Iowa dairy industry seeks in-state processing growth

Editor’s note: In 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 — Iowa.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — Iowa, with abundant land for crops and rolling hills further east near the Mississippi River, has an ideal landscape for farming, from corn and soybeans to dairy and other animal agriculture. Following a trend across the country, dairy farms in Iowa have decreased and currently stand at just less than 1,000 cow dairies. However, cow numbers (220,000 head) and production volume (more than 5 billion pounds annually) have remained steady, and more processing capacity in the state is needed to keep up with the milk supply.

“A lot of Iowa milk is making Wisconsin cheese,” says Dan Hotvedt of Foresight Farms, a 1,000-cow dairy in northeast Iowa where a large concentration of the state’s dairy industry is located. “All our milk goes to Wisconsin or Illinois. We’re really short on processing in Iowa.”

There are some major dairy processors in Iowa, though the dairy farmers would like to see much more in-state capacity. Grade A plants include Dean Foods, Prairie Farms and the regional Anderson-Erickson (AE) Dairy. Cheese plants belonging to Associated Milk Producers Inc., Agropur, Prairie Farms and Wapsie Valley Creamery also are in Iowa, and Wells Blue Bunny Ice Cream has its headquarters and two production facilities in the state.

The Iowa State Dairy Association (ISDA), which serves as a political voice for both dairy farmers and processors, is working with Iowa’s economic development and governor’s offices to explore incentives that would attract more dairy processing to the state.

“We know a lot of milk is leaving the state of Iowa, and we want to keep it here and allow our state to prosper from it,” says Mitch Schulte, executive director, ISDA. “We just took on this task last year to look at processing incentives and are just getting back research and cross comparisons ... there is a need for processing, and we’re doing everything we can to support our dairy farmers.”

Schulte says Iowa is a “premium spot” to be a dairy farmer, with its multiple varieties of crops and good food and water sources for cows. He also says he has seen more farmers start on-farm processing, though the state needs more processing expansion to support both small and large farms.

• Showcasing dairy

In addition to attracting more processing, Iowa is working to elevate the visibility of its local cheese and dairy processors, both in the state and on a national stage.

The first Iowa Quality Dairy Products Showcase debuted at the 2015 Iowa State Fair. The statewide cheese and dairy contest attracted 32 entries the first year and has grown each year since, to a record 65 entries in 2019.

Stephanie Clark, Virginia M. Gladney Endowed Professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State University, oversees the annual contest. She recalls the 2016 Iowa State Fair, when the contest “officially” was introduced as an event and the winning cheeses were displayed near the famous State Fair Butter Cow.

“Everybody lined up to see the Butter Cow and other carvings, waiting for 20 minutes and walking by all these Iowa State Fair dairy products. I remember hearing people say, ‘I didn’t know they made dairy products in Iowa,’” Clark says. “That was one of the eye-openers for me on what a service we’re doing for dairy products.”

Clark also helped launch the Iowa Cheese Guild to help promote Iowa cheeses ahead of the 2016 American Cheese Society (ACS) conference and competition, which was held in Des Moines, Iowa. Guild members were involved as volunteers at the conference and contest, and Clark was told it was “one of the best volunteering years” ACS ever had. The Iowa Cheese Guild recently has reconvened and is considering new ideas for education and promotion, including organizing a wine and cheese agritourism map.

Iowa State University, along with University of Minnesota and South Dakota State University, is part of the Midwest Dairy Foods Research Center, one of several checkoff-funded dairy research centers around the country. As an associate director of the center, Clark helps field questions and troubleshoot with dairy processors, sometimes vising their plants to help with issues from product development to food safety to distribution.

“We want dairy to succeed in our state,” Clark says. “Often we get calls from small farmers thinking of getting into the business. We invite them to come here and do cheese together.”

Clark notes that she has seen more interest in farmstead processing as producers face challenges in milk pricing and seek a more feasible or stable income. Iowa State is in the early stages of planning its first open-invitation cheesemaking workshop in April or May, which will include microbiology and sanitation as well for those interested in entering the field.

• Award-winning cheese

Iowa is home to 17 cheese plants, According to the Iowa Department of Agriculture’s Dairy Products Control Bureau, ranging from small farmstead operations to large co-ops. Many of these cheesemakers, both small and large, have been recognized at national or international contests.

WW Homestead Dairy, Waukon, Iowa, received three awards at last summer’s ACS competition, including a first for its Bacon Morita White Cheddar Cheese Curds.

“We’ve done very well the last three to four years. The biggest awards have been ACS, and we’ve also done really well at the state fair,” says co-owner Tom Weighner, adding that the dairy’s chocolate milk also has been recognized at the World Dairy Expo.

WW Homestead Dairy started in 2011 when two families combined their dairy farms to start a farmstead cheese and dairy processing operation in order to accommodate their next generation’s interest in joining the business. They hired Bruce Snitker, a Wisconsin licensed cheesemaker with roots in Waukon, to oversee the creamery.

WW Homestead Dairy specializes in its many flavors of cheese curds, which are available throughout Iowa as well as some retailers in Wisconsin and Minnesota. It also offers block Cheddars, creamline milk, butter, ice cream and cottage cheese. In addition to its regional distribution, the dairy is a popular agritourism destination, with viewing windows for visitors to watch cheesemaking and milk bottling, as well as summer events such as car shows and drive-in movie nights that attract customers.

“We’re in the very northeast corner of the state. It’s a very hilly county that has many streams and rivers, bordering the Mississippi. There’s a lot of animal agriculture, including dairy, in this area,” Weighner says.

Schulte says Iowa is extremely unique in its diversity of dairy farms, which are of all types and sizes and help support the state’s small towns and local communities. To help these farms, he says, the state needs to grow its processing.

“We haven’t seen a big growth in that area,” he says. “Our goal is to make sure every dairy farmer, no matter what size, has a place here in Iowa.”


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