It’s safe to speculate that the only people more fired up about promoting Wisconsin cheese than Jeanne Carpenter are those making the cheese and those producing the milk!
This “cheeseunderground” blogger and founder of Wisconsin Cheese Originals is herself, an enthusiastic cheese “foodie.” Jeanne likes nothing better than sampling a new artisan cheese, meeting the maker of the cheese and then spreading the word and gathering together consumers to do the same.
Jeanne freely admits she’s a “cheese geek,” who didn’t, however, “start out that way,” having been raised on Velveeta.
Jeanne grew up on a farm near Belmont in Lafayette County, which is owned by her father, Hubert Heins, her older sister (a Mequon attorney) and herself. She notes that her dad, who’ll soon be 75, “now works for every other farmer in the county” in his retirement.
An English/journalism grad from UW-Platteville, Jeanne worked for several urban papers as a reporter, in Wisconsin and Idaho. One of those former farm kids who had no intention of returning to agriculture, she says her dad “had to smile a little bit” when she joined the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection as a communications specialist (a post she held from 2003-2007).
During that time, DATCP received federal funds to reinvigorate the dairy industry by growing the “value-added” aspect. The Dairy Business Innovation Center was launched in 2004, and Jeanne began working one-on-one with “commodity” cheesemakers interested in transitioning to specialty cheese and dairy farmers considering farmstead plants. That was a watershed year, she remarks, when “the state of Wisconsin stopped taking its dairy industry for granted.” The brakes were applied to a previously persistent and disturbing loss of both dairy farms and cheese plants. Since ’04, Jeanne estimates over 40 new farmstead cheese operations and new commercial dairy plants have been established, and another 70 some have expanded.
Jeanne left the department in May 2007, feeling she could be of “more use to the industry” working outside the constraints of a state agency. “I’m not a patient person,” she confides.
She launched a public relations consulting business out of her home at Oregon called Word Artisan. Jeanne says she’s a “one-woman show” doing press releases, media coordination, event organizing, media kits, company profiles, website text and blogging for customers. She explains that she assists entrepreneurs and trade organizations “in helping promote local and artisan foods, because life is too short to eat bland food.” Her clients include the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, retail cheese shops, the Babcock Institute at UW-Madison, and she continues to work on a freelance basis with the Dairy Business Innovation Center, among many other players in Wisconsin agriculture.
Married to a software engineer, Jeanne and her husband have a 15-year-old daughter. Working out of her home provides the best of both worlds – working with the cheesemakers she loves and being an at-home mom for Avery.
By her own admission, Jeanne isn’t one to sit still for long. Maybe it’s that farm-kid work ethic in her. In 2009 she started Wisconsin Cheese Originals (www.wisconsincheeseoriginals.com), a membership organization dedicated to sharing information about new artisan cheeses. It’s open to any and all – the only prerequisite being an interest in Wisconsin cheese. Cheesemakers (cow’s milk, sheep’s milk and goat’s milk), farmers, retailers, chefs and consumers belong – connecting with one another courtesy of Jeanne’s exceptional organizational skill and PR prowess.
Through Wisconsin Cheese Originals, Jeanne hosts a growing number of events that allow consumers, chefs and other fans of Wisconsin-made artisan cheeses to rub shoulders with the cheesemakers themselves. The premiere event is the annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival, held every year at the Monona Terrace in Madison (www.wicheesefest.com). The first one was in November 2009. This year’s is Nov. 9 and 10. The festival includes farm and creamery tours, tasting seminars and dinners, with the most popular event the Meet the Cheesemaker Gala, which has grown from 300 to 600 attendees.
The growth has exceeded even Jeanne’s high expectations. “This year it will be in all four ballrooms,” she notes of “super foodies” coming into Madison for the festival from all over the country. National cheese buyers attend as do major food-magazine editors. And the list of “rock star cheesemakers” showing off their talents also continues to grow. This year there’s room for 40, and Jeanne is adding six additional food artisans (chocolate, artisan crackers, preserves and more).
Jeanne was inspired to launch the Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival after attending a similar event in California, where, she sniffs, they only have a quarter of the cheese and cheesemakers Wisconsin does. Consumers are hungry – literally and figuratively – to know where their food is coming from and to meet the people producing it. At the Meet the Cheesemaker Gala they get to shake the cheesemakers’ hands and “talk shop” and forge that personal connection they’re so looking for.
“People get really excited” when they feel they’ve gotten to know an artisan cheesemaker, and they become “evangelists” for his products. The population of “super foodies” – people so in tune with what they’re eating and who’s growing it” – is “exploding,” says Jeanne, so much so that she can hardly keep up with the demand for tasting, educational and meet-and-greet events. The events are set at the Firefly Coffeehouse in Oregon. For instance on June 21 is “Father’s Day Delight: Cheeses Soaked in Beer, Wine and Spirits, Oh My!” It’s already sold out.
Jeanne stresses that she typically limits attendance to two dozen, seeking to provide “quality” for attendees over “quantity” of participation. “I want that magical moment to happen, when participants can shake the cheesemaker’s hand, ask a question – then they have a fan for life,” she remarks. The events are for members of Wisconsin Originals; a membership is $35.
She also conducts overseas tours of cheese shops, farms and cheese plants. Last year her group went to France. In 2013, she’ll take a group of around 20 to Italy. This year on Sept. 21 and 22, she’ll conduct a tour of cheeses from Wisconsin’s Driftless Region of southwestern Wisconsin. Again, participation is limited in order to provide “backstage passes” to cheese plants and farms and a quality experience.
As noted, Jeanne is also a prolific blogger (http://cheeseundergroundblogspot.com), profiling artisan cheesemakers from throughout Wisconsin and providing insider scoops on everything to do with cheese. She started blogging anonymously while still working at the ag department, and she just continued on.
“The cheese is great, but I love the people!” says Jeanne. “Cheesemakers are the kindest, most generous people I’ve met. I feel I’ve discovered another family…”
Artisan cheesemakers applaud one another’s success. Jeanne says that “the more really exclusive, cool cheese Wisconsin can make – it’s good for everybody.”