Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Minnesota makes strong showing in U.S. Cheese Makers Contest February 27, 2023

Inside a Rice County dairy barn. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

AS SOMEONE WHO GREW UP on a dairy farm, I understand the hard work and commitment of feeding, caring for and milking cows. Every. Single. Day. Although the process has become easier with automation, the fact remains that dairy farmers can’t just walk away from the barn for a day. The cows still need to be milked.

As a child and teen, I labored in the barn, assisting my dad with feeding, bedding straw, and scooping manure. He did the actual milking. And he was under a time crunch to finish milking our Holsteins before the milk truck arrived to empty the bulk tank and transport our cows’ milk to the Associated Milk Producers plant in New Ulm.

That backstory brings me to today, nearly 50 years removed from the southwestern Minnesota crop and dairy farm where I learned the value of hard work. AMPI in New Ulm is still going strong and recently won several honors at the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association 2023 U.S. Champion Cheese Contest in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Forty-two judges evaluated entries based on flavor, texture, appearance and taste. There were 2,249 entries from 197 dairy companies and cooperatives in 35 states. Minnesota was well-represented. (Click here to see a full list of the winners by category.)

The abandoned milkhouse, attached to the barn on the farm where I grew up outside Vesta. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2009)


The 113 contest divisions include dairy products beyond cheese. And that’s where New Ulm’s AMPI plant scored, earning second place for its unsalted butter and third places for salted butter and flavored butter, specifically chipotle butter. AMPI’s Sea Salted Root Beer Butter which sounds, in Minnesota lingo, “different,” did not place.

I grew up on AMPI salted butter. The milk man—the guy who picked up the milk from our milkhouse—also brought blocks of butter. Dad just left a slip of paper indicating how many pounds we needed and the driver pulled the packages from his truck.

Lucky Linda Cheddar (Photo credit: Redhead Creamery Facebook page)


What I didn’t have back then was access to good quality cheese like that produced in Minnesota today. I love cheese. And yogurt and cottage cheese and ice cream and cheese curds…, well, all things dairy. This year a cheddar cheese produced by a small west central Minnesota cheese maker, Redhead Creamery, was named one of the top 20 cheeses in the country during last week’s national competition. And, yes, the president and CEO of this creamery in rural Brooten, Alise Sjostrom, is a redhead.

Redhead Creamery earned Best of Class in the Natural Rind Cheddar category with its previously award-winning Lucky Linda Clothbound Cheddar, named after Sjostrom’s mom. That top cheese was then chosen to compete against 19 other top cheeses for the honor of U.S. Champion Cheese. An aged Gouda made by the team at Arethusa Farm Dairy in Connecticut won the best cheese in the U.S. title. Two Wisconsin cheeses earned second and third places.

I have yet to try, or even find, Minnesota-made Redhead Creamery cheeses. But I will be looking for them locally, especially Lucky Linda Cheddar. I’d even like to take a road trip to the dairy and cheese operation, which offers tours.

Award-winning Amablu Gorgonzola from Caves of Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)


My community is also home to award-winning handcrafted cheeses. This year cheesemakers at Prairie Farms’ Caves of Faribault placed second in the Gorgonzola competition with Ama Gorg. In the blue-veined division, Caves of Faribault earned fourth for its AmaBlu. These cheeses have previously won honors and they are well-deserving. I love Caves of Faribault cheeses, aged in sandstone caves along the Straight River. If you like blue cheese, and I realize either you love it or you hate it, then this is your cheese.

Krause Feeds & Supplies in Hope advertises the availability of Hope butter and Bongards cheese. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo June 2013)


Minnesota-based Bongards Creameries in Perham also earned a Best of Class with its Monterey Jack cheese in the national competition. Likewise, Kemps, LLC in Farmington took Best of Class for its pineapple flavored cottage cheese and second for its chive flavored cottage cheese. I didn’t even realize cottage cheese came in such flavors.

In another division of the national competition, whey protein concentrate 80 from Milk Specialties Global’s plant in small town Mountain Lake garnered the Best of Class and a second place (for instantized).

If there were other top winners from Minnesota in the 2023 U.S. Cheese Contest, I apologize for missing them. But after scrolling through pages of information, I stopped looking.

Cow sculptures outside The Friendly Confines Cheese Shoppe in Le Sueur. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo June 2013)


What I realized is that small creameries to co-ops to large companies in Minnesota make a lot of dairy products. We may not have as many cheesemakers as the Dairyland State, but certainly enough for anyone who likes cheese and other dairy products to recognize Minnesota’s value in the dairy industry.

