Full of Surprises
By day, Dan Stearns is a mild-mannered Master of Cheddar at Agropur Cheese.
But by night, he trades in his white coat and hairnet for his leather jacket and Harley Davidson and speeds through the mean streets of Weyauwega, Wisconsin with a motorcycle gang known as The Old Farts.
And that’s just one of many unexpected twists in Dan’s story.
Though it seems at first like Dan is all business, with his soft-spoken nature and buttoned-up cheese operation, he’s full of surprises. For example, his past jobs include professional grave digger and potato factory worker. But once Dan found the cheese world, he never looked back.
“You start to realize the intricacies of the art of making cheese,” he says. “You think of it as a living organism, and you want to grow it up the best you can.”
Dan started off with one of the toughest grunt jobs in the plant lugging 640-pound blocks of cheese into the cooler, but stuck it out and worked his way up to management. Soon, he started winning awards for his exceptional cheddar.
“The one I remember most was the first time we placed at the U.S. Cheese Championship,” says Dan. “Because my grandkids were there, and we got a really cool picture of my granddaughter up there with me.”
As Dan continued to rack up awards and accolades, his colleague suggested that he check out the Master Cheesemaker program.
“It was a challenge but it was a lot of fun,” says Dan, who holds a Master Cheesemaker certification in cheddar that comes in handy now that he heads up Agropur’s cheddar operation. “I learned a lot, and I'm still learning.”
Dan is proud to hold the Master Cheesemaker title. But there’s another title he’s even prouder to hold: Wisconsinite.
“Just look at the [cheese] contests. We'll take more first place than any other state out there,” he says. “That says a lot about Wisconsin. We want to be the best, and I think we are.”
Work Hard, Play Hard
When Dan’s not hustling to keep his cheddar at top quality in his high-speed plant, you can find him restoring vintage tractors at his mother’s farm, creating custom signs at his sawmill, and hanging out with his fellow cheesemakers.
“We're like a big family,” he says. “We work hard and we party.”
Dan is even heading off to Europe with a group of Wisconsin cheesemakers and other dairy pros to see how cheese is made across the pond.
When asked how cheesemakers who compete for the same awards and customers can be such good friends, he smiles.
“Obviously we're competing, but at the end you know we're happy for whoever wins,” he says. “It's almost like riding a Harley. You know you're gonna be good friends with anybody that's riding a Harley.”
Is Dan hinting at starting an all-cheesemaker motorcycle gang? We can only hope so!