Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute

For more than 160 years, cheesemaking in Wisconsin has been a central part of the state's culture and agricultural heritage. As the nation's leader in cheese production, Wisconsin is known for both the quality and diversity of its cheeses. Today, because consumers are demanding more unique, distinctively flavored cheeses, specialty cheeses are the fastest-growing category in Wisconsin. For the cheesemaker, specialty products are a means both to strengthen margins and to create signature products that set them apart.

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Member Spotlight

Marieke Penterman
Owner, Cheesemaker
Marieke Gouda, Holland's Family Cheese LLC, Thorp

Mention award-winning gouda and Wisconsin in the same sentence, and chances are good you're talking about Marieke Penterman. She's one of a new generation of Wisconsin specialty and artisan cheesemakers to make a name for herself and her products -- not just in Wisconsin or the United States, but internationally, as well. She and her husband, Rolf, emigrated with their children from the Netherlands to Wisconsin in 2002 to pursue their passion for dairy farming. In 2006, delivering on a personal vow to start her own business before she turned 30, Marieke launched her on-farm cheesemaking business, Holland's Family Farm, crafting her namesake goudas using milk from the family's cows. Her first year out, Marieke® Foenegreek Gouda won a first-place ribbon at the U.S. Championship Cheese contest. Since then, Holland's Family Farm has racked up nearly 100 top awards, including U.S. Grand Cheese Champion in 2013, which, in addition to bragging rights helped the Pentermanssecure their green cards for permanent U.S. residency.

What led you to choose specialty cheesemaking as your entrepreneurial endeavor?
I knew I wanted to do my own business, and after we settled in Wisconsin and began farming here I'd toss and turn at night wondering what it should be. One night, I had been thinking of my family's upcoming visit from the Netherlands and what I wanted them to bring over for me – especially the authentic Dutch cheese that I missed so much. Out the window I heard a cow calving on the farm and the idea to make cheese came to me. We had the milk and the farm and we couldn't find the type of gouda that we knew and loved here, so it all made sense. I was fortunate to be in Wisconsin where there's so much expertise, infrastructure and support for aspiring cheesemakers.

You came into the industry at an exciting time for specialty and farmstead cheesemakers.
Absolutely. It really was at the beginning of a huge surge in interest among consumers in artisan foods, in knowing where foods come from and how they're made. I don't know that if I'd started 10 years earlier the market would have been as ready for a small, specialty product like ours, but our timing was great.

And today you're not only making cheese, but have added an agri-tourism aspect to your business.
Yes, we opened a new facility in December that includes a retail store and we give visitors tours of the complete cheesemaking process, starting with the farm and the barn where the cows are milked. I feel it's really important to be able to not just sell our products but to help to educate people about the process and the quality.

What's one big marketing lesson you've learned since becoming a specialty cheesemaker?
Like many consumers, I used to wonder why some specialty cheeses were so much more expensive. Now, I understand. Large cheese manufacturers making commodity cheeses can spread their costs over huge volumes, but for small cheesemakers it can be difficult. We have to compete on the quality of our products and our craftsmanship because there's no way we can compete on price.

How has being a member of WSCI helped you to grow your business?
It's a great organization and a valuable one for smaller cheesemakers and people new to the industry. There's so much to learn, and the contacts I've been able to make and the sharing of ideas with other members is invaluable. It can be tough to break away to get to all of the meetings, but when I do I always come away with ideas and information that help me grow both as a cheesemaker and as a business person.

Did you have another business in mind to pursue before deciding on cheesemaking?
Yes, I initially tried to get into the children's furniture business. I did a few designs but couldn't find anyone to build them for me, so it didn't get off the ground. I've had a lot more success with cheesemaking!