I saw Minnesota entries (again, I may have missed some) from Prairie Farms Dairy Cheese Division in Rochester, Bongards in Norwood, Agropur in Le Sueur, Stickney Hill Dairy in Rockville and First District Association in Litchfield. The varieties of cheeses range from pasteurized process American cheese from Prairie Farms to jalapeno and roasted red cheddar from Litchfield-based FDA, “a grassroots cooperative since 1921.”

This rural Dundas barn once housed a herd of dairy cows. No more. But the barn has been maintained. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2011)


Much has changed, yet much has not since I left the farm in 1974. Cooperatives remain as strong as ever, yet small scale artisan cheese makers, have also emerged. The demand for basic cheeses remains, yet cheese makers are crafting diverse flavors to meet consumers’ expanding tastes. Small family dairy farms have been mostly replaced by large-scale dairy operations. Change is inevitable. But one thing has not changed for me personally. I love dairy products, especially cheese.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


29 Responses to “Minnesota makes strong showing in U.S. Cheese Makers Contest”

  1. beth Says:

    so glad to hear the tradition continues and you with your family history you understand all that goes into this. we are lucky for the dairy farm families and cheesemakers that this continues.

  2. Sandy Bessingpas Says:

    Audrey..redhead creamery has delivery routes to the twin cities area..they also sell at local farmers markets in the Alexandria area..

  3. It is amazing the dairy produced in the Midwest – cow, goat, and even camel (Dr. Pol had a camel milk farmer on his show – he is in the Michigan area). I am like you in that I love cheese and really good butter with a few ingredients. 🙂 I feel a good quality cheese and butter that you do not have to use much to get the flavors or cheesiness desired. It is worth a little splurge on those products. I did not grow up with dairy cows, however; helped out on dairy and beef farms growing up – all hands on deck when it came to milking, babies (pulling and bottle feeding), cleaning, feeding, etc. Happy Day – Happy Eating, especially cheeses – Enjoy!

  4. beadydd Says:

    The Amablu from the Caves of Faribault is melt-in-your-mouth yummy, and a favorite at our house. Thanks for this information about the Minnesota cheese makers. It was fun to read!

    • Thanks for appreciating Caves of Faribault cheeses as much as me. I was really disappointed when their retail store downtown closed several years ago. But I can still find their cheeses locally at HyVee. It took a lot of time and effort to write this post. But I wanted to share how well Minnesota did in this national competition.

  5. Valerie Says:

    Thank you for this post. It was fun to learn about all the different cheeses made in our area…and award winners.

    • There are two other cheese makers in our area that I did not find on the contest list, or may have missed. Those are Shepherd’s Way Farms, rural Nerstrand, and Cannon Belles Cheese of Cannon Falls. I highly-recommend cheeses from both. I also did not see Hope Creamery among the entries. Hope makes a much-coveted butter. All of these three have crafted award-winning products.

  6. Norma Says:

    I haven’t met a cheese yet that I didn’t like!!

  7. Michelle Says:

    How fascinating. I come from an area with quite a few dairy farms but it doesn’t have the dairy/cheese culture of yours. Though we used to get dairy-product delivery back in the day.

    I’d enjoy having some small-scale, artisan cheese-makers. I was talking about that very thing last night, and about a horseradish havarti I once had and adored.


    You and Randy could plan a trek to west central MN and take in the Redhead Creamery. Jerry and I have toured it – very interesting. Be sure to make your reservation though!

    • Viv, Randy and I already discussed this very idea to travel west, visit you and explore the region…once he’s retired or semi-retired. Thanks for sharing that the Redhead Creamery tour was very interesting. I’ve toured Shepherd’s Way Farms which makes cheese in rural Nerstrand. That, too, proved an interesting tour.

  9. Washe Koda Says:

    Oh for cool😎 In East Tennessee my neighborhood ‘United Grocery Outlet’ is my supplier of ‘Bongards’ (premium)5#lb sliced American & also 5#lbs bags of shredded ‘Land O Lakes’ … even my Ice Cream is from La mars Iowa!

  10. Washe Koda Says:

    I hope you are still not milking at 5 am & 5 pm

  11. I’m a HUGE fan of Redhead Creamy cheese (and not just because I grew up on a farm near Brooten, MN)!
    ICYMI–an interview with Alise Sjostrom: https://kstp.com/special-coverage/minnesota-live/redhead-creamery-takes-home-big-award-in-national-cheese-competition/
    To find their cheese in your area, check out this page on Redhead’s website: https://redhead-creamery.myshopify.com/pages/where-to-buy-our-cheese

  12. I’ve bought Redhead Creamery cheeses at Lunds & Byerly’s in Roseville!

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