This is part of a series introducing the Cheeselandia Council, brought to you by Wisconsin Cheese.
Ron Henningfeld is the cheesemaker at Hill Valley Dairy, where his team is focused on providing local cheese to their local community of southeastern Wisconsin.
As a child, Ron worked on his family farm, Romari Farms, helping his family sustain their operation and developing a kinship with both the land and the milking cows. This background in agriculture led him to be an active member in 4-H and FFA as a child, serving as a Wisconsin FFA state officer and later pursuing a career in agricultural education. While at UW-Madison, Ron developed his first inkling of his love for making cheese.
HRN: You grew up on the family farm and participated in 4-H and FFA as a child. Did you know from an early age that you wanted to own and operate a dairy?
Ron Henningfeld: As a kid I knew that I loved working and playing on the farm and spending those days with my family. In high school I started my own pig project of buying, breeding, farrowing, raising and selling pigs. That project in particular taught me entrepreneurship along with lessons that come with it - complete responsibility, the risks and rewards of owning a business, and a sense of pride in the work and outcomes. I think that seeing my parents own and operate a farm and the projects like raising pigs was the catalyst for wanting to own and operate a business. At that time in my life I was thinking to be a farmer, a mechanic, or a woodworker. Being a cheesemaker had not entered my thoughts until my later college years.
HRN: How did working for creameries like Uplands and Cedar Grove influence your cheesemaking style?
RH: When I worked at those places I was very green and impressionable. Both those places influenced my style and the path I am on. An approach I use for my cheesemaking is to lean into the quality and characteristics of the milk that I am working with so that those qualities and flavors are showcased in the resulting cheese. To do that I need a connection with the milk and cows and farm and farmer. That method of cheesemaking is what I learned at Uplands. At Uplands, I also learned the practice of focusing your craft on a few select cheeses.
At Cedar Grove Cheese, I was introduced to the collaborative spirit of cheesemaking in Wisconsin. Cedar Grove is regularly working with farmers and outside cheesemakers and other small cheese businesses to solve problems or help a farm make a cheese or opening up their creamery so that some cheesemaker can produce their own cheese there.
That is actually how I operate today, I do not have my own creamery but instead I make my cheeses at Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee.
HRN: How would you explain the unique cheese culture of Wisconsin to someone who has never experienced it?
RH: I would tell them that cheese is so commonly present in Wisconsin that the cheese doesn't need to talk or shout or be pointed out. The cheese is humble, and Wisconsinites are so familiar and accustomed to its presence that is regularly consumed and enjoyed without much mention. At the same time, we talk about cheese a lot. And if you happen strike up cheese talk you better be ready! Ready to hear cheese favorites and opinions and enthusiasm. Ready to hear about cheese memories and trips to cheese factories and cheese events. Ready to hear cheese wants and cheese dreams. Despite the cheese's humility, we eat, think, and talk cheese like it's a rock star because in Wisconsin, it is!
HRN: Hill Valley Dairy has some pretty incredible looking flavors, like Whiskey Gouda, Tomato Basil Cheddar, and Garlic Dill Cheese Curds. What is the R&D process like to create new cheeses?
RH: The ideas for new cheeses come directly from conversations with customers and thinking up ideas that my wife and I get excited about. The Whiskey Gouda was a more recent development that started when a retail store customer of ours was planning for a whiskey tasting event and he asked if I could make a whiskey cheese. That idea was interesting to me so I gave it a try. I began by soaking a small piece of cheese in whiskey for a while to see if I liked it. The flavor of the whiskey soaked cheese was nice and it carried the complimentative characteristics of both the whiskey and cheese. I made a few more variations using different amounts of whiskey and soaking times for determining the process for reaching our desired outcome. I went into this new cheese thinking that I would be making it for just that one event but customer demand pulled that cheese right into regular production.
Being a super small and self-operated business allows us to do research and development as often as we get the time to do it. We hear way more ideas from people than we would ever be able to try, but creating new things and variety for ourselves is part of what keeps this very interesting to us.
HRN: What are you looking forward to the most for cheesemaking in 2021 and beyond?
RH: I look forward to our team of employees growing both in their own cheese skills and growing the team larger. I look forward to making and releasing more of the natural-rind cheeses that we have been working on. For me that means getting a couple more great cheeses out to our customers as well as refining my affinage knowledge and skills. I look forward to growing a stronger and sustainable cheese business that is positioned to support our team of people, our family farm, and our environment and community as well as possible.