There’s sheepishness about Wisconsin’s success in cheese contests

Wisconsin’s specialty cheesemakers once again dominated the National Cheese Society competition, held this summer in Austin, Tex, and a good chunk of that success has to do with sheep. Wisconsin cheese firms earned 92 ribbons (24 firsts, 34 seconds and 34 third places) at the contest, about a third of all awards bestowed. Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese in LaValle dominated the competition with 19 ribbons. One of this three first-place ribbons was for Carr Valley’s Cave Aged Meelage, a sheep milk product. Brenda Jensen, Hidden Springs Creamery, in Westby, captured the second most ribbons for Wisconsin, with a total of 8 awards for her farmstead sheep milk cheeses.

Another of the state’s blue ribbons, one of four won by Sartori Foods in Plymouth. was for Pastoral Blend, a sheep milk cheese that Sartori developed in partnership with the CALS Center for Dairy Research. That product was also the grand champion cheese at the Wisconsin State Fair.

Of course, in terms of animals, production and economic impact, sheep are basically an asterisk in Wisconsin dairying statistics. But having sheep milk available gives speciality cheesemakers another ingredient for making their products stand out from the crowd, points out animal sciences professor Dave Thomas.

Wisconsin’s sheep milk industry got its start in 1996 when Thomas and Yves Berger, recently retired superintendent of the Spooner Agricultural Research Station, started a sheep dairy research program based at Spooner. The first year the state turned out 50,000 pound of sheep milk. Last year these pint-sized ruminants pumped out 1 million pounds, and demand for sheep milk far outstrips supply, Thomas says.