By Ethan Giebel
Amongst the small businesses and homes of Belmont, population 986, sits the largest manufacturer of goat cheese in North America. Montchevré, which employs more than 200 people, is recognized as a leader in the goat cheese industry. Steady growth and quality milk have been part of the success story that is Montchevré goat cheese.
Coming to Wisconsin in 1989, Jean Rossard and his business partner Arnaud Solandt set up a cheese factory in rural Preston in Grant County. They soon began to outgrow their facilities in Preston and moved to their current location after another dairy manufacturer, Lactalis USA, moved to a newly constructed plant in Belmont. Since moving into the 30,000 square foot dairy plant in 1995, Montchevré expanded to encompass over 100,000 square feet. Growing facilities allowed Montchevré to go from processing less than 5,000 pounds of milk per week to more than 70 million pounds total in 2014. Next year, Rossard and Solandt hope that number is closer to 80 million pounds. It takes seven to eight pounds of milk to make one pound of fresh goat's cheese.
While Rossard focuses on the production end of the business, Solandt conducts the marketing for Montchevré from the companies' headquarters in California. Solandt had been a marketer of foreign cheeses in the United States for a number of years prior to the creation of Montchevré. Today, Montchevré cheeses can be found across the United States at a number of retailers and restaurants.
"I never thought it would grow to be this large," said Rossard, a native of France and son of a cheese maker. He not only grew up in the dairy business, Rossard went on to learn the art of cheese making from some of the best cheese makers in France. "Some people would say that we are living the American dream. Today we collect milk from over 350 producers on 25 routes in Wisconsin, Iowa, northern Missouri, northern Illinois and Minnesota." About seven years ago, Montchevré built a transfer station in Washington, Iowa, in order to better pool their milk supply and transport it to Wisconsin.
"For many of our first producers, milking goats was not their sole profession," said Rossard. "Today, we see that many of the farmers have made dairy goats their sole business. Making this a sustainable business for farmers is important to us. We can't make cheese without quality goat milk." Many farmers have between 300 and 400 goats. The largest farm on a Montchevré route has more than 2,000 goats. Since the market is still growing, there is room for farmers to produce more goat milk.
Eight years ago, Dennis and Elaine Schaaf made the choice to switch from milking cows to goats. Today, they milk about 250 goats on their Mineral Point farm with plans to move that number closer to 300. "Montchevré has been wonderful to work with," said Dennis. "They give us 12 months advance notice of what the price will be which allows us to set a budget. Not only does it pay higher, it is less physically demanding than milking cows. We visited over a dozen other goat farms before we finally decided to take the plunge."
"We don't take our producers for granted, we take their livelihood to heart," said Solandt. "Goat milk is a very strong market. Our market is growing at a rate of 15% annually. If we don't produce enough goat cheese here in the United States, consumers are willing to have it imported from other markets."
Price per hundredweight has been a key factor in attracting farmers to jump into the dairy goat business.
"In this industry, each creamery sets its own price," said Rossard. "We set the price at the beginning of the year for the months to come. Since production is very seasonal for dairy goats, we put a premium on milk over winter. Summer is the peak of production and for that reason; we have a slightly lower payout price. Premiums for high components, volume and plate count are also factored into a farmer's paycheck."
This winter, goat milk is fetching $42 per hundredweight while it will bring about $37 in the summer. "Prices for goat milk have never gone down, only up." Solandt says, "We are offering farmers the highest prices ever at this point. Attracting farmers who will produce more milk is one of our biggest challenges. We have actually been turning away new markets for our products simply because our current markets continue to grow and we cannot increase supply rapidly enough."
"Specialty cheeses are booming," said Rossard. "Today's consumers are still learning about their preferences and are very willing to try new products. There is room to grow in the specialty cheese market and goat cheese is definitely part of that. More and more competition continues to emerge amongst cheese makers to obtain milk and meet the demand. This is good for everybody as we are all increasing the quality of cheeses being produced."
Giebel is a student at UW-Platteville.