Reflecting the Wisconsin Idea: Babcock Institute sends dairy artisans across borders

Anne Topham has been to many places to talk about goat milk and cheese, but San Bernardo was different. The air was cold at 10,000 feet when she stepped off the bus after the five-hour ride from Quito, Ecuador, and the street was dusty from months of drought. The village was practically vertical: simple, small houses and subsistence plots clinging to steep slopes of a deep, narrow mountain valley.

But then it came to the purpose of her visit: advising villagers on how to care for their newly acquired dairy goats and sharing ideas with the operator of the town’s brand-new cheese plant. Everything was wonderfully familiar.

Image: Anne Topham holding a goat.

In 2003, Anne Topham was the first to sign up for a new initiative to send Wisconsin cheese artisans abroad to learn to improve their craft.

“Cheese makers love to talk to other cheese makers,” she says.

She should know. Topham, who raises goats and makes cheese near Ridgeway, has talked shop with her counterparts in some of the world’s most famous cheese-making regions. She has learned things that help her create award-winning products that bring a steady stream of customers to her stand at the Dane County Farmers Market. And she has taught things that can help add much-needed protein to the diets of villagers in the mountains of Ecuador.

It’s a great example of why UW–Madison is partnering in efforts to send Wisconsin dairy artisans across international borders, says Karen Nielsen, director of the Babcock Institute for International Dairy Research.

“We want to help cheese makers and other dairy product processors gain expertise to bring their products to a higher level so that they can compete in an international market,” Nielsen says. “And we’re using the same model to share Wisconsin’s dairy expertise to improve the health, nutrition and income of people living in poverty in Latin America.”

In 2003, Topham was the first to sign up for a new initiative to send Wisconsin cheese artisans abroad to learn to improve their craft. That year, the Dairy Artisan Research Program helped pay her way to France, where she learned about the process and products of affinage, the art of aging cheese.

We want to help cheese makers and other dairy product processors gain expertise to bring their products to a higher level so that they can compete in an international market. And we’re using the same model to share Wisconsin’s dairy expertise to improve the health, nutrition and income of people living in poverty in Latin America.

— Karen Nielsen

The dairy artisan program is a joint effort of the Babcock Institute, the food science department, the Wisconsin Dairy Business Innovation Center and the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Topham’s trip to France culminated with a visit to the community of Selles-sur-Cher, where a renowned goat-milk cheese of the same name has been made since the 1800s.

“I went to the market, ate a lot of the cheese there and asked the people who sold it if I could visit their farms. I went to two or three and got to see the stages of the cheese and how they did them.

“Seeing the different ways of doing it, and more important, seeing the variety of these cheeses available and tasting all of them spurred me to persist, to see where I could go with it,” Topham recalls. “It had a tremendous influence on the cheese I developed after that.”

Since then, the program has sent other Wisconsin cheese makers to destinations in a dozen countries, as close as Vermont and as far away as Israel. When the travelers return, they’re expected to share what they’ve learned with fellow Wisconsin dairy artisans.

And now Babcock and its partners are employing the same farmer-teaching-farmer model to help cheese makers and farmers in developing nations expand their skills.

With support from donors to a new Global Outreach Fund at the UW Foundation, experts from Wisconsin’s cheese industry have traveled to Honduras, and Honduran cheese makers have come to the dairy state to visit specialty cheese operations and university cheese labs.

The first Honduran group came to Wisconsin in 2009 and went to Sassy Cow Creamery in Columbus, Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg and Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain to learn about procedures and techniques that may help them improve production in their home cheese plants. Early in 2010, two dairy students from the Zamorano Agricultural School interned on Wisconsin dairy farms, while a third worked in the lab of food chemist Scott Rankin in the Center for Dairy Research.

The idea for Topham’s trip to Ecuador got started after a couple of Peace Corps volunteers in San Bernardo read about the Honduras exchange on the Dairy Business Innovation Center (DBIC)’s Web site. They had started a dairy goat initiative in San Bernardo and e-mailed DBIC to ask if some Wisconsin experts could come for a visit. Jeanne Meier, DBIC’s dairy goat expert, was up for it (she’d done a Peace Corps stint in Ecuador herself) and she invited Topham to come along.

“Anne is an outstanding teacher, and farmers learn best from other farmers,” says Meier. “They respect each other for what they do. They understand each other and that makes it really credible.”

Topham gave the villagers tips on caring for their goats and showed them how to make ricotta for home use. She also spent time with the local cheese maker, and learned at least as much from him as he did from her.

“He taught me to make mozzarella. It was a true exchange,” she says.

A plan is in the works to bring a contingent from San Bernardo to Wisconsin to see how cheese gets made in the dairy state.

“I’m looking forward to have them come out to my farm,” says Topham. “I would love to bring them to Farmers’ Market. I know they’d like to see all the products sold there and to meet the other cheese makers.

“Any chance to talk to someone who loves doing the same thing you love doing is terrific,” she adds.

Written by Bob Mitchell