Dairy has been the focal point for Land O’Lakes cheesemaker Tim Stearns and his family since before he was born.
His family owned a dairy farm in Wisconsin for nearly 150 years. Though his dad got out of farming, he still stayed in the dairy business, taking a job at the local cheese plant. Tim’s experiences on his family’s farm and working part-time at the plant in high school are where he developed a passion for cheesemaking.
He became a licensed cheesemaker in Wisconsin in 2009. After 14 years of honing his craft, he joined the Land O’Lakes team as the official cheesemaker in Kiel, Wisconsin, in 2022.
This past April at the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association’s annual CheeseCon expo in Madison, Tim took a significant step and was recognized as a Master Cheesemaker, one of the industry’s highest honors.
The journey to becoming a Master Cheesemaker is rigorous. Referred to as “essentially a Ph.D. in cheese” by the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker® program is one of only two in the world and the only one in the United States.
In order to even be eligible to start the program, a cheesemaker needs to be licensed in Wisconsin for 10 years. Once a cheesemaker reaches that mark and successfully applies for the program, they must take another three years of classes through the University of Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research.
In total, the program takes about 13 years to complete. Each Master Cheesemaker becomes a Master of a specific cheese -- Tim is certified in cheddar, for example. If a Master Cheesemaker wants to become certified in another kind of cheese, they would have to reapply and take another three years of courses.
The program is highly exclusive -- there are only around 60 active cheesemakers who have attained the rank of Master.
Beyond the personal honor, Tim’s accomplishment is perfectly timed from a business standpoint, as Land O’Lakes is strategically launching into the crowded dairy case cheese category. Beginning in late 2021, Land O’Lakes began expanding its line of cheese into the Midwest and the Northeast. Now featuring 25 items in 2,000 stores, Land O Lakes® Cheese is quickly becoming a dairy case staple, and Tim has proven to be a vital part of that operation.
“It’s a passion of mine, and it’s amazing to be able to work for a company that is pushing for this and to make an award-winning product for the farmers, too, to show the hard work and the passion they’re putting in, we’re equally putting our best in.”
Tim says the process of making cheese is both an art and a science. Most days, he spends his time grading and evaluating cheese or looking at analytical data to show where and how he can make improvements.
“When I’m physically checking the texture and flavor of the cheese, that’s when I start to see the full picture of our cheese-make, and that’s why I believe cheesemaking is an art,” he says.
As Land O’Lakes continues to expand its dairy case cheese offerings, Tim and the rest of the cheese-making team are all in on making sure only the highest quality product makes it to shelves. As a cooperative, it’s Land O’Lakes’ responsibility to find ways to maximize the value of member milk production. Having an award-winning cheese -- made from their milk -- is a great way to achieve just that.
The award ceremony in April was the culmination of more than a decade of hard work and the realization of a dream he had early in his career. What makes the award even more special is that it was also the completion of a family journey.
Tim’s uncle Dan is also a Master Cheesemaker. When Tim took up cheesemaking, Dan naturally fell into the role of mentor.
“He showed me what it meant to be a Master Cheesemaker and gave me that goal,” Tim says. “He brought the passion out of me.”
When Tim was first starting out as a cheesemaker, his uncle sent him to the Center for Dairy Research to take classes and get his start.
“That’s really what opened my eyes. (Cheesemaking) is not as simple as you think,” Tim says. “It was exciting to continue to learn, grow and shoot for something that is such an honor.”
Through the last decade-plus, Tim has learned the family business by traveling to different facilities and warehouses to grade and select cheese with his uncle. Any time Tim had a question or wanted to chat about something, cheese or otherwise, Dan was there with an answer.
“To not only stay in the dairy industry but to learn from my uncle first-hand, too, was pretty awesome,” Tim says. “I always considered him one of the best around.”
Fittingly, even the day Tim was awarded his Master Cheesemaker status was something he shared with his uncle. Before Tim received the honor at a gala on the evening of April 6, Dan received the Wisconsin Cheese Maker Association’s Vanguard Award. The award recognized Dan’s 45-year career as someone “whose work helped to blaze new trails in dairy operations.”
“Learning from one of the best in the industry was invaluable,” Tim says, “but it meant that much more being able to do it with family.”
In between working toward his Master status and making cheese, Tim says there hasn’t been a lot of time to think about what’s next. For right now, he’s content with carrying on the family business.
“Being on the forefront of this new product we’re putting out is taking a lot of my time and my passion,” he says. “I’m at the point where I’m just enjoying the experience of what I do now.”