The Cheese Insider

Over the years, many people have asked me how Wisconsin became the dairy state. It isn’t like one day our pioneering agriculture families woke up and said, “Wow, let’s get a herd of cows and start milking them.” The evolution of the dairy industry began in the mid 1850s when the expansion of the “west” created a disaster here in Wisconsin.

It all began in the 1840s when the westward expansion was taking place in America. The families that arrived in Wisconsin found an abundance of rich farmland and a worldwide demand for staple foods, especially wheat. For the early families arriving in Wisconsin during those times they quickly discovered that although the land was suitable for growing a variety of crops, the demand for wheat was a source of reliable income. And grow wheat they did. They were not only producing wheat for the exploding population of America, they were also exporting it throughout Europe, especially to England. By the early 1860s Wisconsin became a leader in wheat production, harvesting nearly 30 million bushels.

The rush to produce more wheat ignored some very basic farming principles, one of which is to rotate crops and to allow the soil to regain the nutrients depleted by this practice. The money was so good, and the demand was so high, that many farmers looked past the obvious negative side effects.

By the 1870s the effects of the wheat craze was taking its toil. The yields of wheat began to spiral on a downward cycle, and then a freak of nature took place: the chinch bug invaded Wisconsin and destroyed the entire wheat crop. This virtually wiped out wheat farming, and many families were left no choice but to start again.

In the aftermath of the wheat crisis Wisconsin farmers had to find alternative methods of farming. In parts of northern Wisconsin they cultivated cranberries. In the south central part of the state many began to grow tobacco, but the most popular replacement for wheat was dairy farming. One reason for the popularity of dairy farming was that many of the farmers in Wisconsin had come to the state from New York, the leading producer of dairy products in America at that time. In addition, many immigrants from Europe that had settled in Wisconsin brought with them an extensive knowledge of cheese making. Dairying was also promoted by the University of Wisconsin – Madison School of Agriculture, which offered education to dairy farmers and research for ways to produce better dairy products.

The farmers realized that the fields would have to be restored with native grasses, and to allow the soil to regain the nutrients that had been depleted by years of mismanagement. The farmers discovered that one way to do just that was to graze animals in the fields. They first tried sheep, but soon realized that cows were a better animal because the cow could produce a much greater volume of milk. By the late 1800s Wisconsin was growing more into a dairy agriculture state than a crop producing state. No one knew that the disaster of wheat in the 19th century would be the driving force to Wisconsin becoming America’s Dairyland today.

Source: Creating Dairyland by Edward Janus, Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2011

Michael C. Thomas is co-owner of Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese with his wife Janice. With locations in Ellison Bay and Egg Harbor, they aim to bring the best of Wisconsin artisan cheeses to Door County, and with “The Cheese Insider” Michael hopes to bring all things cheese to readers of the Pulse.