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December 14, 2007
For a listing of other previous Retail Watch stories, please see our Retail Watch Archive.

UW-River Falls students get hands-on experience in creating unique cheese


DEVELOPED BY STUDENTS — Cobblestone Red, created by students at University of Wisconsin-River Falls, debuted this fall. The cheese utilizes wine from a local winery.

By Kate Sander

RIVER FALLS, Wis. — Companies looking for up-and-coming food technology students to join their ranks may need to look no further than University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where students under the tutelage of Falcon Foods plant manager and UW-River Falls instructor Ranee May have developed their own cheese: Cobblestone Red, a semi-soft cheese utilizing wine from a local winery.

May has taught the university’s dairy technology courses for many years, guiding her students through the practical ins and outs of making cheese and ice cream. The cheeses they make generally are pretty straightforward traditional Cheddars, Jacks and the like.

A few years ago, though, May traveled with some students to China to work on a yak milk project. Afterward she and the students thought it would be helpful to incorporate some of their experiences into a class.

Through her experiential learning class, May put into motion a plan to make a unique cheese — developed, created and marketed by UW-River Falls students — and she introduced the concept in class.

Despite the fact that May is the consistent adviser in developing the cheese, she says one thing that sets UW-River Falls apart from other schools is how much of its dairy technology program is student-driven. It took two years to develop the cheese and bring it to market, and the somewhat transient nature of students meant different students were working on the cheese at different times. But she credits the students for working as a team to bring the product to market.

“One of the things we talk about here is that it’s made with student pride,” she says.

And Cobblestone Red is a student product through and through. The cheese isn’t just made by students. Student involvement starts with the milk, which is produced at the new UW-River Falls Dairy Learning Center complex by cows which are milked and managed by the university’s dairy science students.

• First a concept, then a reality

Cobblestone Red, May says, started as a concept on paper. First the students determined the type of cheese they wanted to make, deciding to go with a fresh American-style cheese because they were familiar with those cheesemaking basics. For added flavor and colorful veining, they decided to try using wine to flavor the cheese.

As they worked on the recipe, they first decided to experiment with an imported Australian wine to see how it interacted with the cheese. Later, they decided to try a wine from nearby Chateau St. Croix near St. Croix Falls, Wis. They soon found that the relatively new vineyard’s Chateau Rouge wine, which is a specialty blend of red Zinfandel and Muscat, worked well in the cheese and also supported Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle’s initiative to buy local. Not only was a cheese born — the students now had a marketing angle, too.

May describes Chateau Rouge as a rich, full-bodied, sweet, burgundy-colored wine that carries the flavors of fresh berries, black cherries and vanilla. It enhances the flavor and texture of the university’s white Cheddar curd artisan cheese, she says.

The dairy technology students conducted taste tests among their peers. They also held a campus-wide contest to determine the cheese’s name. Not only did the students provide feedback but their opinion is an important one: UW-River Falls’ Falcon Foods dairy plant operates on the income from products, including sales of products for campus foodservice.

Laura Wojchik, a marketing communications major with an agricultural emphasis, is working as a marketing intern on the project. She says the cheese has been a great opportunity for students, and she is pleased with how quickly awareness of the cheese is growing.

Cobblestone Red debuted at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis., in October, and the 65 pieces of cheese that May and the students brought with them sold out before the last day of the expo. The cheese also was served at the recent UW System Board of Regents meeting on campus and at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of the new UW-River Falls Dairy Learning Center. The feedback has been positive, May says.

Wojchik notes that interest in the cheese — which is available on Falcon Foods’ website as well as at its campus store — also is growing since the students’ story has started to appear in local media.

• Hands-on learning

May believes in teaching her students all the practical aspects of cheesemaking. While dairy product technology is not a major at UW-River Falls, it is one of the options possible in the food science program. In addition, dairy tech students come from other programs, including dairy science and agricultural engineering, giving these students a broad range of experience. Adding to that experience, all of the students work in the dairy plant at one time or another. And, if they are so inclined, dairy technology students can avail themselves of the many certification courses that May offers to industry members. With the opportunity to make cheese in the dairy plant under direct supervision and to take concurrent cheesemaker certification courses, the students can have their cheesemaking licenses in hand by the time they graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

Because they have so much practical experience, “when they graduate, many of our students are two years ahead (of graduates of other programs) and are ready to pursue their careers,” May says.

In the process of developing Cobblestone Red, the students determined what equipment was necessary for the production of the cheese and learned about funding sources and regulations. Due to the hands-on nature of the project, the students also have become familiar with the many resources the Wisconsin dairy industry has at its disposal. For example, Falcon Foods worked with the Dairy Business Innovation Center, a Madison-based nonprofit organization dedicated to growing specialty and artisan dairy businesses, to determine marketing strategies.

• Looking to the future

While the two years to get the product to market are over, the story is just beginning for Cobblestone Red and the students who helped make it a reality.

As the students who developed and were involved in the early marketing of the cheese move closer to graduation, they have a great resume builder and practical hands-on-experience as they move on to dairy companies around the country.

Meanwhile, students just joining the program will continue the process of refining the recipe if needed, making more of it and pursuing new marketing avenues.

As it gains popularity, May hopes Cobblestone Red will become the signature product for which UW-River Falls’ Falcon Foods plant is known, much like Washington State University is known for its Cougar Gold cheese.

That’s a long-range goal, though. In the short term, the focus is on paying off the moulds that Falcon Foods invested in (Cobblestone Red is made in 2-pound rounds vs. the 20- and 40-pound blocks the students use for other cheese).

Right now, the students only make about 100 pounds of the cheese every couple of weeks, and the plant will be closed for the semester break.

But demand is rising — after an introductory price of $7 per pound, Cobblestone Red’s price on the Falcon Foods website increases to $12 after the first of the year.

In addition to the website, Cobblestone Red can be purchased in the Falcon Foods store located in the UW-River Falls campus agricultural sciences building. May also says Falcon Foods plans to work with distributors to get the cheese into local stores and that the cheese also will be available at the Chateau St. Croix Winery and Vineyard.

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