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WisBiz In-Depth: Organic Cheesemaker is Part of The Living Machine

By Gregg Hoffmann

PLAIN – Most people wouldn’t think of a machine as being a living, breathing thing.

But, at Cedar Grove Cheese, the entire process of making organic cheese, down to how wash-water is treated, is part of a “living machine.”

Owner Bob Wills and his staff of 32 produce more than 3.5 million pounds of cheese per year, making Cedar Grove one of the largest, if not the largest, producers of organic and rBGH-free cheese in the country.

Just some of the varieties offered by the company are white cheddar, Monterey Jack, jalapeno pepper jack, tomato and basil white cheddar, farmers' cheese, tomato and basil farmers' cheese, reduced fat/salt white cheddar and butterkaese.

Several flavored organic varieties also are available in 40-pound blocks, including garlic and dill, onion and chives, tomato-basil garlic and Colby cheeses.

Cedar Grove cheeses are shipped all over the country, with more concentration east of the Mississippi River. Dried organic and GMO-free whey powder also has become a widely-distributed product, primarily as an ingredient in other foods.

Wills, who holds a doctorate in economics and law degree from UW-Madison, is perhaps most proud of the credential as a master cheesemaker. "You sort of pick up credentials as you go along,” said Wills, who once worked as an economic analyst. “I find this very interesting, much more than writing papers as an economist. It’s a challenge.

“I don’t get to do enough actual cheesemaking anymore, but I do find it very interesting, especially the way we have chosen to do it.”

Conscious decisions have been reached at Cedar Grove to do business in an ecologically-friendly manner. Cedar Grove became the first cheesemaker in the country to declare itself rBGH-free in 1993. All farmers who provide milk for the company’s cheese have pledged to not treat their cows with rBGH -- recombinant bovine growth hormone.

Cedar Grove works with about 30 farmers who provide more than 30,000 pounds of milk daily. “We feel we are helping these farmers get a livable price for their milk and providing customers who are concerned about rBGH a product they want,” Wills said.

“Although FDA has declared rBGH safe, many customers have indicated that for a variety of personal, social or political reasons, they want dairy products made from milk from untreated cows. The government makes us put a label on the products that says it doesn’t matter, but we think it does.”

The decision to produce organic cheese seemed like a natural after going rBGH-free, according to Wills, who did research on the potential economic and ecological impacts of organic approaches while still an economist.

“It all seemed to fit,” he said. “The demand for organic products has grown considerably. We can’t keep up with the demand for organic cheese. Organic also has a clear set of rules that we can follow.”

Wills said milk that is free of rBGH and is organic has different qualities – often lower cholesterol, different proteins and perhaps most importantly from a marketing standpoint better taste. Cheese made from this milk also has these qualities.

Cedar Grove has not stopped at rBGH-free and organic in its ecological approach to cheesemaking. With the help of a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, the company was one of the first in the country to install The Living Machine wash-water treatment system.

“We had used a holding pond for years, and it was filling up and not functioning very well. It was costing us 3 cents per gallon to remove the water,” Wills said. “Then, through an Edgewood professor who had set up a system as a demonstration in his classroom, we linked up with people who were working with this Living Machine.”

Basically, the system works much like wetlands would, but at an accelerated pace. A greenhouse is located near the Cedar Grove factory. In it are tropical plants, various microbes, snails, leeches and other living things that create an aeration process for the water.

“The water circulates through a series of 10 tanks,” Wills said. “By the time it is ready to be released, 99 percent of the impurities have been removed.” The water then is discharged into Honey Creek, which is part of the Wisconsin River Basin.

The plants can be used as a by-product of the system. Wills also is exploring the possibility of drying and marketing potting soil from The Living Machine.

Cheesemaker History

These cutting-edge, ecological techniques are being done from a location that has a cheesemaking history, going back farther than originally expected. The Cedar Grove web site lists the company as 103 years old.

“We’ve found out that it actually is older than that,” Wills said. “One day, I was doing a tour, and when I mentioned the age somebody from the back said, ‘No, it isn’t.’ My first reaction was ‘who’s tour is this?’ But, it turned out the man had done some research.”

Cheesemaking apparently started as early as 1878 on the site, then owned by the Lemiel and Cooper families. The factory had several owners and was run by a cooperative of farmers for several years.

“At one time, there were something like 22 cheesemakers right in this Sauk County area,” Wills said. “I guess it came down to locating where a wagon could make the rounds of farms to collect the milk.”

Wills’ father-in-law, Ferdie Nachreimer, owned it for several years. When he wanted to retire, Wills and his wife, Beth Nachreimer, faced the decision on whether to go into the cheese business.

It might seem like a strange transition for Wills, who is the son of former Milwaukee Sentinel editor Bob Wills and had spent much of his life in urban areas. Wills himself refers to it as “insane” at times.

“I think I always was interested in it while my in-laws still owned it,” he added. “My favorite job before doing this was when I worked as a janitor at the Journal company. I could see what I had done at the end of the day. You can see the end product in this business. You can see what you have accomplished.”

Wills said Wisconsin, especially the southwestern part of the state, seems to be a pocket for others who have made that “insane” decision to produce organic and other products in an ecologically-friendly manner.

“Bob Wollersheim was a nuclear physicist and came out here to make wine,” Wills said of Wollersheim, who died in the last year. “It does seem like this area has its share of people who are doing these sorts of things. They’re not in it for the money alone.”

While Wills loves what he does, and is proud of working in concert with the environment, he is a realist.

First, he realizes that some big producers concentrate on quantity, and will cut corners by importing cheaper cheese powders from overseas and other methods. “I don’t criticize them because they are doing what they think they need to do to grow their business,” he said.

The organic food industry also is growing. “Organic is moving from small business to big business,” he said. “Dean Foods has become one of the biggest distributors of organic products, and others have become big.”

This trend does not necessarily mean that businesses like Cedar Grove Cheese and others are doomed. “That’s the challenge,” Wills said. “We are constantly trying to find ways to differentiate our products in the marketplace. It starts with the quality of the product, and that will always remain.

“Around here, we try to figure out where we’ll be three years from now, but we know we can’t stop there. It’s an ongoing process of making a quality product and trying to distinguish ourselves.”

And, through that process the machine continues as a living, breathing thing.


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