Marieke: Eat Cheese and Keep the Cows Happy

This month’s featured cheese maker is Marieke Peterman of Holland’s Family Cheese, the business name for a very successful Wisconsin cheese brand and her namesake, Marieke Gouda. The busy staff and many visitors at the small complex she has established in Thorp, Wisconsin, 45 minutes east of Eau Claire, show the results of a very busy woman who has turned a childhood interest in cheese into an impressive venture.

The Marieke Gouda store is located on State Highway 29, which runs between Chippewa Falls and Green Bay and for some is the line between “northern” and “southern” Wisconsin. Outside stands a huge cow with “cheese” on its side – inside the blue and white-walled store is a huge set of award plaques and ribbons that would make any cheese maker proud. And in the almost 13 years since Marieke entered the U.S. artisan market, she has helped Wisconsin cement its relatively new reputation as a global artisan cheese powerhouse.

Marieke’s Roots

Marieke grew up near Weerslo, Netherlands, on eastern edge of the country, less than half-way between Amsterdam and Hannover, Germany. She lived on a dairy farm with a 60-cow herd. When she was young, she would go to the market and see a cheese monger who had a catchy rhyming slogan he would repeat to customers…one that Marieke remembers to this day. He also gave out samples, which attracted children like Marieke.

“I would eat a lot of cheese,” Marieke said.  “We had a lot of farmers markets.”

Out of grade school and into college, Marieke ended up with a degree in Dairy Business and then began work as a farm inspector. But she still remembered the tastes of those farmstead cheeses the farmers market vendor gave her, including that of a young Gouda. She decided to create a traditional Dutch Gouda in honor of those cheese flavors from childhood.

Marieke still returns to the Netherlands two times a year, sometimes with her five children.  She also maintains another connection to her roots by host student interns from the Netherlands in Thorp, who work on dairy or business projects for a few weeks or several months each year.

Marieke Penterman and Ken Monteleone of Fromagination
Fromagination owner Ken Monteleone credits Marieke Penterman with helping to fuel the great artisan cheese “wave” in Wisconsin.

Big Business in Thorp

The trajectory for growth of Marieke’s businesses seems relatively fast.  She arrived in Wisconsin in 2003, and decided to study cheese-making and become a Wisconsin-licensed cheese maker, and began production in 2006. She studied abroad, including back in her home, the Netherlands, and has not only brought authentic Gouda-making technique but also equipment back from there. She and her husband, Rolf, expanded and moved their facility in 2010, then broke ground for a store and restaurant in 2013.

While the shift to Wisconsin from the Netherlands has served her career goals, Marieke still prefers the Dutch climate over that of central Badgerland. “Nine months of winter!” Marieke said, “…and I’m still adjusting” But, from a business standpoint, she certainly seems to have figured how to make it work.

Opened in 2014, the rustic restaurant, Cafe Dutchess (get it?), and the Marieke Gouda store, with a blue and white interior, have become a tourist destination in Clark County.  The restaurant has an outdoor patio, a huge fiberglass cow stature bolted to a concrete slab, cow-shaped fiberglass benches, and a gigantic “jumping pillow” for children – all of which give the facility a tourist feel.  Now a member of WATA – the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association – they give tours twice a day in the summer, but are closed on Sundays and holidays.

The store is equipped with large windows which give several views of the cheese-making process, including a storage facility where large wheels of Gouda sit on pine planks to age.  Visitors can watch employees wipe the planks on a regular basis and turn the wheels of cheese, which happens with less frequency as the cheese ages. Immediately next door is the dairy barn and milking facility (the milk runs underground by pipe into the cheese making facility behind the store.  Marieke’s “right hand” and general manager, Kim, reminds visitors that Clark County has more cows than human residents, and is a major dairy county in Wisconsin.

Store visitors can, of course, purchase Marieke Gouda cheeses, but also cheese curds, and the cheeses of several other Wisconsin producers, including nearby Lynn Dairy.  The extra milk not used to produce cheese in-house is sold to Lynn Dairy for its general cheese-making, but Kim said they dream of increasing production to the point that they eventually use all that milk on-site. To that end, they hope to hire sales managers on the East and West Coasts to boost domestic sales.

“We only need two months’ notice to ramp up production,” Marieke said with a smile.

Marieke Gouda is an artisan Wisconsin product now made in a wide variety of flavors…and sold in the U.S.A., and places such as Canada, Belgium, England and Spain.
Shop for Marieke Gouda products

Still Interested in the Work

In 2006, Fromagination owner Ken Monteleone was in the early stages of developing his business plan when he met Marieke at a workshop in Wausau.  According to Ken, meeting her just fired up his desire to open a shop that would tell her story and those of cheese makers like her.  In 2007, Marieke was one of the first cheese makers Fromagination featured in the front window of the shop.

“It’s been exciting to follow Marieke’s career in the short time she has taken the cheese world by storm,” Ken said.  “Her passion and personality – along with the wonderful Goudas she creates – make me want to tell everyone about her.”

What is Marieke’s biggest competition now?  She says it’s the cheaper, imported Goudas from Holland that are sold in the U.S. market.  In turn, but, perhaps, she will return the favor. Marieke now has an interest in sending a little competition back to the Netherlands and has discussed supplying cheese to a market chain in Amsterdam. Holland’s Family Cheese has not yet worked out some shipping issues to achieve that goal.

Holland’s Family Cheese was very lucky when it entered the cheese business, Marieke said.  The artisan cheese market was being revitalized and growing, and they took advantage of the new interest from the incipient “foodie” movement and the cheese-eating public.

