Brenda Jensen lives in the rolling hills of western Wisconsin near Westby, where she, her husband, three employees, a dog and occasional visiting grandchildren share the landscape with 700 dairy sheep. Those “girls” – the ones who are not producing lambs or currently dry – are milked twice a day and that milk produces award-winning cheese.
Fast forward to 2019, and now she has accumulated something else: cheese awards, They sit, stacked in two windows of her production facility – plaques, ribbons, certificates – gather dust and probably unnoticed by most visitors. One gets the feeling there’s no time for resting on laurels at Hidden Springs.
Hidden Springs’ Beginnings
Brenda Jensen grew up in a farm environment, but it was not at all like the place she runs now. “I grew up with one cow in the barn,” Jensen said. “I had chickens and sold eggs…it was kind of fun.”
On the other hand, her husband, Dean, wanted a farm as a boy. And he is the one who decided to get the dairy sheep that changed everything. “He’s the one that really wanted to get into it,” she said. Ironically, Dean is now the one who works off the farm, as a successful therapist.
Those sheep were accumulated by accident, according to Jensen, when Dean bought 50 dairy sheep in 2001 and thought they could milk sheep at their farm and sell the milk. Once they got some dairy sheep, Jensen believed that would be the extent of her work. “We milked for five years before we got into cheese,” she said.
Then came a change, when Jensen attended a cheese-making class.
At the time, she worked for a printing company, and her work was creative enough to suit her. “But I didn’t have that passion,” Jensen said, providing the preface for the rest of her story.
Jensen said the change came when she decided to take a class about cheese-making. She and husband Dean were looking for a sheep cheese-maker to possibly create new cheeses with their milk. But things changed when she hit the third day of cheese class, when the students actually got to put their lessons to practice.
“I got goose bumps when I made that first batch of cheese,” said Jensen, smiling at the memory. She had found a calling.
“It was the magic!” Jensen said, recounting her discovery. “I told my husband, ‘I think I found the cheesemaker!'” Dean thought she had met someone in her class. But, “I said, “No, I think it’s me.”
Later in the journey, she said, when her cheese had been placed in the aging cave for the first time, “I remember looking in at that [first batch of] cheese and thinking, ‘I made that cheese!'”
The work was not easy and sometimes frustrating. “We did a lot of ‘two steps back and a half step forward,”” she said. They consulted with Wisconsin’s now-defunct Dairy Business Innovation Center and moved forward anyway. It was hard.
“I wanted to have 150 sheep, buy [more sheep milk] and make cheese,” Jensen said. But then she couldn’t get local sheep milk producers to sell her their milk. So she took on a larger herd to provide enough milk for her creations.
“We weren’t going to have a plant of our own at the very start,” Jensen said. “And then pretty soon we said ‘We’re building a cheese plant.'”
Another early challenge was making good raw milk cheese. Jensen seems to have a penchant for authenticity, and credits Bleu Mont Dairy’s Willi Lehner with inspiring her to make raw milk cheeses. Despite a steep learning curve, she added that to her repertoire…but it was difficult.
“You know…new cheesemaker, raw milk, farmstead cheese,” she said. “But I did it, and I learned a lot.”
Now three of Hidden Springs’ cheeses are made from raw milk: Meadow Melody, Ocooch Mountain and Wischago
IN 2006, Jensen produced her first four batches of her fresh sheep milk cheese, Driftless, named after the area of western Wisconsin close to the Mississippi River that was not flattened out by glaciers. The next year she achieved two remarkable benchmarks for her business – she received her Wisconsin cheesemaker;’s license, and she was featured in the New York Times.
Fromagination owner, Ken Monteleone was about to embark on creating his own business, and met Jensen just as she was starting out.
“Brenda Jensen was one of the first cheesemakers I visited when I was formulating my business plan back in 2006. Hidden Springs was only a year old at the time,” said Monteleone. “After spending a afternoon with Brenda , it confirmed my vision to open Fromagination was the right move. Brenda took us on a tour of her land, shared her five year vision. After seeing the love she had for the land and her sheep I knew I had to finish my business plan and move my idea forward. Fast forward 12 years, Brenda has fully brought her vision to life. She has so many awards that she can’t find room on her wall to showcase them. Her passion lives on. Once your taste the cheese, you can tell the land and the sheep are cared for with great love.”
Hidden Springs lies out in the “boondocks” on the winding roads near Westby, Wisconsin. They “grew into” their current space, which was renovated in 2015. The facility is small and immaculate, and features a barn for the sheep, pasture, a milking facility, a cheese production area and aging rooms. Her underground cellar is not as underground as she would have liked.
“We only went down so far because we hit bedrock, and we couldn’t dynamite [the bedrock] because the facility was next door,” Jensen said.
The milk that comes into the cheese-making facility is gravity-flowed from the milk parlor into a tank, which then supplies the processing facility. As Jensen tours the grounds with visitors, her preference for cleanliness and hygiene becomes visible. She stops in the milking area to explain why Hidden Springs began to wipe sheep udders regularly before milking, a practice that costs time (and therefore money) but ensures a cleaner process.
The Hidden Springs staff milks sheep twice a day, at 5:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., producing about 61 gallons per milking period. They now produce so much that they have some to sell. Currently it is purchased by Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point, which also makes goat, sheep and mixed milk cheeses.
Later, walking through the barn to see her sheep, Jensen discusses other potential improvements for Hidden Springs, but stops herself from committing to them. Small-scale producers have to consider a “balance of how much money you put in, ’cause will you ever get it out?”
Still Interested in the Work
Thirteen years into the sheep cheese business, Brenda Jensen still holds high standards for her work and business. Hidden Springs still treats its herd humanely and feeds it sheep pasture-grazed natural grasses. The business also works with local Amish neighbors to do some work around the facility, and employs three full-time staff, aside from Jensen.
But she has given up doing some of the things she had to do in the early years of her business, such as selling at farmers markets. When she was thinking of a smaller operation, it seemed easier. “I was going to milk a shift, make the cheese, and sell it,” Jensen said.
She plotted and carried out a plan to sell at the busy Dane County Farmers Market to spur initial sales.
“It was great…it was fun. But, you know…three in the morning…cutting cheese the day before…” She trails off and motions, seemingly reliving all the prep work for the market, plus direct sales in downtown Madison and the long Saturdays it required.
“It’s a tough way to make a living,” she said.
But now Hidden Springs has stopped selling directly to customers at the Dane County Farmers Market because the business became too busy.
She looked around her house and out at a large flower garden next to it. “I got thirteen grandchildren and two great grandkids,” Jensen said. “The energy changes.”
Thankfully, Jensen’s energy for creating high quality, award-winning cheese is continuing for the time being. Fromagination enthusiastically names Brenda Jensen as its Featured Cheese Maker of the month.