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.)
AWARD-WINNING BUTTER FROM NEW ULM
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.
REDHEAD CREAMERY CHEESE CRAFTS A TOP 20 CHEESE
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.
CAVES OF FARIBAULT EARNS HONORS
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.
MORE MINNESOTA WINNERS
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.
MINNESOTA IS DAIRY STRONG
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.”
CHANGED & UNCHANGED
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