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Dairy Defined Podcast: How NMPF Pulled Off a Virtual Cheese Contest

November 3, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted lives and transformed everything from schooling and shopping habits to … cheese contests. It’s not something most people think about, but in a time of social distancing and curtailed travel, how exactly does one gather, sample, compare and celebrate world-class cheeses, virtually?

This was the question National Milk Producers Federation coordinators Jamie Jonker and Miquela Hanselman set out to answer – and their solutions were cheese-tastic, to say the least. Judging conducted from multiple locations, donated storage spaces and smaller cheese blocks played their role – as did continual ingenuity from a team determined not to let a pandemic upend a cherished dairy tradition.

NMPF announced the winners of its first-ever virtual cheese contest – one believed to be the first nationwide U.S. cheese contest of the virtual era – last week. This week’s Dairy Defined Podcast tells the tale of the Cheese Contest That Could, featuring Jonker, Hanselman, and Head Cheese Judge Allison Reynolds of the USDA, facilitated by NMPF Communications Manager Theresa-Sweeney Murphy.

“I think it’s important that while we are in strange and unique times because of the pandemic, that some things still continue to happen as normal course of order,” said Jonker, NMPF’s staff scientist and a 16-year veteran of the competition. “The most rewarding part is that, unless we told people about how we did it, most people wouldn’t understand that it was any different from other years. And I think that’s a testament to the great team that we’ve got at National Milk, our cheese judges, and our co-ops that enter the cheese every year for really making it seem like nothing was different, even though everything was different.”

To listen to the full discussion, click here. You can also find this and other NMPF podcasts on Apple Podcasts, SpotifySoundCloud and Google Play. Broadcast outlets may use the MP3 file. Please attribute information to NMPF.


Podcast Transcript

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: The coronavirus pandemic has upended lives and forced transformation of everything from schooling and shopping habits to cheese contests. It’s not something most people think about, but in a time of social distancing and curtailed travel, how exactly does one gather, sample, compare, and then celebrate world-class cheeses? This was the question National Milk Producers Federation coordinators Jamie Jonker and Miquela Hanselman set out to answer, and their solutions were “cheesetastic,” to say the least. NMPF announced the winners of its first-ever virtual cheese contest, one believed to be the first nationwide US cheese contest of the virtual era, last week. This week’s Dairy Defined Podcast tells the tale of the Cheese Contest that Could, featuring Jonker, Hanselman, and head cheese judge, Allison Reynolds of the USDA, facilitated by NMPF communications manager, Theresa Sweeney-Murphy.

Taking a break today to think about cheese because, is there anything else going on today?

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: Thank you guys for joining us today. Jamie, can you tell us a bit about the cheese contest, what it is and why it’s important?

Jamie Jonker, NMPF: The cheese contest has been part of the National Milk annual meeting going back more than four decades. It’s been a great way to showcase fantastic cheeses that are made by our dairy cooperatives around the country. It’s just such an important part of what we do. It was hard to think of having an annual meeting without it.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: When the pandemic hit, I remember we all thought we’d be back in our desks the next month. This wasn’t necessarily the first thing that was threatened by coronavirus.

Jamie Jonker, NMPF: No, the cheese contest was probably not on the top of many people’s minds back in March when, when we thought this was going to be a few weeks or maybe even a few months, but as it continued to stretch on, I think it was probably in June, right before our June board meeting, that Miquela And I first had conversations about what do we do with the cheese contest if we’re not meeting in person this year? So we go back at least four or five months to thinking about what are we going to do to have the cheese contest? It’s new times and strange times these days, and that’s when we started thinking, “Well, should we have one?” And then we thought, “Maybe we can have one, but how do we have one?”

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: Miquela, Jamie is sort of the godfather of cheese here. He’s been doing it for years, but you’ve become very active in the past couple of years. Walk us through the problems that you had to solve, figuring out what a cheese contest would look like during a pandemic.

Miquela Hanselman, NMPF: Well, the first thing we had to figure out what was how to make a cheese contest happen when we weren’t all in the same place. So Jamie and I proposed our idea to the judges, and luckily the judges were very open to the idea of having the cheese shipped directly to them. And luckily they were in places that had enough refrigeration space that they could handle that much cheese. So that was our first hurdle to get over. And then Jamie and I were like, “Well, we usually get 40 pound blocks of cheese. That’s a lot of cheese to deal with.” So at that point we were like, “Okay, well we’ll just change the parameters we give the co-op.”

