Stephanie Clark: Champion of Cheese

The Iowa State University professor bestows her passion for dairy onto her students while making a difference in the industry.

Although Stephanie Clark is Virginia M. Gladney Professor for Ames, Iowa-based Iowa State University’s department of food science and human nutrition, it’s not her only role.

Admittedly one who stretches herself thin, Clark also serves as interim director for the Midwest Dairy Foods Research Center as well as director of the university’s new creamery, which she reinstated last summer after it was closed down for five decades. This doesn’t even include her involvement with the American Cheese Society (ACS), the American Dairy Science Association and Institute of Food Technologists as well as serving as editor of a new edition of “The Sensory Evaluation of Dairy Products”.

Clark knew she would be involved with animals in some form since she was a child. She grew up on a small Massachusetts farm with sheep, chickens, a couple of geese and sometimes a steer, a cow or pigs.

“This was a hobby farm, not a business,” she says. “When I was seven years old, my mom bought me a Nubian dairy goat kid for my birthday; that’s how it all began. Dairy goats became my primary 4-H project and passion.

Clark’s journey from the farm to becoming a professor at one of the country’s most reputable agricultural universities proves that turning a passion into a career is possible.

CC: How did your career unfold?

S.C.: My first goat, Hillary, was the beginning of my path. My college entrance exam was titled, “Thank You, Hillary”, and the dedication for my Master’s degree thesis was the same. When goats grow up, you breed them. When Hillary had kids, we had milk, and my mom and I started making cheese. Early on, I did a science project on goat cheese and had people taste it. This was always an interest, but at that time I had no idea food science was a possible career. I initially planned on being a vet because I thought that’s what you do when you love animals, and my guidance counselors at that time hadn’t heard of food science.

CC: When did your path change?

S.C.: I went to Cornell University in 1986, majoring in animal science to be a vet. During my second semester sophomore year, I found out I could do undergraduate research. So, I went to my adviser and told her I wanted to do undergraduate research on goat milk. She said the department didn’t work with milk, that this was what the food science department did. She sent me to a professor in food science, and I met my future adviser, who was thrilled with me wanting to do undergrad research on goat milk. I finished my degree, then was funded by the American Dairy Goat Association for my research work on goat’s milk for my Master’s degree in food science. I continued to have ideas for what I wanted to do next, so I stayed at Cornell for my PhD. I ended up with one animal science and two food science degrees, all related to goat milk and cheese.

CC: Was teaching always the plan?

S.C.: It was through 4-H experiences when I realized I loved teaching and sharing my knowledge. I gained experience teaching and with public presentations on goat milk and cheese. I remember often defending goats, explaining that they are curious animals, not dirty animals that eat everything in sight. I’ve always had a passion for goat milk and dairy in general.

CC: Where did you end up after college?

S.C.: Because I love teaching, I was able to gain experience in my graduate education. When it came time to apply for jobs in 1997, I knew I wanted to be a professor. I didn’t think I’d get a job right away, so I applied to industry jobs, as well. I had an interview at Washington State University right out of college. I didn’t do a post-doctoral program, which is what people typically do before becoming a professor. Instead, I hit the ground running at WSU in the spring of 1998. I taught and did research and extension work. I was happy there, doing cheesemaking workshops and short courses, with some outside of the university, as well. The university has its own creamery, which is famous for Cougar Cheese. And it’s a good education being a part of universities that have creameries as part of their facilities.

CC: How did you arrive at Iowa State University?

S.C.: In the spring of 2009, got a call from colleagues at Iowa State University about a new opportunity. The more I learned about the position, the more I thought it might be a good fit. I didn’t want to be at one place for my entire career. I knew diversity is important in the work force as well as in experiences to better prepare students for their careers. In the fall of 2009, I left WSU to go to Iowa State. It’s funny, I’ve been at all three places—Cornell, Washington State and Iowa State—for 11 years each, in my 33-year career with dairy foods.

CC: Talk about your accomplishments at ISU.

