partners with Hondurans to bring ‘local’ to global market
Wills is president of Cedar Grove Cheese Inc., Plain, Wis., and is a
guest columnist for this week’s Cheese Market News®.
World Dairy Expo in Madison is a milieu of clones, sires and planned
improvements. But last year, a chance encounter bred a new
international exchange program. Oskar Bermudez and Otto Tercero, a
dairy inspector and a cheesemaker from Honduras, met Norm Monsen and
others from Wisconsin’s Dairy Business Innovation Center (DBIC). Their
discussion led to the formation of Partners for Global Dairy
Development, a project that brought Honduran cheesemakers to Wisconsin
to learn about our industry.
dairy inspectors face an overwhelming challenge. By standard
accounting, Honduras is the poorest of the Central American countries.
A handful of inspectors and some sanitarians are responsible for
working with more than 40,000 dairy farms and some 2,500 dairy plants.
Bermudez’s employer, SANESA, is the equivalent to our FDA. It certifies
a small number of plants to export to neighboring countries. But
Bermudez wants to raise the sanitary, safety and quality standards for
the whole country. His challenge is how to do that with very limited
is typical of Honduran cheesemakers; he considers himself the best. He
is justifiably proud of his skill making a wide variety of cheeses.
Customers form lines at the store in front of his home where he sells
most of his products. His two sons want to expand and improve the
business. They are eager for knowledge and technology. Bermudez sees
the enthusiasm of the sons and others like them as an opportunity for
improvement, offering sanitary manuals, videos and generous advice.
DBIC and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer
Protection have helped transform Wisconsin’s dairy industry into a
showplace for artisan, specialty and farmstead products, in part by
learning from others. For six years, Wisconsin, working with the
Babcock Institute at the University of Wisconsin, has sent its
cheesemakers abroad to observe others’ cheesemaking practices. DBIC
founder Dan Carter now saw the opportunity for Wisconsin to consider a
reverse program to bring young cheesemakers here from developing
January, Partners in Global Dairy Development was making arrangements
for a pilot program for young Hondurans. At that time I was asked to
host and train some of the participants. A team spent a week in
Honduras touring six cheese factories, five farms, a reload and a
sanitary lab, as well as meeting with the U.S. Embassy and the head of
for the project was universal. We learned these cheesemakers were
serious and careful. No milk was wasted. Plants were clean. The cheese
few plants had pasteurizers. Cheese cultures were limited. One farmer
replaced his herd with Holsteins because he was paid on volume and
would make more money despite the animals being poorly adapted to the
climate. Farmers used unregulated antibiotics and other medications,
and milk was not tested for antibiotics or quality. A new reload
station took in can milk and loaded tankers to ship to distant markets,
bypassing local factories.
In some ways, the Honduran dairy industry reminded me of tales about
Wisconsin in the 1930s. Cheese factories were close together and
protective of their secrets. Most cheesemakers had not been in plants
other than those run by their families. Subsequently, Wisconsin dairies
went through decades of consolidation during which thousands of
factories and farms folded. We suffered through doomed efforts to
supply low-cost cheese in commodity markets. Someone always had a cost
advantage. Farmers were forced to accept low milk prices.
Wisconsin pulled back from the abyss. When the Wisconsin Specialty
Cheese Institute formed there were many naysayers. “Cheesemakers won’t
share information and work together” was a common refrain. But we did.
We discovered that there were many niches. We resurrected old
varieties. We copied imports. We invented new cheeses. More customers
are buying more cheese today because they are excited about their
cheesemakers were interested in Wisconsin for our technological
prowess. But, in addition, they were attracted by the fact that the
best aspects of Wisconsin’s cheese industry offered a different route
to development. Wisconsin cheesemakers, government and educational
institutions built on traditions, fostered collaborative competition
and primarily focused on building new and local markets. This model
promotes stable growth.
donors ask, “What is in it for us?” First, we learn from our guests.
Second, we will probably increase exports of products, ingredients, and
equipment. Third, it enhances the reputation of Wisconsin, generating
inquiries from other parts of the world.
important, the program promotes stability. A stronger Honduran dairy
economy promotes political stability which helps the United States. In
addition, wise development in growing economies can promote stability
in our dairy economy. Today the United States is suffering from a
trade-induced dairy depression. Consumption of dairy products remained
strong through the economic downturn. Milk production has been level.
But, prices have been driven down because exports have fallen more than
and factories that weathered the downturn best are those with loyal
customers. Local markets, with fresh, healthy products supplied by
neighbors, are the hottest marketing trend. That trend will strengthen
with rising energy costs.
develop local-oriented markets around the world increases our price
stability. The Hondurans will find opportunities to develop their
unique products aimed at traditional, local, tourist and neighboring
markets. Healthy development based on the recent Wisconsin model will
make their dairy market, and ours, less subject to the boom and bust
cycles of global markets.
political turmoil, this summer we managed to bring two young Hondurans
to Wisconsin. They attended a meeting of the Artisan Cheese Network
with regulators. They studied at UW-River Falls and UW-Madison Center
for Dairy Research. They worked and toured cheese and ice cream
factories. They made important contacts and lasting friendships. We
helped them prepare presentations to give to the Honduran government
and other cheesemakers.
returning, the two young men visited each other’s homes and factories.
We cannot be sure what the program has bred, but to many in Wisconsin
and Honduras, it looks beautiful.