By Stephanie Corbin
LA CROSSE, Wis. — It all started with an article on sheep milk cheese.
Brenda Jensen said her husband, Dean, read the article and decided they should try to make the product.
The couple has about 150 dairy sheep on their farm, Hidden Springs Farm and Creamery, in Westby. During the past season, they milked 115, Brenda said.
"We knew nothing about cheese ... And especially nothing about sheep milk cheese," she said.
With the help of the Dairy Business Innovation Center, which is associated with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, the couple started making "rich and creamy, almost dreamy" Driftless Cheese from sheep’s milk once per month.
"Any success I’ve had in the cheese business is because of the people and experts at DBIC," Brenda said.
DBIC connected the Jensens with resources to decide what kind of cheese they wanted to make, how they wanted to market it, design a label and sent them to seminars on retailing.
"I didn’t know what to name my cheese," Brenda said.
She tried everything she could imagine, combining her and Dean’s names and their children’s initials.
Kate Arding of DBIC said she connected with DBIC after she went to a National Cheese Society meeting. She got involved with cheese after working for Neal’s Yard Dairy in the United Kingdom, a London business that markets cheese from individual farms.
"It’s really easy to talk about these farmhouse cheeses ... it’s absolutely essential to understand the relationship between the producer, the retailer and the customer," she said.
Retail wholesalers need to understand the cheese and the story behind it, give positive and negative feedback to the producer, sell the cheese in the right condition, provide sales projections and pay invoices.
It’s some of that information that Arding brought to the Jensens, among other experience.
Brenda said Arding helped name Driftless Cheese by pulling out a map and looking at names in the area. The cheese is named after the Driftless Area, a part of Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota untouched by the last glacier. The farm is located inside the Driftless Area.
Brenda also wanted to sell the sheep milk cheese to chefs, and Arding told her to call restaurants, ask for the executive chef and explain that she had fresh sheep milk cheese for sale.
"Everybody I said that to and made that contact called me back," Brenda said.
Norman Monsen, a dairy development specialist with DBIC, said the center helps mostly dairies in Wisconsin, but helps dairies in other states because a strong national dairy industry helps Wisconsin’s industry.