Farm produces award-winning cheeses in the heart of Wisconsin’s Dairyland
For Andy Hatch, there is an image that sticks in his mind: Last spring, his wife, Caitlin, and their farming partner, Liana Mericka, cared for the nearly 200 calves born on Uplands’ farm in April and May, while simultaneously nurturing their own babies. Liana had her infant strapped on her back, while Caitlin’s toddler slept close-by.
It pulls together themes in Hatch’s life as a parent, husband, farmer, businessman and cheesemaker — such as dedication and renewal. There is an easy analogy to be made regarding the round-the-clock commitment needed in both endeavors: raising a child and running a dairy farm, he says.
“It’s amazing every spring to see that surge of life and energy in the barn,” says Hatch, “and now the same thing is happening in our houses.”
Since he was a kid, Hatch, 35, wanted to milk cows on a farm. That ambition eventually led him to what he is doing today — producing Pleasant Ridge Reserve, one of the most celebrated cheeses in America.
Along with Scott and Liana Mericka, Andy and Caitlin Hatch run the dairy farm that turns out an average of 80 wheels daily — a small amount by cheesemaking standards — at 10 pounds each. Scott milks the cows, Andy makes the cheese, and their wives raise the calves. Although the state of Wisconsin is synonymous with dairy farming and cheesemaking, it is rare to find a farm that produces both milk and cheese, says Hatch.
It’s this dual function that gives Uplands’ Pleasant Ridge Reserve — an Alpine-style cheese, and Rush Creek Reserve — a soft, raw-milk cheese, a fresher taste, he says. Pleasant Ridge is produced from May through October, while Rush Creek is made in the fall when the cows’ diet changes to hay.
“I like to say that I was foolish enough to want to make a living milking cows, but smart enough not to jump into it without a trick up my sleeve,” says Hatch. “ I could see that it would be nearly impossible for me to start from scratch and make a good living by selling commodity milk. It just so happened that I stumbled into cheesemaking, found that I was good at it, and realized that it could transform the economics of buying and running a dairy farm.”
Home On The Ridge
The Hatches and Merickas are raising their young families on the farm. Located on a land formation called Pleasant Ridge in Dodgeville, it is in the Driftless area of southwestern Wisconsin. Untouched by glaciers, the mostly rural region is characterized by rolling hills and thin soil. While the topography makes it difficult to plant crops, it is perfect for grazing cows, says Hatch, who grew up in southeastern Wisconsin.
“When the cows eat fresh pasture, it produces milk with a more intense flavor which in turn, makes better-tasting cheese,” he says. “There are many benefits including the ecological benefits to the cows of being outside and eating a natural grass diet. But the real beauty is in the flavor of the milk that is produced when the cows are on fresh pasture.”
For Hatch, it’s a matter of being able to control the quality of the milk. “It may seem like the cart is dragging the horse, but we need the best milk in order to produce a certain kind of cheese, as opposed to adding value to the milk by turning it into cheese,” he says. “We are so particular about the milk. You can’t get that kind of quality unless you are controlling the animals every day.”
Cows are milked throughout the spring, summer and fall. By Christmas, Mericka stops milking the cows. From Christmas Eve through March the around-the-clock workday slows down — to only 40 to 50 hours a week. What most would consider an average, if not time-intensive, work-week is like a vacation to Hatch.
“We’re still aging a whole year’s worth of cheese and selling cheese, but it’s a chance to rest and do some strategic thinking. When you’re milking twice a day, every single day, and cheesemaking every single day, it’s hard to step back and evaluate.”
While most of Uplands’ success is due to hard work, Hatch says much of his personal success can be credited to timing — even when it didn’t seem advantageous.
While studying dairy science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Hatch hoped to work for Mike Gingrich, who began Uplands Cheese. “I contacted Mike early on because I really wanted to learn from him.” But such a small operation did not warrant an apprentice, so Hatch went to Europe to learn cheesemaking and worked with other Wisconsin cheesemakers.
Ready To Learn
When Gingrich was ready to hire an apprentice in 2007, Hatch was ready to learn — with youthful enthusiasm and newly acquired knowledge. In 2009, when Hatch thought he was ready to buy the farm, he did not have the funds. In 2010, when he became the manager, he realized how much he still needed to learn about dairy farming, cheesemaking and running a business.
When Hatch was looking for someone to milk the cows, Scott Mericka was looking for someplace to milk cows. Hatch put out an ad in agricultural newspapers. “It was kind of a ‘farmer looking for love’ ad,” laughs Hatch.
By the time Gingrich was ready to sell in 2014, Hatch and Mericka were ready to make a joint investment. They purchased the business and took over the functions previously held by the former owners. Today, Uplands employs 10 people, part-time and fulltime.
For a farm like this to be passed to someone who is not family is extremely rare in these parts, says Hatch. “It made me feel even luckier that the timing worked out so well.”
