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Cheese makers partner to provide artisan cheese from Northwoods
Photo courtesy of Mary Dougherty. Michael Stanitis milks a goat at his Northwestern Wisconsin farm, which specializes in cheese products.
Forty-seven-year cook Michael Stanitis knew he didn’t want to be a chef forever. But, he wasn’t exactly sure what he did want to do with his life. He knew he loved goats. And he knew he loved goat cheese. So eight years ago, he began a journey on his Herbster homestead that today has resulted in a successful artisan cheese line.
“It just kind of happened,” he explains of his Sassy Nanny cheese line. “While I was still working, I got a few goats and started messing around with making cheese.”
It is a huge leap to go from making cheese in your backyard to becoming a licensed cheese producer. In the state of Wisconsin, you need at least three licenses including a cheese maker license, a dairy producer license and, last but not least, a cheese plant license. While Stanitis was confident about achieving the first two licenses, building a state certified cheese plant just wasn’t in his budget.
“It would have cost more than my house to build the cheese plant on my own,” he explains.
It was about this time that he met nearby farmer Fred Faye, who was also interested in making cheese — but by using sheep’s milk. Faye, who lives on an old dairy farm, had the barn structure that could be converted for the facility. He also had the desire to make the investment. After much debate, the two decided to share costs on the facility but operate their businesses separately. That was three years ago.
University of Wisconsin-Extension Bayfield and Ashland Counties Agriculture Agent Jason Fischbach says these types of partnerships aren’t uncommon among farmers in northwest Wisconsin.
“One of the goals of our agricultural development efforts in the Chequamegon Bay area is to foster networking and collaboration among our agricultural entrepreneurs. By working together, these entrepreneurs are able to share resources, lower production costs and access markets more effectively.” He goes on to say, “Our region has a long history of farmers working together, and today is no different.”
So far, this partnership seems to be one more success story of two farmers working together to create a value-added product. Today, Stanitis says his business is doing well. This year, he’s on track to produce and sell about 4,000 pounds of goat cheese. He focuses on the local market — and by local he means within about 100 miles of his Herbster farm. He extends a bit further south into Eau Claire. And, while he’s been asked to provide goat cheese in the Twin Cities, he’s hesitant to break into that market.
“I’m a strong believer in the local food movement,” he explains. “There are goat cheese producers closer to the Twin Cities who should really be in that market.”
He currently focuses on distribution in regional food co-ops including Whole Foods in Duluth and the Chequamegon Food Co-Op in Ashland, along with various local markets. You’ll also find him at local farmer’s markets on the weekends. Right now, he’s selling everything he makes minus a small winter stash that ensures his regulars can purchase in the off months.
He sells a variety of cheeses that are primarily fresh pasteurized. Lake Effect, which is a fresh spreadable cheese and Cabra Fresco, which is similar to queso fresco, are his most popular.
“I think people like the Lake Effect because it is fresh, soft and versatile,” he says. “It has great flavor but not so much the aged goaty flavor that people associate with goat cheese.”
He’s also slowly entering the aged, raw cheese world with a variety of cheeses including a red wine washed rind Winey Kid and Finit Su La Paille, which is a classic French-style moldy rind aged soft cheese.
The herd, which is 35 goats strong, is one he’s built from the ground up. In terms of what makes a good goat, Stanitis says he has a different breeding program than some farmers.
“My goats don’t have to set world records in production. They just need to provide a steady production during the lactation season and be in good body condition.”
As the goats reproduce, he keeps back the kids from the moms who have served him well while placing other goats with families in the region that want a couple quarts of milk for their family.
Despite his success, Stanitis recognizes he needs to make some changes to enjoy long-term sustainability. He currently produces the cheese and milks his herd of 35 goats daily, entirely on his own. Long term, he hopes to grow his herd to 45 goats to have a little more cushion in his day-to-day business operations.
“I always knew this would be hard work, but this is really not sustainable,” he says. At 47-years old, he knows he can’t keep up the 12-hour workday, seven days per week forever.
In a perfect world, Stanitis dreams of a couple that is interested in starting a goat dairy farm in the area from whom he could buy directly.
“I would be all behind that,” he says. “I’d help them get set-up. But unfortunately, it is not that easy to find such people.”
So for now, Stanitis continues to milk goats, make cheese and be the distributor. Despite the hard work, he says he wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“I still can’t believe how great this has been. I’m fortunate because people want to support me, and I produce a great product.”
Beth Probst is a freelance writer based in Iron River.Previous BusinessNorth Exclusives Articles:
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