Cans each holding 80 pounds of milk await their turn inside the K&K Cheese factory near Cashton, Wis. Old Country Farmers’ Cooperative was founded in 1982 as a way for Old Order Amish to have a market for their Grade B, canned milk. PHOTO BY RON JOHNSON
Cans each holding 80 pounds of milk await their turn inside the K&K Cheese factory near Cashton, Wis. Old Country Farmers’ Cooperative was founded in 1982 as a way for Old Order Amish to have a market for their Grade B, canned milk.
PHOTO BY RON JOHNSON
Cashton, Wis. - Drive leisurely down winding County Highway D and you'll know full well it's June. But from the sights and sounds, it could very well be summertime in June 1914 instead of a century later.
Dairy cows lounge in pastures; draft horses doze in the midmorning sunshine. Black buggies slow traffic to a pleasing pace, the hooves of the horses towing them clip-clopping along the blacktop.
Welcome to northern Vernon County, just south of Cashton, Wis. You've made it to the heart of Amish country.
The destination this fine, blue-sky June morning is K&K Cheese and Old Country Cheese. Both are affiliated with the Old Country Farmers' Cooperative, a business owned by some 250 Old Order Amish dairy farmers scattered across parts of Monroe, Richland and Vernon counties.
The actual factory - K&K Cheese - is one of the few remaining of a dying breed. This factory uses milk shipped in the old-fashioned cans that hold 80 pounds each. In a nod to modernity, the heavy, steel cans of days gone by have given way to lighter, aluminum containers.
While the Amish own the land and building that's about four miles south of Cashton, Kevin and Kim Everhart own K&K Cheese. Kelly Everhart, meanwhile, owns Old Country Cheese, the retail store that's right next to the factory, and in the same building.
Ironically, it was a changing world that gave birth to the Old Country Farmers' Cooperative. The year was 1982. The dairy industry was rapidly moving to Grade A regulations, complete with bulk tanks on farms. But the Amish - as they have been doing since 1693 - gently resisted. They stayed faithful to their Grade B milk and milk cans.
"The Amish were looking at staying with the old, traditional ways, to be able to keep milk cans going," explained Kelly Everhart, from behind his store's counter. "The only way they could do that, because plants were converting to bulk milk, was to form their own co-op."
Thirty-four years after its inception, the co-op is, by all appearances, faring well. A fleet of a dozen trucks picks up milk from farms within a 50-mile radius of the factory.
In accordance with their Christian beliefs, the Amish do not allow any milk to be picked up on Sundays. All of Saturday's milk must be trucked away by midnight, before the Sabbath starts.
Nor does K&K Cheese make cheese on Sunday. Kelly's store is closed then, too.
Cheesemaking recommences in the wee hours of Monday morning and might wrap up around 4 p.m. It's a long day, since all of Sunday's milk is processed.
The co-op's milk is coaxed out of the cows the old-fashioned way: by hand. It's cooled the old way, too, with the cans immersed in cold water in tanks, in buildings whose function gave rise to the term "milk house."
Since the milk is picked up six days a week and travels only 50 miles or so, the freshness is unreal, Everhart described.
What's more, this milk is handled relatively little. The cans are unloaded and dumped, one a time. This milk does not "go through pump after pump and get broken down before they even start making cheese out of it," Everhart said.
That remarkable freshness of the milk carries over to the cheese. A bag of K&K curds - acquired on a Tuesday morning - was still squeaky three days later. Curds from many other factories lose their delightful squeak as soon as 24 hours after being scooped from the vat.
K&K Cheese turns out 12,000 pounds of cheese a day. Using the 10:1 rule of thumb, that requires 120,000 pounds of milk. Those milk and cheese numbers have roughly tripled from what they were 32 years ago.
Even though the cows are milked by hand and the milk is shipped in cans, the K&K Cheese factory is ultramodern. The milk is pasteurized in stainless steel, then cooked in three round, covered stainless steel vats. The plant has a trio of electrically heated vats, two holding 30,000 pounds of milk each and one holding 35,000 pounds.
After cheese has been made, the proteins are removed from the whey. The whey proteins are sold and dried, then marketed as whey powder, used in such products as protein bars. From there, the remaining whey permeate is applied to cropland.
A voice over the building's intercom announces, "The sugar truck is full." That, said Everhart, means a load of whey permeate is ready to go.
K&K Cheese bustles with behind-the-scenes activity. Flat-bellied young men unload and dump cans of milk. Others monitor gauges while still more fill stainless steel forms with curds that will be pressed into several-pound bricks of cheese.
Visitors can catch glimpses of the processes via a window in the store that lets them look into the factory. Two wall-mounted TV monitors also provide views of the action.
As for the cheeses themselves, K&K makes several. But 90 percent of the production is Muenster, and it's sold all across the United States.
The co-op's milk is also made into several versions of cheddar, Colby Jack, Monterey Jack, Romano, Parmesan, and Juusto, the baked cheese. Goat milk cheeses are made at K&K, too.
In addition, Everhart buys cheese from 10 Wisconsin makers. Old Country Cheese caters not only to cheese aficionados, but also to folks who hanker for Amish-made goods.
Some products, like a rainbow assortment of soaps, are made in Ohio Amish country. The soaps come in mouth-watering scents such as blackberry, lavender, and pomegranate. Everhart admitted that one - unscented lye - is far from being a top seller.
The small store's shelves groan with Amish-made jams, jellies, candy, honey, maple syrup and canned garden produce, like pickled asparagus and corn salsa. Been looking for a bonnet like the Amish ladies wear? The store has both blue and black ones. Everhart said he is going to start carrying Amish-style hats again.
People who can't make the trip out to southwest Wisconsin's Amish country can get cheese sent to them. For more information about that process, or about ordering gift boxes of cheese and other delectables, telephone 608-654-5411. The toll-free number is 888-320-9469. The web address is: www.oldcountrycheese.com/.
The cheese store gets most of its traffic on summer weekends. Everhart said Memorial Day weekend brought in 300 shoppers that Saturday.
Autumn, with its fall color tours, draws people, too. A popular trip includes the cranberry festival at Warrens, Wis., and goes south to the Amish area at Cashton, and on to the apple festival at Gays Mills.
Everhart enjoys hearing customers' reactions to seeing the horse drawn buggies and farm machinery; women in long dresses working in gardens; and men going about their farm work while wearing dark pants, long-sleeved shirts, suspenders, and straw hats.
"It brings back memories," Everhart said. "That's what's nice about being out here. It's not just about getting good cheese. It's about watching the Amish way of life and going back 100 years in time."