Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Changing Patterns of Cheese Manufacturing in America's Dairyland

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Changing Patterns of Cheese Manufacturing in America's Dairyland

Article excerpt

Wisconsin has lost nearly 2,700 cheese factories since its peak in 1922. In this essay I review the changing spatial distribution of Wisconsin's cheese factories, both over the past three-quarters of a century and over the past twenty years. A century ago the crossroads cheese factory was a prominent part of the rural landscape, particularly in those portions of the state that were too distant from the Chicago and Milwaukee markets for shipment of fluid milk. Although many of the dairy farmers in west-central Wisconsin shipped their milk to creameries for conversion into butter, cheese factories--to which milk cans were initially transported by horse-drawn wagons--both paid a higher price for milk and required fewer suppliers to operate economically (Lewthwaite 1964). At its peak, Green County averaged one cheese factory per 2.75 square miles of its land area, Sheboygan County had one per 3.72 square miles, and three other counties had one cheese factory for every 4-5 square miles (Ebling, Gilbert, and Gustafson 1931). Today many of those former factories have been converted into residences or businesses and others have fallen into ruin or disappeared, but some do remain in the cheese-making business (Cross 2011).

The nineteenth century witnessed the westward movement of cheese manufacturing from New England into upstate New York and then to Wisconsin. Those two states produced 61 percent of the nation's cheese by the end of that century (Durand 1952). Wisconsin quickly surpassed New York in the twentieth century, reaching 71.5 percent of U.S. cheese output in 1923 and 1927 (Ebling, Bormuth, and Graham 1939).

Wisconsin counted 2,807 cheese factories in 1922 (Ebling, Gilbert, and Gustafson 1931); by 2009 that number had fallen to 126 (NASS 2010a). Some of this decline was related to the dramatic drop in numbers of dairy farms and dairy cows in many parts of the state (Cross 2001). Yet while the number of dairy farms was declining, the average size of those remaining grew, reaching 97.5 cows in 2009 (NASS 2010a). Milk production per cow also increased steadily. The rate of drop in number of farms with milk cows, from a high of 1.80,695 at the time of the 1935 agricultural census to 12,836 by April 2010 (NASS 2010a), was both more delayed and proportionally smaller than the drop in number of cheese factories. Both of these declines reflect changing technology, improvements in transportation, consolidation within the dairy industry, increasing size of many of the larger cheese factories, and geographical shifts in the nation's dairy industry. Many of these trends were under way by the mid-twentieth century (Durand 1953).

Just as the American dairy industry shifted westward and southward during the past three-quarters of a century, meeting the needs of those areas' rapidly growing populations and relying on an industrial approach to dairying, including confined animal-feeding operations that often included thousands of cows (Cross 2006; Harrington, Lu, and Kromm 2010), the locus of cheese manufacturing also changed. For example, in 1935 Wisconsin produced 357,469,000 pounds of cheese, or 57.2 percent of all cheese manufactured in the United States. New York was in second place with 8.1 percent, followed by Illinois with 4.1 percent. California was ranked seventh, immediately following Oregon, making 2.5 percent of the nation's cheese (Ebling, Bormuth, and Graham 1939, 46). By 1989 Wisconsin manufactured 1,847,455,000 pounds of cheese, over five times as much as it had made a half-century earlier, yet its share of the nation's output had fallen to 32.9 percent. Minnesota's share had grown to 10.9 percent, California made 10.8 percent, and New York produced 8.9 percent (WASS 1990, 36). In 2009 California manufactured 2,057,518,000 pounds of cheese (COMB 2011), 20.3 percent of the nation's total, second only to the 2,629,563,000 pounds manufactured in Wisconsin (NASS 2010a). Thus, the change in Wisconsin's share in the nation's cheese production indicates not that Wisconsin's factories are producing less cheese but that many large new facilities have been built elsewhere in the nation to meet the growing demand for cheese, both for the domestic market and overseas market. …

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