S.C.: Iowa State did not have a creamery, so that was a big change. When I came here, they hired me to do dairy and sensory evaluation research and teaching. They did have some creamery equipment because the university had a creamery built back in 1927. Iowa State has a long history of dairy food production, and the building I’m in still has the name Dairy Industry on it. However, back in the 1960s, dairy producers in the area were claiming that Iowa State’s program was causing unfair competition. This was because state universities aren’t taxed in the same fashion as non-state entities. So, ISU’s creamery was shut down in 1969. I found this lack of dairy production at the university frustrating. Students would come here interested in dairy, and I couldn’t provide the total experience with production and marketing. This was limiting, so approximately seven years ago, I started re-establishing Iowa State’s creamery. The process has taken a lot of time because I am making a concerted effort that this creamery not be perceived as unfair competition. I want to make it clear to farmers, entrepreneurs and established companies that Iowa State and I are interested in educating students and helping dairy producers succeed. We are here to help, not compete. When dairy’s reputation is positive, all dairy producers and processors do better.

CC: Why did you start the creamery with ice cream?

S.C.: There are multiple aspects of dairy foods’ inputs and outputs. Although my greatest love is cheese, we started with ice cream because it is essentially a no waste product. All ingredients you put in stay in the ice cream. In fact, you get MORE out than you put in! By adding air, there is a greater return on the dollar. With cheese, 90% of the product is whey, so there is more input than you have output. With our micro-creamery, we don’t have the ability to utilize the whey, so this ends up being a by-product. We plan to offer our liquid whey to pig farmers, but essentially 90% of our input does not go to human customers. Cheese is still a value-added product, but starting with ice cream recovers our startup costs much faster than cheese can.

CC: What’s the plan for cheesemaking at Iowa State?

S.C.: We will be starting to make cheese this spring and are training students how now. All of our ice cream does, and cheeses will, reflect or highlight Iowa State people, traditions and places. For example, our mint chocolate flake ice cream, “Wintersgreen”, honors our current, and first woman university president, Dr. Wendy Wintersteen. Our first aged cheddar cheese will be shaped like a cyclone, the university’s mascot, and dipped in cardinal red or gold wax (our school colors). This is a specialty/novelty product, unique to Iowa State. We will start off with cheddar because that’s what customers are asking for at our store. That’s a cheese people know, it’s familiar, and it is easy to train students to make.

CC: What is the Iowa Quality Dairy Products Showcase?

S.C.: A lot of people do not realize how many dairy products are made in Iowa. In 2015, I started the Iowa Quality Dairy Products Showcase to recognize and promote high-quality workmanship and pride in Iowa-made dairy products. Winning products are showcased at the Iowa State Fair, next to the famous butter cow. The contest has grown every year, and this year will include butter, cheese curds, cow cheese, goat and/or sheep cheese, cultured dairy products and dairy beverages classes. A huge line of fairgoers que up to see the butter cow and other butter sculptures and see the Iowa-made products. That has been a good promotion of Iowa dairy products and individual companies.

CC: You serve as a source of information, not just for your students, but for the dairy industry.

S.C.: Yes, I’m also on call for consulting. Any person interested in dairy products and processing can call and ask for my help. I’m available and open to helping. I visit plants to train in product defect identification, provide feedback on products, troubleshoot or whatever. People in the industry don’t have to wait for a contest to enter their products to get my feedback. If you need my assistance or have a safety issue, I am here. I don’t always have answers, but will try to guide. It’s clear to those in the state that they know I will help them. I established that in my first few years in Iowa. I wanted to make it clear that I am here to help and that the creamery is not going to compete. Its purpose is to help students gain dairy experience and prepare them for careers in the dairy industry.

CC: What are you most proud of?

S.C.: I’m proud of getting Iowa State’s creamery up and running. It has been a huge undertaking with lots of roadblocks. We had our grand opening on Aug. 21, 2020 and sold our first scoop of ice cream that day. It was exciting! I’m proud of our students and the quality of dairy students I’ve trained to go into the industry, even though we didn’t have a fully functioning creamery prior to this fall. I’m excited for what the future will bring. The micro-creamery is just a very small facility inside a larger facility, but we have already trained at least 10 students to take on jobs in the industry, many more students than if we didn’t have this creamery; I’m proud of that. Dairy companies need experienced students, and I can say these students are much more ready because they have experience producing and marketing products, not just book learning.

