Family, the ones we’re born with and the ones we choose, is what the holidays are all about. Wisconsin’s farmstead cheeses are all about family, too—the ones who make them and the ones who enjoy them.
But this exclusive family of fromage also shares a secret ingredient that sets them apart from other cheeses: Cheesemakers use the milk from their family’s dairy to craft quality cheeses.
Make this season’s meals more meaningful by setting a place at your holiday table for Wisconsin’s farmstead cheesemakers, who create specialty cheeses honed with heritage and flavored with tradition.
What are Farmstead Cheeses?
As defined by the American Cheese Society, farmstead cheeses are made with milk from the farmer’s herd and aged on the farm where the animals are raised. Since these farmers do not procure milk from outside sources, they are directly and intimately involved in producing the quality and flavor of the milk used to make their artisan cheeses. This also means customers know exactly where their cheeses come from, a guaranteed mark of excellence.
The evolution of the family business for these dairy farmers that started with raising cows and now making some of the world’s best cheeses is often a labor of love, as it builds a legacy for future generations. Members of the farm families become integrated into aspects of the cheesemaking process. The result? Artisan cheeses that boast signature flavors unique to the farm’s terroir and ooze with family pride.
Uplands Cheese | Dodgeville, WI
“Our original goal was to anchor our family on a working farm, and when we stumbled into cheesemaking, we saw it as a way to make that possible,” shares owner and Head Cheesemaker Andy Hatch. “But farmstead cheesemaking has brought us so much more. Our lives are connected to soil, weather, and animals on the one end and distant urban customers on the other. Between is cheese— this complex, constantly changing thing that connects people and makes them happy. And these deep and diverse experiences make our lives very meaningful and fulfilling.”
Made only in the fall and released in November, Rush Creek Reserve is a coveted farmstead cheese that often sells out before the holidays. Its meaty notes and delicate richness are courtesy of the high-quality milk from Upland Cheese's dairy when the cows transition from grazing on lush summer pasture to winter's dry hay in autumn. Each wheel is brined and wrapped in spruce bark, which imparts a sweet, woodsy flavor, then aged and washed with a mother culture to express the flavor complexity of the milk while the cheese develops.
“Rush Creek Reserve is special because it's meant for sharing during the holidays,” says Andy. “It often finds itself at the center of special occasions.”
Make it: Brunch with Rush Creek Reserve
Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy | Kewaunee, WI
“Our dad, John Pagel, had a love for the farm that extended beyond the dairy,” shares Director of Culture Jamie Witcpalek. “He enjoyed cheese and felt our high-quality milk would make delicious cheeses.” Today, this third-generation family dairy produces two brands—Ron’s Wisconsin Cheese and Ponderosa Farmstead—celebrated for their award-winning cheeses. Specialties include string cheese, mozzarella whips, cheese curds and cheddars like aged Ponderosa Farmstead Snow Cheddar, a Bronze winner at the 2021 World Cheese Awards with distinctive, nutty notes.
Pagel’s cheesemaking plant is steps away from their milking parlor, allowing them to begin cheesemaking within 90 seconds of milking. As a true farmstead cheese operation passionate about knowing where their milk and food come from, this family wouldn’t make their award-winning cheeses any other way.
The Pagel family takes pride in providing premium cheeses from their family to yours for generations to come. “We strive to ensure that the care we take with our farming practices reflects our commitment to the environment, our employees, our animals and our community,” says Jamie. “The result is the freshest milk production possible, which is the secret to our rich, creamy farmstead cheeses.”
Make it: Citrus, Squash and Brussels Sprouts Salad
Marieke® Gouda | Thorp, WI
“Farmstead cheesemaking gives dairy farmers another opportunity and is the ultimate way to secure quality, authenticity and integrity,” shares owner and Head Cheesemaker Marieke Penterman. “We have complete control and transparency, from how our gouda ladies are cared for to how we handle the milk. We don’t have to transport or cool it down—fresh raw milk from our farm flows directly from the milking parlor into our cheese vat! And this means richer, creamier gouda.”
Marieke learned to make authentic gouda by traveling from Wisconsin to her native Netherlands to train with two cheesemakers. Four months after making her first batch of gouda in 2006, Marieke won Best of Class at the 2007 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest. Each wheel is handcrafted with signature cultures and ingredients to create an authentic gouda using an Old World technique, then aged on Dutch pine planks for at least 60 days. Several flavors are available, including creamy Marieke® Gouda Truffle infused with pieces of black truffle and truffle oil.
Award-winning cheeses aren't the only rewards of Marieke’s farmstead cheesemaking efforts. “Being raised among the cows, milk and cheese has taught our children life lessons,” says Marieke. “They can’t put off certain things until tomorrow; our cows and calves need to be fed whether snow or rain. There are no shortcuts to creating high-quality cheeses.”
Make it: Prime Rib with Roasted Garlic-Gouda Sauce
Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese | Waterloo, WI
“Being a farmstead company means we grow the crops for our herd, raise healthy dairy cows and use our milk to produce our cheeses,” shares Sales and Marketing Manager Roseanne Crave. “Growing up as second- and third-generation dairy farmers has instilled in our family work ethic, tradition, sustainability, and strong family and community values. We have 13 family members working in the business alongside 90 full-time employees.”
Fresh milk is piped directly from the dairy farm at Crave Brothers to the cheese factory across the street, where owner and Head Cheesemaker George Crave has made incredibly flavorful cheeses since 2001 with milk that’s just hours old. Their award-winning cheeses are renowned for quality craftsmanship, including highly decorated Crave Brothers Farmstead Classics® Mascarpone made from fresh, sweet cream. It’s luxurious, velvety, and also available in chocolate, making it perfect for holiday desserts.
The Crave Brothers family dairy and cheese operations are sustainable businesses that use 100% green power. "We love to share our story with consumers," adds Roseanne. "With our farmstead cheeses, we can share our full-circle production story…and this allows us to stand out on the shelves!”
Make it: Mascarpone Bourbon and Rum Balls