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Artisan creamery lays blueprint for small dairy success

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.”

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Lost and found in Lake Hallie

Here’s what I know has been lost in the bottom of Lake Hallie. Three pairs of my reading glasses and one beater from my electric mixer. More hooks, bobbers, lures and other fishing gear than you could count. Thousands of balls from Lake Hallie Golf. Jewelry, like my neighbors Sue Mertens’ and Marion Mecikalski’s diamond rings and likely countless others.

Here’s what’s been found: About 1,000 golf balls a summer for over 50 years for Marion and her husband, scooped out of the shallows with a butterfly net. One pair of my glasses and my beater; one of those lost rings.

Dave Mecikalski arrived unannounced at a girl’s house after she showed interest in what their mutual friend pitched as “a chance to date an outdoorsman.” He and Marion have been together ever since.

They bought their house on Lake Hallie in 1967 and moved in after getting married. Marion was 18, and Dave was 20. A few years later, while Marion’s family visited, she gave her wedding ring to her brother for their mother to hold. Marion never swam in her jewelry for fear of losing it. While she was cooling off in the lake, she noticed her brother raking the grass. Before he’d handed his sister’s precious ring off to Mom, he flipped it in the air and caught it. Flipped it higher in the air and lost it coming down.

In the days that followed Dave ran a metal detector over every blade of grass in a grid pattern throughout their yard. Later he brought home a military-grade mine detector that could search underwater. He found nothing but every screw, nail or wire ever dropped into that part of Lake Hallie.

Marion continues their story: “Twenty-six months later, on the 30th of October, Dave and his dad were taking the boats out after a belly-washer of a rain.”

There were three holes in the bank near where the ring was lost. That heavy rain flushed everything out. Dave tells me, “I looked down and there it was, sparkling up at me in about six inches of water.” How many times in those past two years had his eyes scanned their yard and beach for that ring? At first he thought he’d found another pop-top from a beer can.

He says, “I never gave up looking.” Marion adds, “It was a shock.” She put the ring back on next to her replacement band and wore them as a set, a story of hope on display.

Lives have also been lost in Lake Hallie. A boating accident made the front page of the Eau Claire Leader on July 25, 1917. Oscar Anderson, 33, was a tailor; John Anderson, 37, was a baker. They shared the same surname but were not related. One friend rowed while the other stood at the bow of their rented boat. An oar fell in the water and when one man reached for it, the boat tipped, and they both tumbled in. Oscar was found immediately, John the next day. Their families buried them together in one grave.

This was not the only tragedy here. The first was reported by the Leader on July 13, 1883: “A little Norwegian boy, whose name we were unable to learn, was drowned at Badger Mills last Sunday.” The second happened in July, 1897. A short Leader article reads, “A 15-year-old-boy named Larson was drowned in Lake Hallie. ... The family are farmers and live near Badger.” No obituaries appeared for these immigrant children. They are likely buried near where they died.

In July, 1939, 3-year-old Esther Revor stumbled off a dock while playing. Her grandfather found her body in Lake Hallie one hour after she was missed. He may have grown up hearing stories about the others lost to this lake. Such heartbreak is unimaginable, which makes all of the replaceable things that have vanished seem so insignificant.

My former neighbor Sue Mertens’ expensive ring has never been found. Her husband’s gift was a heart design with a diamond in the center. Inside the band, he had engraved “I give my heart to you.” After a day in the water raking weeds to clear her beach, Sue realized her ring was gone. She tells me her husband is a gentle man: “He wouldn’t yell at me, ever.” Still, Tom was stunned at the loss.

Once they searched the sand and found nothing, Sue quipped, “I guess my heart belongs to Lake Hallie now.”

People may wonder how I could lose a beater in a lake. Simple: To save gray water from filling my septic tank, each night after doing dishes I throw a bucket-full over my balcony onto the rocks that hold up my shore. Sometimes I miss a utensil or two. At first I accused my husband, the one who empties the dish rack, of losing our beater. I held its partner in my hand. Beaters only function as a pair, like chop sticks or knitting needles or oars.

“Think,” I said impatiently. “Where did you put it?” This was February, back when we mostly only saw each other. Some days I was testy. Bruce shrugged. We both wanted butterscotch pudding. That night, and for many afterward, I mixed with just the remaining beater.

A few weeks ago while trimming shrubs along my bank I noticed something silver wedged in the sand. Six months earlier that beater had pierced the frozen earth like a now-banned lawn Jart tossed from one story up. After the spring thaw it likely slid into the lake. I scrubbed off the grime and made our next dessert in record time. Still, I may never again run my mixer without remembering the months of my one-beater pudding. Each time I was reminded of that Zen koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” As if we need a riddle to remind us that the universe is fragile.

Wisconsin passes hemp program off to feds
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After four years fostering the state’s burgeoning hemp industry, Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection is passing the baton to the federal government.

Starting Jan. 1, hemp growers will be licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and hemp growers will no longer require a license from DATCP to operate in the state of Wisconsin. DATCP and the USDA are scheduled to host a joint webinar from 1-3 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 15 to update growers on the transition and how to work with the federal agency.

“This transition provides growers with the greatest opportunity to produce hemp in Wisconsin,” said Randy Romanski, secretary-designee for DATCP. “That’s been our goal since day one. This is the next step in that journey.”

DATCP staffers are now actively working to spread the word and inform the public on the transition. Growers are also advised to visit the USDA website and keep themselves appraised of any differences between the state’s hemp program and its nationwide successor.

For example, the USDA uses an online automated licensing system that may be unfamiliar to growers, although they still process hard-copy applications. DATCP is also providing a checklist of USDA guidelines that hemp growers can follow.

The necessary infrastructure — such as sites and equipment for sampling THC levels in hemp products — is already in place to handle the state’s needs. DATCP representatives noted testing times will be the same, but the USDA utilizes a private-sector model, compared to laboratories and testers from the public sector as Wisconsin growers may be more accustomed to.

Kuhn also noted testing fees could be as low as $70 compared to $250 currently charged by DATCP testers.

Another perk? No licensing fees, and licenses with the USDA will be renewed once every three years, not on an annual basis.

Still, the programs are pretty compatible and both agencies are working to make the transition as smooth as possible. Growers will continue to work with DATCP through the conclusion of the current growing season.

“People can start taking a look at what that USDA program looks like,” said Brian Kuhn, director of DATCP’s Plant Industry Bureau. “From a reality standpoint, it should look very similar to what they’ve been operating in."

"Farmers are really well schooled in having connections with USDA for programs an that relationship is well established,” Romanski added.

Wisconsin’s hemp industry has been growing steadily, despite its long winters and higher humidity, as well as societal setbacks during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, more than 14,000 acres were licensed for hemp cultivation across the state, which only marks a small decrease compared to 16,000 in 2019.

This year marked the fourth year of the state’s pilot program under the 2014 farm bill. The state also features a strong history with the plant, at one time Wisconsin was the nation’s leading producer in hemp acreage and fiber production in the 1940s.