So, we said they had to send five pound blocks of cheese or two pounds of cottage cheese, and then we divvied up the individual classes to the judges. And one of the things I don’t think people recognize or realize about the cheese contests is that each class is judged by one judge, it’s not a group effort, and that kind of played in our favor with this because then the classes could just go to the judge that was judging them. And then the judges come together for the bigger awards, so for the best of, so that’s best of Italian and best of cheddar and best cottage cheese, and then the chairman’s award. So to get over that hurdle, since they were all in different places, we talked to the judges and the judges said they would be fine with shipping the cheese to each other. So that’s what we ended up doing, and we held a Zoom call to discuss what their top choices were and it ended up working out beautifully.

I think one of the most stressful times for me throughout the cheese contest was when some co-ops had sent their cheese to the wrong judge, and I was like, “Oh no, what are we going to do?” But when that happened, we gave the judges the option to either ship the cheese to the right judge who was judging that class or the judge that received it could just judge the class themselves, and then it wouldn’t qualify for placing just because each judge judges slightly different and we wanted to keep it fair across all of the classes.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: Do you feel, Jamie, that what you came up with maintained the spirit of what we had and was there ever a moment when you thought, “No, this isn’t going to work?”

Jamie Jonker, NMPF: You know, I think at the end of the day, what we put together with the cheese judges and the three outstanding locations. We need to mention those locations, because they really helped out as well. So California Dairies donate space in their Turlock plant for judging. Berry Farmers of Wisconsin donate space in their cheese facility in Wisconsin. And College of DuPage donating space in their culinary institute. And it’s a little different because staff wasn’t onsite. I think you always have in your back of your mind, “Is this going to work out?” And I think it did. We had almost 190 entries across 19 classes. To give you an idea, we had 237 the year before. So the numbers were down a little bit, but that was in part because we did have to place some parameters on limiting number of entries per class, just to help with the logistics for the judges, since they were doing a lot of the work that Miquela and I would normally be doing behind the scenes when we have the judging at the annual meeting.

Hundreds of boxes arrive, we take all the cheese out of the boxes and sort them by class and through our numbering system, and that all fell onto the cheese judges and their helpers this year. So I think we achieved what we set out to do, which was to maintain the quality of our cheese contest, just in a very new and different manner. Was there ever a moment when I thought this isn’t going to work? Probably just about every day. It gets really, I’ll call it cheese stressful, as we get towards the annual meeting and the cheese judging just in general. And I would say that that anxiety level was amped up probably 10 times this year. As Miquela mentioned, some cheeses went to the wrong location, and we knew that some of that would happen. Our judging timeline was also changed this year, so there was a shorter time period from when we made the announcement to our members for them to be able to select their cheeses and send them to the three locations.

And as we were approaching the deadline for getting the entry and information, we were patiently counting how many cheeses we had. And when we hit about 20, we thought, “Well, we’re at least going to have a contest. We’re going to have 20 samples and it’ll be a contest. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea.” And then we ended up with almost 190 entries, and I think that the judges did a great job. They always select an outstanding cheese, and the aged Asiago that they selected this year is one of the best cheeses in the country today, and I think it’s just amazing what we were able to pull off in doing this. So we got it to work.

Miquela Hanselman, NMPF: And just to add to Jamie’s thoughts really quickly, I think a lot of how we pulled this contest off was just hoping it would work, because so much of it was out of our control. And I do want to give a really big thank you to our cheese judges, because this would not have been possible without them. As Jamie said, they took on so much of the work we normally do. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d been like, “We can’t do this.” But they were more than happy to help us pull this off. And I can’t thank them enough for that.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: Speaking of judges, Allison, you’ve judged this contest before. As the pandemic continued, were you concerned that it wasn’t going to happen? And how did you react when Jamie and Miquela said this is happening, and we want you to judge?

Allison Reynolds, USDA: Admittedly I was a bit of a skeptic in the beginning of this process, but I was open to hearing everybody’s thoughts and to see if we really could pull this off. And we kind of put this together pretty quick. I mean, we met at the end of August and then it was a process of trying to find local facilities around each of the judges to accommodate. I’ve worked as an inspector at the California Dairies Turlock facility for the past, nearly 18 years. So thankfully management was really amenable to the concept of allowing me to judge there.