“The consumer was ready for some specialty, farmstead cheese, They were willing to pay more for hand-crafted cheese,” Marieke said. “Now Wendy’s (chain restaurant) advertises Gouda on the burgers.”

Marieke made a short list of things she considers the keys to her success, ending with a smile and the last of those components: “Stubborness.”  In between, she talked of the importance of hiring good employees and letting them do their jobs, and making sure her artisan cheese inventory is tightly controlled.  She does not want to see her cheeses discounted at Costco, she said.

“At the end, you have to follow what you think is the best path to go on,” she said.

Rolf Penterman

On the wall in a hallway of the Penterman Farm’s milking facility is a mural which explains a key component of Marieke’s success.  It’s a simple painting of cows running out into pasture, one of them kicking up its heels in the green grass on a sunny day.  But under the mural are painted the words Vrolijke Koeien, which translates to English as “happy cows.”  And the cows at the Holland’s Family Farm facility do, indeed, seem content. The milk they constantly produce has put Rolf’s partner in position to make some highly acclaimed cheese…and she is well aware of that.

Rolf Penterman arrived in the United States with his brother in 2002 to start a dairy business in Clark County.  (Marieke arrived a year later.) He is the man behind the vrolijke koeien, whether it’s giving a tour to school children who get to see calves being born, or explaining the rotating “cow brush” – like something one might see at a car wash – which attracts lines of cows who want to feel it scrubbing their various parts.  He monitors the health of herd members with ankle monitors and cow “Fitbits” in their ears. He seems genuinely proud of his healthy herd, which is just a few steps away from the store and restaurant.

Marieke and Rolf’s attitude towards their dairy herd is well-summarized on the Holland’s Family Cheese website: “We treat our cows with love and respect; it is a code we live by on the farm. In turn our herd provides us with full-flavored, remarkably consistent milk. Our cows relax in the sand in our free-stall barns. They have rotating back-scratcher brushes, sprinkler systems and fans to keep them cool. We like to call it the Cow Spa.”

Rolf Penterman is one reason Marieke came to Wisconsin…and the man who keeps the cows happy…and the milk flowing.

After putting on sanitary booties, Rolf took visitors through the barn to see the herd, made up of Brown Swiss and Holstein dairy cattle.  The dairy staff milk a herd of more than 400 cows three times every day, at 5:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.  According to Rolf, it takes between seven and eight minutes to “empty” a cow, who then returns to eating and sleeping on a sand bed in the barn until its next date in the automated milking parlor.

The State of the Cheese Industry and the Milk Market

From those healthy and contented looking cows comes 40,000 pounds of milk.  It takes 8.5 pounds of milk to create one pound of cheese, and Marieke Gouda employees make two batches of cheese each day. Within five hours of milking, the cheese-making process has already begun. Marieke mentioned again a desire to use all that milk on-site someday.

Rolf dreams of a special calf barn just to keep his “new arrivals” out of the rough weather during central Wisconsin winters, but that is a facility that must be budgeted for…and the challenges of the cheese industry don’t make that easy. Lots of small farms are closing or being bought out in Wisconsin, Rolf said. The current and severe depression of milk prices puts even more pressure on those involved in the dairy industry.  When prices are down, farmers can’t put the source of their income in mothballs and wait.  “You can’t stop milking the cows just because business is down,” he said.

The artisan cheese business is changing again too, according to Marieke. “The small ones are getting bought out,” she said. “If we’re losing the small farmers, we’re losing the heart and soul of the dairy industry.”  They have had offers to buy out their business too, but Marieke and Rolf have turned those down.

Holland’s Family Cheese has a calving area that supports many new “recruits” to its dairy herd.

Awards & Recognition

To understand Marieke’s trajectory in the cheese business, it is instructive to understand how she got legal resident status in the United States. As she told the story of how she got into the cheese-making business, Rolf reminded Marieke how she came to stay in the U.S.  She smiled and mentions what she called “the extraordinary ability route” to stay in the United States.  And that day she reminded Fromagination owner Ken Monteleone that he wrote a letter of support for her to gain that visa.

Marieke decided to apply for a 0-1 Visa, a visa status normally reserved for professors or athletes.  The U.S. Citizen & Immigration Services (USCIS) website explains, “Extraordinary ability in the fields of science, education, business or athletics means a level of expertise indicating that the person is one of the small percentage who has risen to the very top of the field of endeavor.” After a long process, she received the visa…and proudly said that she was the first cheese maker to receive it.

Marieke is no stranger to recognition for her cheese-making prowess.  She won her first significant award in 2007, just four months after making her first Gouda cheese.  In 2011, she was awarded the Grand Master Cheesemaker at the Wisconsin State Fair. In 2013, she captured the U.S. Cheese Championship, held in Green Bay, with her Mature Gouda. That wall in her store, with mentions from American Cheese Society competitions, the Wisconsin State Fair and other contests, looks very much like it will continue to be decorated.

This year, after placing two of her cheeses in the top 20 finalists, she lost the U.S. Cheese Championship by .124 of a point to an Ohio cheese maker’s Baby Swiss.  But she not only took 2nd place, but also 3rd place, among those final 20 competitors.

In 2019, Marieke Gouda not only took the Best of Class Award, but placed two cheeses in the top 20, then the top 3, losing the Champion title by a mere .124 of a point.

As a result, in early March CBS’ “Sunday Morning” television program featured Marieke in a story.  The company received as many orders online in the first two days following that program as it had during all of 2018 online.   

So…which one of her cheeses is her favorite?  Marieke rolled her eyes slightly and replied, “All of them!  They’re like your children.”

We are proud to have her as Fromagination’s Featured Cheese Maker of the month. 

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