Bob Wills: A Cheese Innovator

Owner of Wisconsin’s Cedar Grove Cheese,
Bob Wills has worked hard for three decades
to stay at the forefront of cheesemaking.

One could say Bob Wills’ road to cheesemaking was a detour. He has worked as a post doctorate economics instructor and researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and also worked at the USDA in both Madison and Washington, D.C.

“Before that, I worked in congressional offices, for a state senator and even ran a campaign when I was young,” Wills says.

But he put academia and politics to the wayside when, 33 years ago, he took over his then wife’s family’s business, Cedar Grove Cheese, in Plain, WI.

“My in-laws wanted to retire,” he says. “I had an idea that I wanted to make something instead of pushing papers, so I took over their company in January of 1989. I got thrown in, working my way up from the bottom. I owned the place but had to find out how it worked.”

He started by washing vats, cleaning and repairing equipment, working with farm patrons and customers, billing and occasionally driving milk trucks, before learning to make cheese.

Cheese Connoisseur spoke with Wills about his fascinating journey becoming a world class cheesemaker and all that it has entailed.

CC: How does someone who is in politics and academia learn the ins and outs of cheesemaking?

B.W.: I had great mentors. My father-in-law, Ferdie Nachreiner, made cheese for 50 years or longer and had a lead cheesemaker, Dan Hetzel, who worked for the company for 54 years. He was a wizard who not only knew how to make cheese but also how to make it efficiently. I started with two experienced cheesemakers who worked here—one was a fairly young guy who constantly ran around working frenetically. In contrast, Dan would have three or four things accomplished as he crossed the room, He used as little energy as necessary to get a lot done; they were total opposites, but I saw there were different ways to approach the work that had to be done. By the time Dan retired, his eyesight was bad, but he could still tell what was going on by smell and taste. It was remarkable to see that skill. And, I learned that good cheesemaking involves all the senses.

CC: Describe Cedar Grove Cheese’s history and business philosophy.

B.W.: The business has been here since 1878, and there was a lot of built-in knowledge about traditional cheesemaking techniques, although it was already a fairly progressive business. Before I got here, there was a “tradition of innovating”. We adapted to where the market was going and took advantage of opportunities. We were the first cheese factory that got rid of canned milk and shifted to bulk tanks. The factory helped farmers to buy bulk tanks and finance them if they couldn’t buy them outright. Pumping was easier than lifting cans full of milk and so our business was able to grow. We also were one of the first small plants with a Grade A milk permit, which enabled us to sell fluid milk in bulk. Consequently, other small cheesemakers used us to qualify for market orders. We were ahead of the game with a lot of things.

CC: Cedar Grove Cheese also was a leader in the hormone recombinant bovine somatotropin free movement.

B.W.: Yes, we were the first cheese business in the U.S. to go rBGH free. Universities were treating some cows, and I had helped on the likely economic ramifications. I found out neither our farmers nor customers were happy with the idea of synthetic growth hormones being used on cows. So, we started labeling our products. We also were one of the first companies making organic cheese, which we viewed as a natural flow from rBGH-free. We have been innovative environmentally, including our Living Machine water treatment system and replacing our boiler with a high-efficiency model. Last year, we were the first cheese company in the country to switch over to electronic record keeping rather than using paper recording charts for our pasteurizing records.

CC: Your QR system was a gamechanger. How does it work?

B.W.: We put in an innovative QR code system to use tracking data in the production system and provide information to consumers or customers through QR codes that they can read on their phones. On cheese curds, the QR code reveals what time curds left the vat and the cheesemaker involved with it. We make more than 20,000 pounds a week of fresh cheddar cheese curds, so showing customers that these are the freshest cheese curds is nice for marketing. For other varieties of cheese, we can tie the QR code in with a recipe or pairing ideas. The information is constantly updated, so if there are controversies with cleaning chemicals or plastics, we can show our certifications. We had two vats of cheese this last year where there was uncertainty whether the cheese was adequately pasteurized. We didn’t need a recall; but, we put a note out through the QR code for those batches where we provided information on tests for pasteurization. If buyers were concerned, they could return the product. It’s great to have the capability of providing new information on batches of cheese already out in the marketplace. The next step we’re working on is to tie these codes back to individual farms where the milk came from. We’re proud of partnerships with farmers and their efforts on carbon sequestration or raising GMO-free certification. We want to use the QR code to share that information with our customers, as well.

