The cheese curd’s journey from Minnesota cow to Minnesota State Fair takes less than a week — potentially as little as three days, if everything falls into place — but involves hundreds of people and hundreds of miles.
It starts on family dairy farms, before sunrise.
It’s well before dawn when Andrew Miron flips on the milking barn lights at his family’s dairy farm in Hugo, Minn.
He knows something his cows don’t: The milk they’re about to give might end up as a Minnesota State Fair cheese curd. But it’ll have to be refrigerated, hauled, pasteurized, coagulated, matted, salted, sorted, trucked, battered, and deep-fried first.
Andrew Miron and his five siblings are the fifth generation of the Miron family to farm this land. The farmhouse his great-great-grandfather built in 1900 still stands. Andrew’s father, Fran Miron, took over the farm in 1976, and since then, has served as mayor of Hugo, is currently a Washington County commissioner, and recently lent his farm to a taping of the ABC reality show “The Bachelor.” Now, Andrew and his brother Paul handle much of the day-to-day operations of the farm, where they live with their respective wives and kids — the sixth generation.
“For us, it’s our love for animals,” Andrew said. “I always enjoyed the work, first and foremost. But beyond that, I loved growing up here. I loved the lifestyle, and now — seeing the same joy of that in my boys is priceless.”
Miron Farm is a member of Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, a farmer-owned operation and the king of Wisconsin cheese curd production. Ellsworth, which supplies most, if not all, of the cheese curds at the Minnesota State Fair, sources its milk from a network of about 250 family dairy farms. Some have upwards of 1,000 cows and run automated milking machines; others are Amish farms with no more than 40 cows and families who still squeeze milk out by hand. Andrew Miron sits comfortably somewhere in the middle.
His milking barn is long and narrow, with 58 total cow-sized stalls lining both sides of a central walkway. When things go as planned, milking the herd is a three-person operation. Two people take either side of the barn, where they’ll use vacuum-powered milking tubes to gently pull milk from a cow’s udders into a stainless steel pipe that runs high along the length of the barn. When one cow is done, they’ll remove her milking tube and carry it to the next cow — and move down the line. Meanwhile, the third person keeps things clean and tackles logistics: The size of the barn means the farm’s 160-some lactating cows have to be milked in three groups, so this person helps manage the tricky task of rotating in the next segment and sending cows who are done out to graze.
When they pull this off, Andrew said, they can have the entire herd milked — and the barn cleaned up — within three hours. As for the milk, it continues through the steel pipe into another barn, where it’s rapidly cooled from body temperature down to 40 degrees and deposited into one of two massive refrigerated tanks.
Once the team is done and the sun has come up, it’s time for them to start on other farm chores — they also grow corn, soybeans, alfalfa and hay to incorporate into the cows’ dietary rations — and for the cows to do whatever it is that cows do all day.
“Look,” Andrew said one afternoon, pointing toward a faraway path visible outside the barn window. “One’s meandering her way up from pasture now.”
Every other night, the milk hauler stops by.
Before Miron Farm bought the large milk storage tanks, the hauler brought his truck every night, Andrew said, but this new pickup schedule is both more economical and more efficient for all involved.
Even so, milk trucks are constantly on the move. Haulers may take an overnight farm pickup route to be able to arrive at Ellsworth with a truck full of milk when the creamery opens at 5 a.m., Ellsworth sales manager John Freeman said. They head back out for daytime pickups, returning to Ellsworth every time they fill their 6,000-gallon truck, and wrap up by closing time. Then, the process starts all over again. Combined, the drivers make about 35 deliveries at Ellsworth throughout the day.
Andrew pointed to a log sheet on a clipboard in the milk storage barn: On his most recent visit, the hauler picked up 23,469 pounds of milk — 2,730 gallons’ worth on the way to Ellsworth, the same place all of Miron Farm’s milk has gone since 1978.