CC: Talk about your involvement with the American Cheese Society.

S.C.: I have been ACS’ Judging & Competition technical advisor since 2011, helping to plan the event, answering questions regarding categorization, receiving products, judging techniques training, etc. ACS has been a huge part of my service to the industry. I also was the chair of the Judging & Competition committee for two years and co-chair of the Des Moines conference in 2016.

CC: What can you tell me about “The Sensory Evaluation of Dairy Products” book?

S.C.: I instigated publishing the second edition of the book back in 2008. The 1988 book was great, but was a bit outdated. We are actually now working on the next edition of it. It’s a huge undertaking, as there are over 20 chapters on all types of dairy, from cottage cheese to mozzarella, and we are adding chapters on goat and sheep cheeses and washed rind cheeses and other dairy products. The third edition of “Sensory Evaluation of Dairy Products” will be out in 2022. This is just another way cheese is a big part of my life.

CC: What do you wish you would have done differently or changed if you could?

S.C.: I would’ve taken more food science and business classes and maybe taken a sabbatical. But I don’t know how I’d fit it in. It would’ve been great to be an apprentice of a cheesemaker in France or Italy. I’ve been to both countries, and I served in Armenia three times to help with cheese-making practices there. I’ve taught dairy-making practices in China, but I haven’t been a pupil. I think it would have benefitted me to do that. I like to learn.

CC: What do you like best about your career?

S.C.: I love working with students. I coach a dairy product development team because I like seeing the creative ideas and the energy and sense of wonder students have. When they’re excited about what they’re learning, it energizes me. I’m a passionate person and like sharing my passion with others.

CC: What do you love best about cheese?

S.C.: I never tire of the coagulation process. I love cutting the curd and checking it to see if it’s ready. This has always been magical to me. One of my hobbies is to paint cheese. I do acrylics and oil paintings and have been known to use Cheese Connoisseur magazine photos as subjects of my paintings. A friend of mine and I have called these magazines cheese porn because the photos are so pretty! I love the look of cheese, so I enjoy painting it. There are so many kinds and ways to enjoy it.

CC: What do you want people to know about cheese?

S.C.: There are misperceptions of cheese being fattening. Cheese is loaded with nutrients and is a natural source of nutrition that humans benefit from. One of my lectures that I keep revising and sharing publicly with various audiences is called “Big Fat Lie”. I talk about how cheese has been maligned throughout the years as being unhealthy. In this presentation, I share at least 65 peer-reviewed documents showing how dairy products, including full-fat dairy products, have a beneficial impact on health. Cheese is good for you.

CC: What is your favorite cheese?

S.C.: My favorite cheese is constantly changing, but I love Manchego and the buttery lanolin notes that come out of it. It has a luscious mouth feel when it’s aged just right.

CC: How has the current dairy climate impacted the industry as a whole?

S.C.: I was seeing this morning in Wisconsin that the food manufacturers, dairy being one of them, is on the third tier of vaccinations for COVID-19. It makes me wonder why food manufacturers are still considered on a lower tier in terms of importance. We’re feeding the world, so I was disappointed more than surprised. People take their food for granted and don’t realize the close quarters we work in. We know our food manufacturers have been largely and disproportionately getting sick. In the dairy industry, we know how to be sanitary and have practices in place. We’ve done a lot better than the meat industry due to sanitary environments and know how to do it right. In fact, we’ve had dairy companies that had no absences due to the virus because of the practices they have in place. But farmers are hurting, and it’s heartbreaking the number of farms closing and young people not getting into the industry. Robotic milkers have freed people to have ‘normal’ lives, so young people may be more willing to go back to the farms since there is more potential for quality of life. Also, artisan cheesemaking is becoming on trend for people who realize they don’t like the rat race. People are coming back who weren’t there to begin with, so there are bright spots among the challenges. I’m hopeful the dairy industry will remain strong. We need to do a better job, dairy folks, of promoting ourselves. The dairy industry is falling behind due to lack of risk taking in marketing and promotion. We need to see innovation in that area, or we can’t compete with plant-based foods. People like the stories we artisans have to share so that’s exciting to see and a reason to have hope.

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