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Ohio celebrates long history of quality Swiss cheesemaking

Editor’s note: As part of our series, “From Cow to Curd: A Look Across the Nation,” Cheese Market News takes a look at the cheese and dairy industry across the United States. Each month we examine a different state or region, looking at key facts and evaluating areas of growth, challenges and recent innovations. This month we are pleased to introduce our latest state — Ohio.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — Known as the “Little Switzerland of Ohio,” the village of Sugarcreek and surrounding area is known for its Swiss cultural heritage as well as quality Swiss cheese production from a number of companies founded by Swiss immigrants.

“The Swiss cheese industry started around 1850, and it became kind of a hub for Swiss immigrants in eastern-central Ohio, centered around the little town of Sugarcreek,” says Chuck Ellis, president of Pearl Valley Cheese, Fresno, Ohio. “There were 50 cheese plants within a 30-40 mile radius in the early 1900s.”

Around 1917, these companies connected with Ohio State University and USDA in a concerted effort to improve the quality of Swiss cheese made in Ohio, and in 1918, they launched the Ohio Swiss Association. The success in improving Swiss quality in the state led to improved markets, and by the 1920s, markets for Ohio Swiss had opened up in places like New York City and Chicago.

“Ohio became known as a Swiss cheese center, really what we still are today,” Ellis says.

• Leading Swiss producer

Ellis notes that of the 316 million pounds of Swiss cheese produced in the United States in 2017, 154 million pounds — about 49 percent — came from Ohio. About 69 percent of the 222 million pounds of cheese produced in Ohio in 2017 was Swiss. There currently are 13 Swiss cheese plants in the state.

Some of the largest Swiss manufacturers in Ohio — and in the United States — include Rothenbuhler Cheesemakers (formerly Middlefield Cheese), Middlefield, Ohio; and Brewster Cheese, headquartered in Brewster, Ohio, which also has plants in Idaho and Illinois.

“Of the 13 Swiss cheese plants currently producing, almost all are multigenerational-owned,” Ellis says, noting that many are in their third- and fourth-generation of family owners, tracing back to Swiss immigrant founders. “At Pearl Valley, we now have our fourth generation here in management.”

Pearl Valley Cheese was founded in 1928 by Swiss immigrant Ernest Stalder, who started out making one 200-pound wheel of Swiss every day in a copper kettle. Today, Pearl Valley Cheese produces about 30,000 pounds of cheese a day and has branched into other cheese variety. About 40 percent of its production remains Swiss varieties, while another 40 percent is comprised of Colby and marble-type cheeses. It also produces three different types of pepper cheese, as well as Muenster, Cheddar, Gouda and Farmer’s cheese.

Another well-established Swiss house, Guggisberg Cheese in Millersburg, Ohio, is known for inventing Baby Swiss, a younger and milder variation of traditional Swiss, in the 1960s.

“My grandfather (Alfred Guggisberg) came over in the late 40s, and Guggisberg Cheese was established in 1950,” says Ursula Guggisberg-Bennett, marketing coordinator, Guggisberg Cheese. “When my grandparents moved over to the United States, they realized the American palate was not quite as developed as the European palate for strong-flavored cheese. My grandfather wanted to create a recipe a little more geared toward the milder palate.”

Alfred Guggisberg came up with a recipe that produced a Swiss-type cheese with smaller holes and a creamier taste. His wife Margaret saw the smaller cheese with smaller eyes next to a large Emmental Swiss wheel and christened the new cheese “Baby Swiss.”

Alfred passed away in 1985, and his son Richard now is president of Guggisberg Cheese.

“Richard has built it to what it is today — he has grown it and worked very hard to make it one of the leading producers of Swiss,” Guggisberg-Bennett says of her father. “My grandparents came from a generation of extremely hard work. Everything they’ve built, for my generation and my father’s generation, it’s important for us to keep those high standards of quality in the work we do today.”

• Competitive edge

The Ohio Swiss Cheese Association — this year celebrating its 100th anniversary — throughout its history has represented the interests of Ohio Swiss manufacturers in matters involving state and federal regulatory agencies when it comes to milk quality regulations, cheese standards, waste disposal and cheese trade.

“Over the years, the Ohio Swiss Cheese Association has become the go-to source for questions from regulatory bodies from Ohio,” Ellis says. “The Dairy Division of the state’s Department of Agriculture comes to the association for recommendations for board appointments. If any pool changes are contemplated, we are the sounding board for regulatory changes.”

