When the history of the cheese industry is written — a certain bestseller — the humble pizza pie will take top honors for enhancing the fortunes of dairy farmers and cheese makers across the US. The second highest contributor to the success of the industry is still in play today.
It’s the return of craft to cheesemaking. A resurgence of cheese varieties and uses. And the embrace of this return to craft by food media, prominent chefs, urban “foodies,” restaurateurs and cheese makers themselves. In this generation, cheese emerged from the shadows of salad bars and lunch pails and became cool.
The aura of this renewed innovation in cheesemaking percolates up from the nation’s small and medium sized manufacturers, and its farmstead cheese makers and off-farm artisans, to enhance even the development and marketing of new retail shredded cheese blends, new high-volume pizza varieties and Asiago-soaked casual dining menus. The industry as a whole has benefitted.
Behind this return to craft are a thousand bold business decisions by entrepreneurs and established cheese makers, supported by marketers, culture specialists, dairy research centers and the farmer-supported milk marketing boards.
It’s a trend that isn’t close to completion, because consumers demand these new high-quality offerings and chefs, foodservice leaders and retailers benefit from these new innovative ingredients and, yes, these new
opportunities to make a buck.
Which is why the potential demise of the Dairy Business Innovation Center is premature. DBIC, the Wisconsin-based, nonprofit dairy business incubator is on the ropes. Federal funds that have supported the Center since 2004 will be eliminated in the upcoming fiscal year as Congress gets serious about trimming the federal budget. The Center has funding through June 2012.
DBIC did not invent the return to craft in US cheesemaking. But DBIC founder Dan Carter saw the trend and realized that budding cheese entrepreneurs and existing cheese manufacturers would benefit from business and marketing tools to grow value-added, even branded, cheese production and sales.
In the past seven years, DBIC has hosted seminars, funded targeted research and built public awareness of emerging craft cheeses. But what DBIC has done best is swarm businesses with its talented pool of business and marketing consultants.
In this consultant role, DBIC has provided the nuts and bolts of business-building — writing business plans and auditing business performance, arranging product R&D in cooperation with the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, designing labels, providing focus groups, finding markets and building networks.
Since Dan Carter teamed up with Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl to create funding for DBIC within the US Department of Agriculture, this Center has worked with 217 dairy clients. These clients have built 43 dairy processing plants inside and outside of Wisconsin, while other clients have expanded with 92 plant additions.
For full disclosure, this columnist has served on the board of directors of the Dairy Business Innovation Center since its inception. These words are unabashed support for this organization, whose influence exceeds a mere listing of clients.
For example, DBIC has served as a proxy marketing arm for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (WDATCP). Federal funds for DBIC, by law, flow through Wisconsin’s ag department and state agricultural development staff and personnel funded by DBIC are intertwined in leading and organizing DBIC.
That interrelationship has benefitted both parties — DBIC has served as Wisconsin’s front line in attracting new dairy businesses to the state and WDATCP has helped DBIC connect with state funding and regulatory agencies such as the Wisconsin Department of Commerce.
Another influential legacy of DBIC is the harnessing of an array of unaffiliated business consultants and experts in advertising, market research, cheese technology and grant-writing. DBIC helped a diverse and growing pool of talented consultants discover opportunities in dairy, and a long list of cheese makers have benefited from their counsel.
DBIC is an organization facing a loss of core funding, but it is also a set of ideas and activities that the dairy industry will continue to need.
The organization and its board of directors will look to government, private foundations and the dairy industry itself for future funding.
But in addition to that search, the dairy industry should consider how the ideas and activities of the Dairy Business Innovation Center can live on and support the return to craft among American cheese makers. r
John Umhoefer has served as executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association since 1992. You can phone John at (608) 828-4550; Fax him at (608) 828-4551; or e-mail John Umhoefer at
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