If the city of Ellsworth truly is the Cheese Curd Capital of Wisconsin, as the then-governor proclaimed in 1983, then John Freyholtz is the commander-in-chief.
Every day, thanks to the independent hauler network, 1.9 million pounds of milk show up at Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery’s intake docks. And as the director of operations, Freyholtz is there to make sure that, throughout the day, about 190,000 pounds of fresh, finished cheese curds successfully come out the other side.
“Ultimately, everything that we produce here in curd format is made to order,” he said.
Milk from every single arriving truck is first tested for antibiotics, filtered, and pasteurized. Then, it’s pumped up to the stainless steel jungle where the curds are born. Ellsworth’s production floor is a labyrinth of vats and stairs and catwalks, and the smell of warm, acidic milk is unmistakable. Visitors must wear gowns, hairnets, and, evidently, preferably not shorts.
At the beginning of the cheesemaking process, starter cultures and rennet are added to the milk, so it acidifies and splits into firm curd and liquid whey. Then, a machine slices and dices the dime-sized chunks of curd and raises the temperature to cook them. The curd is then moved to the DMC — draining, matting, cheddaring — where the pieces settle on a large conveyor belt and join back together into a thick, 30-foot-long slab, or mat. The weight of this slab, pushing down on itself, is reminiscent of a step in the traditional British cheddar-making process. Then, the slab is sliced once more into cheese curd-sized rectangles. The point of all this? To drive out as much of the liquid whey as possible, so the moisture content and acid levels are just right.
Now that the curds are recognizable, they’re salted, agitated into their characteristic craggy shape, rapidly cooled, sorted by size, and packaged. Right out of the size sorter, though, the curds have a bright salty taste and an enveloping warmth. The too-small ones are destined to be processed into block cheddar, and the rest are either bagged for retail or boxed up for wholesale customers like State Fair vendors. And they go right out the door: The plant does have refrigerated storage space, but customers’ curds shouldn’t stick around for longer than two days.
Six thousand pounds of fresh cheese curds are ready in Wisconsin for Dave Cavallaro.
The Mouth Trap, the cheese curd juggernaut Cavallaro owns in the Minnesota State Fair’s Food Building, brings in fresh cheese curds every single day of the Fair.
Cavallaro buys directly from Ellsworth and hires his own refrigerated truck driver, who heads out to the creamery every evening to pick up the massive shipment of curds and bring them one step closer to deep-fried glory.
Five fryers are already blazing hot when the Food Building opens. Cavallaro has likely been at the fair for more than an hour already, and he says a line out the door before The Mouth Trap opens is not an unusual sight.
Fresh cheese curds, fresh oil, cold batter — that’s important. “We use ice water for our batter,” Cavallaro said. “Those little things make the process stand out.” The temperature they fry the curds, he said, is “a little bit of a secret.” It works. As most fairgoers know, the cheese curds are simultaneously crunchy and chewy, sublimely lactic and salty and explosively gooey.
By the peak of the day’s sales, all 13 fryers will be up and running. Throughout the fair, it takes about 170 employees to power the cheese-curd empire; an entirely new crop of workers rotates in every four days. And they sell an astronomical volume of cheese curds. During the 2019 Fair, total revenue amounted to about $1.5 million in curds, the second highest-grossing vendor (behind, naturally, Sweet Martha’s). Other Fair cheese curd vendors also use Ellsworth’s curds, and their sales numbers are impressive as well. Miller’s Flavored Cheese Curds, near the Giant Slide, topped $640,000 in sales in 2019.
But you can’t have a good deep-fried cheese curd without good cheese — and you can’t have good cheese without good milk, good cows, and good people behind it all.
“Our farm slogan for years has always been, ‘Caring for family, livestock, and the land for over a century,’” Andrew Miron said. “We need to take care of our land; we need to take care of our animals. That’s our livelihood. It’s not only a passion and an enjoyment, but it’s ethically the right thing to do.”