The association, funded through membership dues as well as cheese and auction sales at the annual Ohio Swiss Festival, also provides scholarships for local students with connections to the cheese industry or Sugarcreek community, and it hosts three cheese competitions throughout the year.

The association has been hosting cheese contests since the early 1900s. In 1953, it helped form Sugarcreek’s annual Ohio Swiss Festival and holding one of its contests at this late-September event.

“That gave more life and notoriety to our cheese contests,” Ellis says. “It was easy to sell over 20,000 pounds of Swiss cheese in the weekend of the festival in its early days. We don’t sell as much as we used to, but now we’re selling other varieties.”

The Ohio Swiss Festival, a cooperative effort between the Ohio Swiss Cheese Association, Village of Sugarcreek and Sugarcreek Business Association, celebrates the region’s Swiss heritage with music, food, parades and other entertainment. The festival includes a tent where local cheesemakers and wineries offer samples and product sales. Points are tallied from the Ohio Swiss Festival cheese contest and the two previous contests of the year to determine the Grand Champion Swiss cheesemaker in Ohio.

This year’s Ohio Swiss Festival will be held Sept. 28-29.

Ellis adds that Ohio’s Swiss cheesemakers also have gained recognition on a national and international level.

“Swiss cheese and Ohio are kind of synonymous,” he says. “When it comes to U.S. and world cheese competitions, people are used to seeing Swiss cheese from Ohio in top winners categories most of the time.”

• Local milk

One unique aspect of Ohio’s cheese and dairy industry is the many local Amish farms that provide manufacture-grade milk to the cheesemakers.

“Our area has the largest concentrated community of Amish in the entire world,” Guggisberg-Bennett says. “There are lots of Amish farms, and they need a place to send their milk. The local cheese houses can provide that.”

Guggisberg Cheese gets its milk from 140 mostly local farms, both Amish and conventional. She says attributes of the land lend specific characteristics to the milk and cheese made in this area.

“In the Doughty Valley, a long time ago glaciers came through and deposited minerals in the soil,” Guggisberg-Bennett explains. “The cows consume those minerals, and that’s what makes the milk unique and gives our cheese a unique flavor.”

Ohio currently has 1,781 Grade A dairy farms as well as 412 manufacture grade farms, of which 271 farms — mainly Amish-owned — still transport milk in cans rather than modern tankers, according to Roger Tedrick, chief of the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Dairy Division.

“Some cannot use electricity or use bulk tanks,” he says. “They will milk the cows, put the milk in cans and put them out at the end of the road. A truck picks up the cans and takes them to the cheese plant.”

Through the years, Tedrick says, the number of cheesemakers processing canned milk has dwindled, and today most of the cheese made in Ohio is made from Grade A milk. He adds that 98-99 percent of the milk in Ohio is Grade A.

Ohio is home to a total 139 licensed dairy manufacturers, including fluid milk, cheese, powder and frozen desserts. These manufacturers process about 5.8 billion pounds of milk each year, while Ohio’s dairy farmers produce around 5.6 billion pounds of milk, making it a milk-deficit state.

“There is a lot of milk from out of state that gets processed in Ohio,” Ellis says, adding that over the past five years, Ohio has lost about 25 percent of its farms. “There is some concern about how far dairy production might drop if the exodus of farmers continues. As some plants and large processors across the borders in Indiana and Michigan take shape, long-term we wonder if there will be enough in Ohio as those take on big volumes of milk.”

Tedrick says price is one of the major challenges for dairy producers, which has resulted in more farmstead processing operations.

“Because of this we have seen an uptick in on-farm processing to include all dairy prices,” Tedrick says. “Simply farms are vertically integrating to get closer to the consumer dollar.”

On the processor side, Ohio has attracted some new manufacturing plants in recent years, including Meijer’s dairy plant in Tipp City as well as Green Field Farms, a local organic dairy in north central Ohio.
Current manufacturers also are expanding. Guggisberg cheese recently installed a new production line at its Sugarcreek facility, and it aims to complete a multi-year expansion project by the end of this year.

“From what I see, there is a lot of investment going on in Swiss cheese plants in Ohio,” Ellis says. “There also is more whey processing, and several plants are investing in new wastewater operations — long-term investments. For the 13 major Swiss cheese plants, most plan on being around for a while and continuing to grow.”

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