And I know at the time I thought it’ll just be some boxes and it ended up being like more than 50 that ended up showing up. But Marianne was able to judge at the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, Tim at the College of DuPage. And then we just split up the cheese classes, so trying to accommodate and make sure that everybody had about equal numbers. But Jamie and Miquela definitely handled a lot of the logistics of the communication with plants and recording entries, providing us all the tracking numbers of what was coming out to us. But I think while in the beginning of it I thought, “This is going to be a huge challenge,” I look back and think, “Challenge accepted and accomplished.”

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: So, talk about dream job, what does it take to be a chief judge, and what was the experience like for you this year, and what aspect was most challenging?

Allison Reynolds, USDA: Well judging competitions are not just an opportunity for cheesemakers to highlight their very best, but it’s also an opportunity for them to grow and improve with feedback from judges. To be a cheese judge, you must have an ability to evaluate cheese for flavor, body and texture, color, salt, appearance, and finish, but your palate’s got to be able to break down and analyze all the flavors, aromas, along with the body and texture that you’re experiencing with sampling cheese. And you’ve got to be open to trying and sampling every kind of cheese so that you can appreciate the work that goes into every one of them.

But I think above most, you’ve got to have a passion for dairy and cheese. And I grew up raising dairy goats, have continued that for the past 30 years, and that’s kind of where I found my passion for dairy and was exposed to cheesemaking through a local 4-H leader. It led me to going to school at Cal Poly Slo, where I got involved with the dairy products judging team and got eventually hired with the USDA dairy grading branch. And that job led me to meeting my longtime mentor and a fellow judge to this contest, Noreen Ratzlaff, who really continued to allow me to grow and improve.

This year was definitely a one of a kind experience since I had the opportunity to take part really in the full judging process. Typically as a judge, we come in after everything is set up, we do our judging, our paperwork, and that’s kind of about it. This year we took on much more than ever before. That went from tracking shipments, sorting countless boxes, organizing cheese categories, judging, scoring, and then getting all the necessary paperwork to Jamie and Miquela. And while we did run into some challenges, as Miquela mentioned with cheese getting shipped to the wrong locations, we found solutions to them and we just kept moving. They are truly a tremendous amount of work. But they’re done to help improve the quality of cheese that the cooperatives are producing and being purchased by the consumers, so the contest is truly valuable and important.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: So, Allison, what separates a good cheese from a great cheese and what stood out to you about this year’s winner?

Allison Reynolds, USDA: Well, in a judging competition, we’re seeking perfection. So we’re looking to find a cheese that comes as close to the ideal for its type as possible. Finding a great cheese, for me, is kind of like a wild moment. From the time you visually inspect the cheese to analyzing the flavor balance, body, and texture. For me, at least, in my mind, I kind of automatically will know, “Hey, this is really truly a special cheese.” And those are the cheeses that we set aside to be considered for the chairman’s award or possibly the best cheddar, Italian, or cottage, and then we all meet at the end and discuss the ones that we’ve all pulled to decide who’s going to be the overall winner.

This year’s chairman’s award winner was the aged Asiago from Associated Milk Producers in Hoven, South Dakota. It was an excellent piece of cheese. It had just an ideal, intense flavor profile, full, rich, nutty aroma, along with an ideal body and texture. And for the first time this year, we actually had a reserve. It was a cheese that we felt that should be acknowledged, and that was the smoked gouda that came from Select Milk Producers in Monticello, Wisconsin. And that had just the near perfect balance of smoke and natural gouda flavor along with a really smooth body that just really made it another really fantastic piece of cheese.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: Jamie, why did doing all of this matter? What is the significance of this contest and what value does it bring to dairy farmers and their co-ops?

Jamie Jonker, NMPF: You know, I think it’s important that while we are in strange and unique times because of the pandemic, that some things continue to happen as normal course of order. And while the execution of the contest was different this year, still having the contest, I think, was important. It’s always an important part of our annual meeting. The award-winning cheeses are featured during a cheese reception, which of course we won’t be having this year because we’re not meeting in person, but the dairy farmers that produce the milk that goes into the cheese want to see how well their cheese does in the competition. They take great pride in the products that are made out of the milk that they make. And the co-ops take great pride in how they do in our contest as well. We have co-ops that will utilize their placings in our contests, along with the placings, that they do another contest for marketing their cheese as a superior products. And they have every right to do that because there are fantastic cheeses produced by our, our cooperatives.