CC: You’ve been active in the cheese community, being able to tap into your education and government experience. Tell us about your involvement.

B.W.: I was on the American Cheese Society (ACS) Board for six years, and that was very rewarding. I also was chair of the American Cheese Education Foundation, where we helped raise funds for scholarships for training new cheesemakers, cheesemongers and various other activities. I was involved with the Academic and Regulatory Committee, which wrote a substantial “Best Practices for Safe Cheese Making” document for new and veteran cheesemakers. It’s primarily focused on food safety practices.

I have served on sustainable agriculture committees and chaired USDA’s North Central Region SARE committee. I also chaired the citizen’s advisory group for the Center for Integrated Agriculture Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I was on the USDA’s Dairy Industry Advisory Committee and got to share ideas with farmers and business people from all over the country. Being involved in policy making and food safety for the industry has helped me translate academia and government experience into knowledge and policy proposals for other cheesemakers.

CC: What are your thoughts on the challenges the cheese industry is currently facing?

B.W.: I’m generally optimistic about everything, but there is scary stuff going on. When I first got into this business, I worried how long it would take for researchers to figure out how to eliminate dairy farms from the cheese equation. In the last several years, that technology has developed to a point of being commercially available. I did a session at the ACS conference in Virginia a few years ago on that subject and watched the investment money pouring in for companies producing new products like dairy proteins without cows. Some “milk” is being produced in big vats and is reportedly indistinguishable from what cows are making. Other companies are just making select components of milk.

I’m not clear on what the economics will be. Proponents argue that the fermentation-created milk analogs are vegan, safer, more environmentally friendly and can be customized to users’ needs. The microbial processes need feedstock and there will be logistical challenges and locational decisions.

But, production of whey proteins seems to be the easiest process. I’m concerned with what will happen if cheesemakers lose the market for whey solids. Not only will the revenue from whey be unavailable to pay farmers, but nine-tenths of milk volume could be a disposal issue again. I started in the business before there was much market for whey. We were fortunate to have a local pig farm that fed the whey. Many other small factories closed because of environmental concerns with whey disposal. If fermentation-created dairy proteins take hold, this could happen again.

CC: What makes you excited about the cheese industry today?

B.W.: I love the way consumers are excited about the wide variety of cheese available, the ways they can be used and the international varieties adapting to the U.S. market. We took cheese that’s cooked in a hibachi on the Brazilian beach and brought it here. I call it Chees-E-Que but the Brazilian name is Cualho. We added spices used by our local meat plant for bratwurst and submitted the cheese at ACS for its competition. It received not only first place, but the first perfect score that I have ever had. It integrates Japan, Brazil, Germany and Wisconsin into a delicious product.

We also sell a lot of Quark. People love it for its versatility. Quark is a popular cheese in Europe and has enormous upside potential for the U.S. It has sweet and savory applications. Quark can replace yogurt and be served with fruit and granola. A local restaurant adapted it for crab rangoon. It’s traditionally used in German cheesecake, Kasekuchen. Local chefs are using it on pizza, in blintzes, omelets and to top bagels. We offer a bunch of flavor variations. My favorite, which took second at the Wisconsin state fair, adds a South African Braai chutney.

CC: Talk about your collaborations and the benefits derived from these.

B.W.: We view ourselves somewhat as a cheese incubator. Many cheesemakers or potential cheesemakers come to Cedar Grove Cheese and Clock Shadow Creamery. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture sends people and so does the UW Center for Dairy Research. They have referred quite a few projects to us over the years. We share our plant with many other cheesemakers. At both the World Cheese Championship and American Cheese Society contest, other companies that use our plant won more awards than our company. This year, award-winning collaborations included Hill Valley Cheese, Cesar’s Cheese, Landmark Creamery and Capri Cheese. It is inspiring working with them. Some of these cheesemakers worked and lived in Switzerland or Mexico. We have also had interns and employees from Japan, The Netherlands, Honduras, France, The Gambia and other countries.

We work with individual farms, taking their milk and converting it into cheese. We try to make products that reflect their history, tradition or family. One farm is doing just grazing to feed their cows; one is making A2 milk; another had a herd of purebred Jersey cows. The Koepke’s won environmental awards, and their farm has been in the family more than 110 years. We took a recipe to combine Butterkase and Gouda and made LaBelle, a cheese they named after a local lake. The farms do the marketing but we handled the process of finding a product that highlights their heritage, the attributes of cows and feed, and the high quality of their milk.

