — and 1.28 million cows.

Today, Wisconsin has nearly 1,200 licensed cheesemakers that produce over 600 types, styles and varieties of cheese. That’s nearly double the number of any other state.

Looking to try try some local Wisconsin cheese?

Dale Curley has been the owner of Larry’s Market since 2017. He previously was the market’s chef. Read about some MIlwaukee-area cheese shops. Mike De Sisti

Luckily, Wisconsinites don’t have to go far to try out an array of locally produced cheeses. You’re also bound to see at least a couple Wisconsin-made varieties at your nearby grocery store.

But if you’re looking for more options, here’s a few local cheese shops to check out:

  • Larry’s Market at 8737 N. Deerwood Drive in Brown Deer
  • The Village Cheese Shop at 1430 Underwood Ave. in Wauwatosa
  • West Allis Cheese & Sausage Shoppe at 4000 N. Water St. in the Milwaukee Public Market and in 6832 W. Becher St. in West Allis
  • Wisconsin Cheese Mart at 215 W. Highland Ave.
  • Clock Shadow Creamery at 138 W. Bruce St.

Fluid milk consumption has seen a decline among US consumers since the 1960s.

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