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

Member Spotlight: John "Randy" Pitman
Mill Creek Cheese
Arena, Wisconsin

Founded in 1891, Mill Creek Cheese lays claim to being the oldest operating cheese plant in Iowa County. Owned and operated since 1984 by Randy Pitman and his family, the award-winning plant specializes in Hispanic-style cheeses such as quesom blanco and queso quesadilla, as well as muenster, cheddar curds, brick and small batches of special-order caraway and chili pepper flavored cheeses. A first-generation cheesemaker with more than 40 years of experience, Pitman is also a certified Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, having completed the three-year advanced training program in both queso quesadilla and muenster varieties.

What have been some of the biggest growth milestones for Mill Creek since you took ownership?
We've been fortunate to see very steady growth and have made significant investments in our facility to stay ahead of it. When I bought Mill Creek Cheese in 1984, our daily milk volume was about 35,000 to 40,000 pounds. About a year later, a nearby cheese factory closed down and their farm patrons were eager to start shipping to us. We ended up adding on to our building in order to be able to take on additional capacity. Everything ran smoothly until about 1990 when I needed to increase the whey being shipped out of the factory from half of a tanker load to a full tanker load to maintain cost efficiency. Demand for cheese was also on the rise at this time, so again I increased the volume of milk coming into Mill Creek. That, however, also meant a big increase in wastewater volume, so we needed to build a new wastewater system and had to buy more land to put it on. To stay ahead of the growing cost I once again increased the volume of milk coming into about 125,000 pounds daily and once again found myself with the same problem as in the 1980s, with the size of the factory being inadequate for the volume of milk we were handling. We expanded again in 2010 and are looking to add a new make room and new equipment in 2018. Our milk volume today is 175,000 to 225,000 pounds per day and our building is more than five times larger and much more efficient than it was in 1984. The way I see it, you have to keep up with the times or get left behind.

What are some of the biggest ways in which your operations have evolved?
The biggest evolution has been toward greater efficiency, using technology and automation to enable us to increase production capacity and handle some of the tasks that use to be done manually. We're still a small plant, and do a lot by hand, but some of the heaviest lifting is now done through automation. There's also a vast difference in the cleaning and sanitizing process since 1984. The tables and the vats are still cleaned and sanitized about the same as they were then, but everything else is automated cleaning. The curd and whey lines, for instance, no longer have to be taken apart and washed by hand. And the cheese forms that were once sprayed by hand are now loaded into racks that are moved by an electric hoist and submerged into a tank that does all the cleaning. So there have been a lot of changes in the handling of the cheese and the cleaning process over the years.

You lead cheesemaking at Mill Creek Cheese, but it's a family affair. What roles do family members play today?
We all play a role. My son, Jonathan, is the start-up man. He comes in at 11 p.m., does the building security check and reviews the previous day's sanitation records. He also does a walk-through to ensure that all equipment is hooked up properly and ready to start running production. After morning sanitization, he starts running milk and a second employee comes in about 3:30 a.m. to help with the cutting of the vats. I come in shortly thereafter, once the pumping of the cheese is about to begin, and take over for Jonathan. My wife, Mary, handles milk ordering, production and wrap schedules, and shipping and receiving. She also has the task of maintaining customer relations and staffing reliable employees. Our daughter, Amber, manages quality assurance, documentation, and training. After spending her whole life growing up in the cheese factory she has seen firsthand the changes in production and regulatory requirements for the entire cheesemaking process. Today, she spends most of her time focused on the required paperwork, such as product tracking and corrective actions. She also keeps our Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs) up to date and does follow-up training with the employees.

What led you to focus much of Mill Creek Cheese's production on Hispanic-style cheese varieties?
I've seen a steady rise in the demand for Hispanic cheeses over the past 25 years. Wanting to offer customers something new, I started making queso quesadilla and ultimately earned Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certification for it in 2010. Being one of very few to hold Master Cheesemaker certification in the art of hand-crafting queso quesadilla, we saw big sales growth in that variety. I also had a customer who was looking for queso blanco cheese, so I decided to give it a try. I was skeptical at first because it's such a high-pH cheese, but it is now the largest part of my production.

Are you working on any new cheese varieties now? 
For the past couple of years, I've been working on creating the perfect recipe for a melting cheese for grilled cheese sandwiches. I'm striving to produce a cheese with excellent flavor and melting ability, much like queso quesadilla, but with a hint more flavor. I'm working with ingredients such as caraway seeds and chili peppers and think I have the perfect blend of flavors, but I'm still working on finding the right name and merchandising strategy for this new product.

How long have you been involved with WSCI?
Just for the past couple of years. It's been very helpful, especially for gaining knowledge and insights on retailing and market demands. It's sometimes hard for me to get to meetings because I spend most of my time in the make room working with new products, but I hope to take more advantage of what the WSCI has to offer.

Where do you see the biggest opportunities for your business in the years ahead?
We think our Hispanic varieties will continue to grow. I feel best not keeping all my eggs in one basket and doing some of everything with no compromise, however. Right now, I think the biggest opportunity for future growth is the production of the perfect cheese for making the greatest grilled cheese sandwiches, along with the best cheese curds on the market.

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