Mike Gingrich started here, and his Pleasant Ridge Reserve was the first Grand Champion (of his four times) with cheese made in our plant. We helped get him trained and licensed before he went off on his own to start Uplands cheese. We still keep in touch with him and Andy Hatch, who took over that factory. We feel like they are family. We can’t take credit for what visiting cheesemakers do but we are proud we had some role. Our primary goal has been to find ways to create opportunity for others. But, we benefit from learning with them. We learn more cheesemaking skills and more cheese styles.

CC: Talk about Cedar Grove Cheese’s operations today.

B.W.: This September 25th, we are celebrating the 10-year anniversary of opening my second plant, Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee. That cheese factory was one of the first urban cheese factories in the country. In design, it modeled the back room at Cedar Grove Cheese, where we had a small vat, initially set up to make buffalo milk cheese, and customized aging. Once the buffalo were no longer being milked, the room became a pilot plant and a space for making small batches of sheep and goat cheese. In Milwaukee, we kept the flexibility of small batches. We also built one of the greenest manufacturing plants, with rain water collection, energy-generating elevators and geothermal heating. And, we helped to revitalize a low-income part of the city. Collaborating with local chefs and breweries, and interacting with neighbors and tourists gave us better feedback and understanding of opportunities in the cheese world. That knowledge has helped us become better at both Cedar Grove Cheese and Clock Shadow Creamery.

CC: What cheeses are on the upswing currently?

B.W.: We are doing a lot of sheep milk cheese; it’s delicious. In some ways, people either love or hate goat milk, but I haven’t found anyone who hates sheep milk. The hardest part is overcoming expectations that it will taste like goat milk. There also is a price issue. The animals don’t produce much milk compared to cows, so is pretty expensive. It’s always a specialty market but it’s growing as people are experimenting with new cheese milk varieties. Mixed milk cheese, like Montague, which won awards at both the state fair and ACS this year, brings many of the positive aspects of sheep milk and help keep the cost a bit lower.

I like water buffalo milk the best. We created Weird Sisters cheese, which was half water buffalo and half cow’s milk. I made it at the beginning and end of the season due to the low buffalo milk volume. It’s a European-style cheese that we aged out in wheels. It was so good, we are still getting many requests for it, but we can’t find any water buffalo milk to make it.

The organic cheese market has also been very strong. We are seeing a lot of interest in aged organic cheddar. As the organic market grows, there are increasing opportunities for specialties like Gouda, Fontina and Muenster. Organic cheese builds on consumers’ interests in health and climate change.

CC: What do you predict for the future of the industry?

B.W.: I worry about the loss of small farms and what that means for the specialty cheese business. My trucks have to drive farther to pick up milk because so many farms have gone out of business. There are several reasons small farms are failing, but one contributing factor is the federal milk market order system, administered by USDA for big dairy cooperatives. We have the most antiquated and complicated milk marketing system than I can possibly imagine. It is hurting small farms and dairy business as well as consumers.

Per capita consumption and total sales of fluid milk have been dropping for decades. There is more and more competition in the beverage arena. At the same time, the market orders put a tax on fluid milk. Artificially raising milk prices and the advantages given to large coops in the milk pricing arena are killing the small farms. No one is connecting the dots between small farms being put out of business and companies like mine having a harder time sourcing milk. Small plants either buy from large companies with premium prices or travel long distances to buy directly from small farmers. I’m concerned that we’ll learn too late. We already lost a huge percentage of farms in this country, and no one is making moves to make this trend stop.

On the bright side, we have made great strides in food safety. Cheese quality and varieties are better than ever. People are excited about the new opportunities and are buying more cheese. Companies like mine continue to find our niches, innovating and leading the way. The cheese industry has some of the nicest and most generous people in any business. Collaborations between established companies and innovative newcomers are becoming more common. I have worked with the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy on food safety resources funded by large companies to help artisan dairy manufacturers. I’m hoping small companies that work with us can remain viable. I know their challenges with costs, marketing and getting product into stores that are increasingly demanding and picky. So, we help spread food safety programs and information systems. In the end, it is these small companies that will inaugurate new ideas and inventions that will help our industry thrive.

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