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Katie Hedrich, left, holds a baby goat while her bother, Greg, milks older does at the family farm near Chilton. Katie is one of the youngest cheesemakers in the state and last year won best of show at the U.S. Cheese Championships in Green Bay. This week, she will have her cheese sampled by an international panel of judges at the World Championship Cheese Contest at Monona Terrace in Madison.

CRAIG SCHREINER — State Journal

CHILTON — Some farmers play polka or country music to soothe their cows during the twice-daily milking routine.

Not so for the 325 goats at LaClare Farm just outside of Chilton. For this curious herd and its two handlers, the boom box last week was tuned to Appleton's WAPL-FM, one of the state's most powerful rock stations.

But the goats, who heard Head East, Pink Floyd and AC/DC, also had no idea they were being milked by one of the rising rock stars of cheesemaking.

At just 26, Katie Hedrich is off to an impressive start in a field dominated by men, many of whom are twice or more her age.

Last year, at the U.S. Cheese Championships in the atrium of Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Hedrich, then 25, took best of show with her Evalon, an aged hard goat's milk cheese, and became just the second female cheesemaker to win the award.

Starting Monday, Hedrich will put her chèvre, cheddar and Evalon (named after her grandmother) up against the best on the planet in the World Championship Cheese Contest at Monona Terrace in Madison.

All of this and she's been making cheese for just 2½ years.

"I really just want to get what the judges are saying and make (my cheese) better," Hedrich said as she worked alongside her 30-year-old brother, Greg. "It comes down to the milk and paying attention to details."

Hedrich's cheese will be sampled by an international panel of judges. This year, the contest, held every other year, will feature 2,503 cheeses and butters in 83 classes from 30 states and 24 countries. The winners will be announced Wednesday night at a $25 per ticket gala expected to draw 400 people to the convention center's ballroom.

Hedrich plans to attend but that wasn't the case in last year's contest in Green Bay.

Hedrich had no intention of going until she got a phone call from a panicked friend saying Hedrich's Evalon had made the top 12. Hedrich, who was on a sales call in nearby Neenah, made it just in time to hear the announcement that she was the U.S. champion.

Moments, later she was posing with first runner-up Jim Sartori, a third-generation cheesemaker of Sartori Cheese in Plymouth and his company's SarVecchio Parmesan, and second runner-up and Netherlands native Marieke Penterman, now 35, who makes a killer Gouda at her Holland's Family Cheese in Thorp, northeast of Eau Claire.

"It was pretty wild," Hedrich recalled. "Really, really wild."

Hedrich's success is also helping the family business. This spring, the family plans to use fourth generation family land on which to build a $4.5 million agriculture facility on the north side of the burg of Pipe. The 35,000-square-foot project will include a barn, 48-stanchion milking parlor, retail store, cafe and a creamery for Katie to make her cheese.

She has been renting space in other creameries, primarily Saxon Homestead Creamery in Cleveland, north of Sheboygan, but has also traveled as far as the Cedar Grove Cheese plant in Plain in southern Sauk County. The new plant will also serve as an incubator to help other aspiring cheesemakers.

"Her abilities in marketing and cheesemaking make her a strong portion of the business," said Katie's father, Larry Hedrich, 55. "There are so many pieces of the puzzle that have come together for us."

Larry and his wife began raising and showing goats in 1978 before starting to milk the animals commercially in 1996. At that time, the herd was 80 head and they had a goal of 150. The proposed facility will initially take their milking herd to 400, with plans for 600 in a few years and a maximum capacity of 900, making it one of the largest dairy goat operations in the state.

And it's a complete family operation.

Larry quit his longtime job with Lunda Construction in 2001 to devote all his time to farming and managing the six-farm Quality Dairy Goat Producers Cooperative. The co-op was formed to create standards for quality goat milk that is then sold collectively to buyers like Carr Valley Cheese in La Valle and Laloo's Goat Milk Ice Cream in Petaluma, Calif.

Larry's wife, Clara, milks, does other chores and has been a high school agriculture teacher for 35 years. Oldest child Anna, 32, manages the herd while Greg abandoned a career path headed toward a school superintendent position to rise early to milk goats and become the business manager of the expanding operation.

"It's a growing industry," Greg said. "There's a lot of opportunity."

Wisconsin is the largest producer of fluid goat milk in the country and production is on the rise.

In 2011, the state's 44,000 dairy goats in 190 herds produced 80 million pounds of milk. The majority for cheese. In 2007, state goats produced 27.6 million pounds of milk, according to Dan Considine, a goat farmer in Portage and president of the Wisconsin Dairy Goat Association. By comparison, the 1.3 million dairy cows in Wisconsin produced almost 2.3 billion pounds of milk just in January.

"I think that people like to work with goats," Considine said. "It's a growing cheese market and there's a place to go with it."

Katie Hedrich also changed careers.

She graduated from Northern Michigan University in Marquette in 2007 and worked as an assistant manager at Target in Appleton. But in 2009, everything changed.

In April of that year she attended a cheese conference in La Crosse. Her parents had asked Saxon to make cheese from their goats' milk and Katie attended the conference. It was there she met Gary Grossen, the master cheesemaker at Babcock Hall Dairy at UW-Madison. She began asking questions, and in May volunteered for two days at Saxon. She was all in after a trip with her parents to Holland in June where she toured several cheese plants. She then did a six-week apprenticeship with cheesemaker Nathan Dehne at Saxon before taking the lead on her own production.

"I was like 'this is what I'm going to do,'" Hedrich said. "It's been a really fast three years."

Barry Adams covers regional news for the State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at badams@madison.com.

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