“Why don’t we just start our own cheese company?”
About Harvest speaks with Melanie Solandt of Montchevre, the makers of award-winning, hand-crafted domestic goat cheese.
AH: Will you please give us an overview on how this company got its start, and how you got started working here?
MS:Sure. So my dad is the president of the company. He basically fell into the cheese world. What happened was this; he’s from France, and when he was about 21, his father decided to bring his family to the United States to pursue his career. And when my dad came out, his plan was to perfect his English, and hopefully go to American university, and get a degree in architecture. But what happened was my grandfather was on his way back from the fancy food show in San Francisco when he was killed in a drunk driving accident, a drunk driver hit him. And so what happened was the company or my grandpa’s office here was fairly new, and his partners needed a lot of help because they didn’t really plan on having backup for such tragedy. So Michel Betin, who is my dad’s partner, asked my dad if he could help out, because they needed help in the office obviously. And my dad, from being around his dad learned a good amount about the company. He learned a lot about the basics of cheese, and how to place them in US markets, and what the US was calling for with regards to French cheeses.
Then, a tariff (I’m pretty sure around 1985) was placed around importing French goods, specifically French cheeses. It was becoming a problem because people didn’t want to spend more money on French products. So my dad asked his partner Michel Betin, “Why don’t we just start our own cheese company?” So my dad ventured all across the US, went to upstate New York, he went to Vermont, and to the Midwest, Wisconsin, California looking for a place to find or to create a goat cheese plant. And he finally found this tiny little place in Preston, Wisconsin where they started with a couple family farms in the area, got their milk, and started making some cheese. But then it expanded, and expanded, and we could no longer function out of the Preston plant. So we’ve moved to Belmont where we are today, where we’ve gone through a series of renovations to expand.
AH: Will you share with us the story behind your collaboration with the Marquette University to build your anaerobic digester? What is it, how does it work, and why did you want to build it?
MS:When you create goat cheese, there’s a lot of whey, and a lot of wastewater that goes into it because you press the milk to get the right consistency. What happens is that there’s a lot of wastewater. So they started thinking, “What can we do?” They decided to create an anaerobic digester in which basically the water goes through a treatment process where it removes the methane, and then the water is given back to the grid. That is, the water produces electricity which is given back to the grid. Which is enough to power 220 local homes in Wisconsin when it’s at full capacity. So basically it just burns the water, creates electricity, and we get to avoid land-hauling water to the environment around us.
AH: Tell us a little bit about your milk producers? How many are in your network now, and how do you make the determination to work together?
MS:We have 360 independent family farms that sell their milk exclusively to MontChevre. My mom, (actually Sophie, who you met at the Food Show) is kind of in charge of farming logistics. She pays the farmers and makes sure that everything’s okay in that front. We have 360 farms that vary in size and I think the smallest probably around 100 goats, and then we have some that are over 1,500 goats. So what happens is if they’re interested in farming or if they’ve been doing cows, but that becomes too much work or they want to change, they come to MontChevre. We have flyers all over Belmont saying, “If you want to milk goats, contact MontChevre”. So they’ll have a meeting with my mom over the phone or we have three field reps for our farmers. And we’ll have a meeting with them, and kind of tell them what we’re interested in, how they want to go about doing it, and they’ll get advice from my mom, and from people at the plant, and from our field reps. And if they want to start milking, they start milking.
And we always have their back if there’s a drought. Like last year there was a pretty big issue with a lack of water. And the feed was so high that a lot of farmers were worried they were going to go under. We provided them with a kind of financial aide I guess you could say. We increased the price that we were paying them for their milk just so they could make it through the season because we didn’t want to see our farms go under obviously. Which was very well reciprocated by the farmers, and they were very appreciative of that. My dad and Jean Rossard traveled across other regions where we have farmers twice a year, and they have farm meetings. So it’s kind of like a town hall setting where they go in, farmers can express their concerns, their frustrations with the year, something that might have not been going well for them. And they address those problems, and really try to be proactive, and really make sure that our farmers are happy. My dad, and his partners, have always said that if we don’t have good high quality milk then we’re not going to have good quality cheese. So it’s something that we really put a strong emphasis on. And our milk is tested in batches as it comes in, and if a plate count is too high, if there’s any issue with the milk, it’s sent back. We have very, very high standards. But our fields for our farmers, they make sure that the farmers have the resources they need to get their milk to the highest quality. So it works in their favor. And they get paid more.
AH: How do you determine new flavors in your product line? For example, how did you come up with flavors like Peppadew, and Fig & Olive? And what lies ahead as far as new flavors?
MS: Something that I think is really cool about our company, and my dad and Jean especially is that they understand while the American palate is growing, and people are becoming more familiar with stinky cheeses, and they’re loving stinky goat cheese, that they’ve kind of also adjusted their recipes to the American palate. Our Blueberry Vanilla is a great example. It’s delicious, everyone likes it, especially in Wisconsin whenever it’s there, everyone loves it. But it’s something that you would never find in France. So it’s adapting to the American palate, and seeing kind of what people want to do with their cheese.
AH: What is it like for you personally to work with your parents?
MS: Well a lot of people were kind of worried about it at first. My parents and I have always been really close. But it’s really great, I mean, just being younger, I didn’t realize how much went into the company. I always have this story I remember in like 3rd grade. We were going around the room telling people what their parents did and people really didn’t take well to goat cheese back then. I mean, little eight year olds, didn’t know goat cheese. So I was like, “Oh my parents are in the food industry.” I didn’t want to say goat cheese because I was so embarrassed. But now it’s hilarious, like all my friends always want to come over, and have goat cheese and wine with my parents. But I kind have been really blindsided how much my parents have done, and how much my dad, and Jean, and Michel have done for the goat cheese industry in the United States. They really are, I mean, just from my experience, not to toot their horns, but they really are what I find to be the pioneers of goat cheese in the US. And there’s so much work that goes into it. So many employees that really value the company, and love working for it. So many families are sustained by it, and I just think it’s incredible. I feel really blessed to be able to be a part of it, and hopefully I don’t mess up.
To learn more visit: Montchevre.com
Follow on twitter: @MontchevreGoat