He may be in a region called Driftless, but Hatch is anything but. In fact, Hatch has always been on track to become a dairy farmer, even though his parents had not been dairy farmers, nor did they make cheese. “My parents had lived in Switzerland and always had Gruyère and other Alpine cheeses in the house. I was always fascinated with dairy farming and I’m just in love with this style of cheese.”
Uplands’ prepares Pleasant Ridge Reserve in that same Alpine style. “It’s our bread and butter,” says Hatch.
It’s really simple, says Hatch, who breaks cheesemaking into three segments: milking, cheesemaking (turning milk into curd) and ripening. Many cheesemakers put the emphasis on the second step, but not enough on the other two.
“There are hundreds of good cheesemakers in Wisconsin, but not many of them work with our type of milk and not many put the time, energy and money into ripening it the way we do,” says Hatch, who ages his cheese in ripening rooms built into the creamery. Hatch and Mericka wash the rind by hand several times a week in a brine solution, which encourages the development of certain bacteria on the cheese rinds.
While the cryovac method of aging cheese is a great way to manufacture an inexpensive and consistent product, Hatch says it does not allow for the development of flavor complexities. “Ripening cheese like we do — with a natural rind for up to a year — is very rare. It brings the flavor potential to its full expression.”
Hatch describes the taste of Pleasant Ridge as an Alpine style cheese like Gruyère and Beaufort. “I never set out to emulate something exactly, but you would recognize it instantly as an Alpine cheese. Because it is aged a year, it is dry and a little granular, with a fudgy texture. It’s dry, but still soft in your mouth, with a range of savory and sweet flavors. Some batches will be meaty and brothy, while others will be nutty like a hazelnut or cashew.”
A Fresh Start
Cows have been milked here for more than 100 years, but it was hard to make a living. It wasn’t until the mid-90s, when Mike and Carol Gingrich began rotationally grazing their cows, that the land really found its purpose.
The Gingriches bought the 300-acre farm in 1994, and invited their neighbors Dan and Jeanne Patenaude to partner with them. Carol’s brother, Bill Murphy, a professor at the University of Vermont, advocated a method of sustainable agriculture called rotational grazing — moving the cows multiple times a day to ensure they are always eating the freshest grass possible. “We shopped around for the ideal piece of ground, with no roads or creeks, and found this one on top of a knoll with grazeable land,” says Mike Gingrich, who had farmed cows on a smaller farm before moving to Uplands.
Gingrich began to dabble in cheesemaking and eventually developed the Uplands cheese business. The name reflects the region’s unusual landscape. He began selling Pleasant Ridge Reserve in spring 2000, and it was a winner. Production doubled every year and Gingrich soon realized he needed help.
“Andy was conscientious about doing things the right way and he wanted to make great cheese,” says Gingrich, who has retired to Madison, WI. “The longer he worked for me, the more confident I got. He has kept the customer base happy and tried hard to keep consistent flavors.”
One difference in their styles: Gingrich aged the cheese for five months, while Hatch ages Pleasant Ridge for a year. The method, culture and milk quality have stayed the same, although Hatch says it is always evolving.
Pleasant Ridge has won Best of Show in the American Cheese Society’s (ACS) annual competition in 2001, 2005 and 2010 — the only cheese to have earned that honor three times. It also won the U.S. Cheese Championships in 2003, which makes it the only cheese to have ever won both of these national cheese competitions. At the 2015 ACS awards in July, Pleasant Ridge placed in two categories: farmstead and washed rind.
A seasonal cheese, Rush Creek Reserve was an immediate hit when the first batch was sold in 2010. While studying cheesemaking in France, Hatch learned to make Vacherin Mont d’Or, a cheese with a similar consistency to Rush Creek. Due to U.S. regulations, raw milk cheese has to be aged for 60 days, which meant Hatch had to tinker with the recipe to allow for longer aging.
Bound in spruce bark, Rush Creek has a woodsy sweetness. The texture is gooey, soft and custardy, with a taste that Hatch describes as “very hammy, salty and smoky.”
Rush Creek is available in a limited quantity since the milk comes from one herd of cows. “The cheese has always had more demand than we have been able to supply,” says Hatch. “It was wild from the start. The New York Times covered its release and from that moment we had to create a waiting list.”
Last year, Uplands decided not to make Rush Creek to avoid being caught up in the testing of raw milk cheeses by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “The season would be over before the test results came back,” says Hatch, who was reluctant to make Rush Creek, only to have its short, six-week season be interrupted.
Aside from a significant financial impact, Hatch was also concerned how the decision would affect Rush Creek’s fans. “The cheese has such a following and our customers had to do without. We disappointed a lot of people and that didn’t feel good.”
This year, since the FDA has finished gathering its testing data, Rush Creek is back. Hatch is making it in September and October, to be sold in November and December. CC