Having some semblance of normalcy was important for our dairy farmers and our dairy cooperatives. I think it’s also important to continue the recognition of the cheese makers and the staff at the cheese plants. They’ve had a very challenging year and it has not been normal for them, and I think having our contest gives the recognition that they rightly deserve not only for their award-winning cheeses, but for the work they’ve been doing day in and day out to make sure that we have a supply of cheese for US consumers at their grocery store. If people are going out to restaurants, that they can have the cheese that they want on their burger and such. So it’s just, I think, more important to just continue the recognition of the hard work that happens throughout the entire dairy value chain from the farm to the plants and getting it out to the consumers that just want to, and do love eating cheese.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: Now that this is all over, and I’m going to ask each of you the same question, what was the most rewarding thing about doing this?

Miquela Hanselman, NMPF: I think the most rewarding part is… Well, first off, being able to still hold the competition in such a trying year. There’s a lot of things that have been different this year and being able to still make this happen and still get to showcase the cheese was a big deal for both me and Jamie and hopefully our cooperatives. I also think, just seeing the enthusiasm from our cooperatives about the cheese contest, that’s by far my favorite part of the cheese contest is they love to enter their cheeses and see how they do, and they really appreciate and take our feedback to improve the cheese and cottage cheese. So that’s also a really rewarding part for me, because we always get emails, it’s like, “Thank you so much for holding the cheese contest. I’m so glad you were able to do this again this year.” And you can just tell it means a lot to them.

Allison Reynolds, USDA: Well, I think it was definitely a different year. It was challenging, but it was really positive to see the feedback that we had from so many of the cooperatives, that we came pretty close to a regular year for entries, and that was even limiting some of the classes to try to keep the entries down so we didn’t have too many. Being able to do it at the plant, I’ve worked there for a long time, so it was really fun to bring the cheese judging experience to several people that never see it and don’t even realize that we actually do choose judging out in the field. So it was a lot of fun for them and a lot of people got to sample cheese and it was especially rewarding to be able to then donate that cheese for good use at the end of the day.

Jamie Jonker, NMPF: This is my 16th time working with the National Milk cheese contest at the annual meeting. It just would not have felt like an annual meeting, even though all the activities were virtual this year, without having the cheese contest. Some of the staff joke that when I get into my cheese mode for the contest, both in the office as we’re ramping up, and then on site, when we have the contest at our physical meetings, I become cheese Jamie. I get really super focused in the cheese contest and I do have certain ways that I like things to be run. Sometimes when things happen a little differently, I might be a little terse with folks and I always apologize after the contest and profusely thank people for understanding that cheese Jamie comes out once in a while. While it was different this year, it just would not have felt the same if we didn’t have a cheese contest.

So, for me, the most rewarding part was that we pulled it off. We had no idea, as we were beginning to think about this way back in June, and when we talked with Alison and the other judges at the end of August, as to whether or not it would work. And it did. And to me, the most rewarding part is that, unless we told people about how we did it, most people wouldn’t understand that it was any different from other years. And I think that’s a testament to the great team that we’ve got at National Milk, our cheese judges, and our co-ops that enter the cheese every year for really making it seem like nothing was different, even though everything was different.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: And lastly, what happened to all the extra cheese?

Allison Reynolds, USDA: Well, actually out here in California, I made several calls trying to find a location, but I was able to donate quite a bit of it to the Turlock Gospel Mission. They are a homeless shelter here in the Turlock area, but they really do work to rehabilitate and get people off the streets and living life, so I think originally, when I called them about it, they thought, “Okay, it’s going to be a little bit of cheese.” And then when I showed up with several boxes, it was, “Okay, there’s a lot of cheese.” But they were very thankful for it. It’s a trying time right now, so to receive donations like that, they were truly appreciative of. And Tim was able to donate his cheese samples to the university food pantry there at the College of DuPage.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: Thank you all for joining us.

Jamie Jonker, NMPF: Thank you for having us.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: And thank you for listening today. Everyone’s learning a lot, and to learn more about all our champion cheese, visit our website, and check out our latest news section. That’s it for today’s podcast. For more Dairy Defined, look on the sharing our story page at NMPF. You can hunt for that off the news pull down menu on our homepage. You can also subscribe to the Dairy Defined Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, and Google Play. We’ll talk again soon.