Stephanie Clark, an associate professor in food science and human nutrition, is leading several initiatives to promote Iowa cheeses, including co-chairing an international cheese conference. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Raising Iowa’s cheese profile

Stephanie Clark is determined to make Iowa the next great cheesemaking state.

“We do have a number of really good cheesemakers around here, and I think it’s time we make people more aware of it,” she said.

Clark — an associate professor in food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University who goes by the email “milkmade” — is one of the state’s premier leaders in promoting Iowa cheese. Her efforts were key in bringing an international cheese conference to Iowa, forming a new guild that connects the state’s dairy professionals, and co-founding a statewide dairy products showcase.

She is a co-chair of the American Cheese Society’s annual international conference, Cheese in the Heartland, which will be held July 27 to 30 in Des Moines.

The conference is a chance to showcase Iowa’s cheeses to the world. It’s expected to attract more than 1,200 cheese industry professionals and experts from around the world. The conference’s annual competition, for which Clark has served as the technical adviser since 2011, will showcase more than 1,700 entries.

“That’s a big deal, for us to win that bid,” Clark said. “Cheese lovers will be descending on Des Moines!”

The Festival of Cheese at the end of the conference will open an international cheese selection to the general public for sampling and purchase. The festival begins 7 p.m. July 30 at the Iowa Events Center

Improving Iowa dairy products

Clark’s passion for dairy products traces back to growing up on a Massachusetts farm with her first pet, a Nubian dairy goat named Hillary. 

"I was involved in 4-H through my youth, but did not know food science was a career option until my sophomore year in college when I asked my adviser if I could do undergraduate research with goat milk,” she said. “I was sent over to food science, and started taking classes there.” 

Clark has helped many Iowa dairy farmers, companies, and consumers make smart choices. While teaching at Iowa State, she also consults dairy farms and companies on production, quality, and safety.

“That’s what I think a land-grant institution should do,” she said. “I think we should answer those calls and help troubleshoot. A half-hour phone call helps a lot. If I can help solve their problem, it saves them a lot of money. It feels good to be able to do that.”

Connecting cheesemaker to cheesemaker

By connecting with dairy professionals all over the state, Clark saw a need to form a new professional association: the Iowa Cheese and Cultured Dairy Products Guild.

The guild provides a networking and education outlet to in-state sellers, buyers, makers, and enthusiasts of cheese and dairy products. More than 20 members representing independent artisans, farms, and major companies meet monthly.

“We’re trying to create a network so they can share experiences and thoughts,” said Kevin Stiles, the senior vice president of business development for Midwest Dairy Association. “It’s amazing how the best learning can take place cheesemaker to cheesemaker.”

The guild will play a large role in ensuring the success of Cheese in the Heartland. Members will volunteer, lead tours, and present Iowa’s cheeses at the competition and festival.

“It creates overall enthusiasm for the cheese industry in the state,” Stiles said. “We see the guild as a way to showcase Iowa-made cheeses.”

Dairy products showcase

In August, Clark will spearhead another passion project she co-founded: the Iowa Quality Dairy Products Showcase.

Now in its second year, the showcase features cultured dairy products, goat and sheep cheeses, and cow cheeses from Iowa companies. Winning cheeses are displayed at the Iowa State Fair. Nine companies entered last year’s competition.

“We’re judging their products and providing them with valuable feedback to improve the quality of their products,” Clark said.

Stiles, who co-founded the guild and dairy products showcase with Clark, said both ventures aim to increase education, food safety, and marketing for Iowa’s 17 cheesemakers and its artisanal cheeses.

“We have a number of large cheesemakers, but also a growing farmstead and artisanal cheese industry too,” he said. “We see an opportunity for the growth potential of artisanal cheeses. It’s been a really good partnership with Stephanie to further build upon the enthusiasm and camaraderie amongst the Iowa cheesemakers.”

Steps in the right direction

Iowa hosting one of the foremost dairy conferences in the world will help encourage development of dairy farming in the state, said C.J. Bienert, the owner of The Cheese Shop of Des Moines who’s also a co-chair of the international cheese conference.

“The conference might just give traditional Iowa farmers that encouragement that they need to take the next step, put in the infrastructure and investment, and start making cheese,” he said.

He explained that other well-known dairy producing regions began as traditional farming areas as well.

“How did Wisconsin become such a great dairy state?” Bienert said. “They used to farm wheat and they had to reinvent themselves. Dairy farming is a way of cash-flowing grass.”

Some corn and soybean farmers are changing their operations and raising cattle for beef production. While not a direct line to cheesemaking, Bienert said animal husbandry is a step in the right direction.

“My dream is that these businesses will start here,” he said. “Iowa is affordable and centrally located, so it makes a lot of sense. I think that we’re posed to see a growth in artisanal products.”