OSSEO — It certainly didn’t hurt to start a creamery in Wisconsin, but cheese-making was in Inga Witscher’s blood long before she ever settled in the dairy state.
“I always had that cheese-making experience and that love of cheese in the back of my mind,” Inga said as she reclined on a deck chair on her farm, St. Isidore’s Mead, just south of Osseo. “I’m a lover of artisan cheeses, especially American artisan cheeses where that milk is coming from a single source of cows. Everything’s happening right there on the farm. So I always knew that I wanted to do something like that.”
A fourth-generation dairy farmer originally from Washington state, Inga’s family moved to Wisconsin in the 90s to escape Seattle’s rapidly growing urban sprawl.
They’ve been operating a small dairy operation here ever since, always with a strong emphasis on sustainability and organic, pasture-fed dairy products. A small herd of Jersey cows roam the Witschers’ acreage in Trempealeau County, a picturesque region of rolling hills checkered with fields and forested bluffs.
In 2013, she took her passions to PBS Wisconsin, where she hosts “Around the Farm Table,” a food and farming show intended to connect consumers to organic, locally-sourced food products with a mixture of interviews, education and entertaining story-telling.
But, despite setbacks, Inga always had her eyes on cheese making.
With her father, Rick Witscher, Inga built a creamery on the property, completing it in 2018 — shortly before a fire in November consumed the barn, milk shed and the creamery in a devastating blaze. That was only days before they planned to start making cheese.
Inga and her family rebuilt the barn and designed a new creamery. Last year COVID created a hallmark year for hobbies across the world. It wasn’t different for the Witschers, who concentrated their energies on fine-tuning the cheese-making process during the pandemic.
The result? An artisan cheddar — often termed as “farmstead cheese,” “raw-milk cheddar,” or “traditionally British” — crafted with milk from hand-milked, pasture-fed cows, with virtually no additives.
Using few ingredients and techniques as old as civilization, the cheese is produced with cloth wrappings in a cooled chamber intended to mimic the conditions of a cave. Every few days, the Witschers spread and knead the tough exterior, or brine, into the cheese. The cheese is aged for a year before its ready for retail.
The resulting taste is delicate and smooth, with a bit of sharpness that lingers on the tongue. Its complex flavors come from the cow’s grass-fed diet and the brine, which means it has to be coaxed along naturally during the aging process. This isn’t a factory-made cheddar, where flavors and coloring are artificially added.
“What we feel makes our cheese unique and incredibly tasty is that the cows have a mostly grass-fed diet, so they’re grazing on some native grasses,” Inga said. “They’re also grazing on some beautiful clovers that we’ve hand seeded in throughout the years.”
This is a cheese best served on a platter at room temperature, perhaps with wine and crackers or bread. At $40 a pound, typically sold in quarter sections at $10, Inga noted this isn’t a cheese meant to be casually picked up at a supermarket. It’s a distinctive, artfully crafted experience.
Of course, Inga added, it tastes great on burgers as well.
“It’s about the celebration of eating cheese,” Inga said. “We’re really just making the one cheese in the traditional way that it’s been made since forever.”
But, it’s more than simply making cheese as a personal hobby. Inga and her father said it is their hope that St. Isidore’s Dairy Farmstead Cheese creamery can serve as an example for other small dairies. The creamery leans on the production of six Jersey cows on 30 acres of land, yet it’s able to sustain itself by catering to a narrow, niche market.
That’s the key, said Rick, who pointed to California’s Napa Valley wine culture. Tiny, family-owned vineyards have thrived for decades by selling unique wines to customers.
In a day where giant corporate dairies dominate, he said, small family-owned operations don’t have to compete with the big dairies. By operating a creamery, they can establish a solid, loyal base of customers for their artisan dairy products.
It’s also worth noting that small family-owned creameries used to be incredibly common across Wisconsin into the mid-20th century. Rick and Inga both said they hope to help spark a revival of that model.
In the end, it’s a matter of partnerships — whether that’s leaning on other farmers for help, or cultivating strong relationships with local communities in the area.
“We’re hoping to be able to help guide other farmers and say, ‘This is what’s working, this is what didn’t work,’” Inga said. “It’s a whole different style of cheese and why not do an artisan cheese, because you can set yourself apart with a story so differently. Folks are thinking outside the box and really building this trail.”