Iowa Cheese Co-Op Helps Preserve a Way of Life

Article excerpt

Like the blue cheese it produces, the Golden Ridge Cheese Cooperative had to age a while before it was ready to go.

Founded five years ago by 40 Old Order Amish dairy farmers in northern Iowa and southern Minnesota, Golden Ridge was plagued by a series of production problems before the first blue cheese wheels were shipped from its 12,500-square-foot plant north of Cresco, Iowa, last January.

The Amish farmers invested more of their own capital into the plant, for a total of $1 million, and brought in Neville McNaughton, a New Zealand native and cheese consultant who now lives in St. Louis. Like the blue mold that turns the Amish milk into cheese, McNaughton's addition as general manager has turned the Golden Ridge co-op into a going operation.

The co-op got a big boost in July when its Schwarz und "Weiss natural rind blue cheese tied for first place in the blue cheese category of the American Cheese Society's annual contest held in Milwaukee.

The competition is "considered one of the world's most influential and prestigious competitions in recognizing the art of specialty cheesemaking," according to the American Cheese Society's Web site. Since the announcement of the award, McNaughton said, "Cheese is now flying out of here. People are calling us." Prospects at the co-op weren't so rosy when McNaughton first showed up at the Golden Ridge plant.

"This was a stalled project," he said.

"They couldn't decide how to get this up and running."

McNaughton did a three-day assessment of the operation and re-wrote the co-op's business plan. The co-op had been focused on making what McNaughton called commodity blue cheese. "We refocused the plant on making a quality product that plays to the strength of the milk," he said.

A $2 million loan guarantee was obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's rural development agency [USDA Rural Development]. That loan guarantee allowed the co-op's bank to advance it more money to reconfigure the plant.

Dan Gingerich, an Old Order Amish dairy producer from Lanesboro, Minn., said the co-op members "didn't realize what we were getting into" when they decided to form the co-op and make cheese. The dairy, producers milk their small herds by hand and sell the milk in stainless steel cans weighing 80 pounds that hold just under 10 gallons of milk. The number of dairy, processors willing to handle their milk cans had dropped from five to one, Gingerich said, narrowing their marketing options considerably.

"I'm trying to hang on to the dairy," he said. "It got tougher to make a living on the farm than 20 years ago."

Forming a cooperative to produce cheese in a modern plant needed to be examined by leaders of the Old Order Amish, Gingerich said. For religious reasons, Old Order Amish do not use many kinds of modern machinery. Their lifestyle is best known for the horse-and-buggy transportation on which the Amish rely. "Our elders thought that in order to keep the family farms going, we needed to change," Gingerich said.

"We needed something like this so our children won't have to live on one or two acres and become factory workers. On the one hand, it might be a modern concept, but on the other hand, we needed to have something like the cheese plant to keep our way of life going."

With McNaughton on board and the American Cheese Society award, Gingerich said he thinks Golden Ridge has turned the corner. …