DEGREE: B.A. in anthropology
JOB TITLE: Co-owner and operator, Uplands Cheese
FAVORITE TRINITY MEMORY: I played in a rock band, and we all lived in a house on Allen Place. I still have a band these days, but I don’t think I’ll ever have that much fun playing music.
What do you do in your role at Uplands Cheese? Together with a business partner and about 10 employees, I own and run our dairy farm and cheese business. We milk 200 cows and make cheese here on the farm. We’re a relatively small operation, and I touch just about everything—cows, cheese, sales, finance, HR. I travel around the world to visit customers.
Did you always want to work in farming? I grew up in Wisconsin and was always attracted to farming, but my parents didn’t farm, so it was a bit of a leap. At first, I was in love with the adventure and challenge of it, and now that I’m a little older, I really value the independence and creativity it allows. It’s not always easy, but it’s a rewarding lifestyle. In the right circumstances, it can be lucrative. I also look at value-added agriculture as a way to help rural communities develop financial independence. With internet-based sales and distribution, small, isolated farms can develop their own products and free themselves from unpredictable and unprofitable commodity markets. In 1970, American farmers received 38 cents of every food dollar spent in the county. Today, it’s eight cents. Farmstead cheese making is a way to reclaim that margin and make family-scale farming viable.
What do you enjoy most about your work? Working with weather, land, and animals is infinitely interesting. We’re constantly forced to learn and improve, which is a fun way to live. Second, because I live where I work, I’m able to spend a lot of time with my kids and raise them on a farm, which is important to us. Lastly, I travel to a lot of interesting places and spend time with great people in the food world. The sales part of the job is a moveable feast.
What are the biggest challenges you face? Thanks to cheese, our farm is successful, but so many neighbors are struggling with the poor commodity milk prices. Wisconsin is losing two family farms a day, and if left unchecked, this trend will permanently change our countryside in the next few years. The class sizes in my kids’ school are shrinking, and some of the little, village elementary schools are closing. One of the principal goals of our business is to share what we’ve learned and help more farmers create value-added products.
What advice would you give to today’s students who might be interested in a career in agriculture? Work on a half-dozen different farms before you convince yourself that it’s for you. Most farms are very personal businesses, and each one is set up differently. It can be a great advantage to start farming without all the inherited habits of your own family’s approach. After graduating from Trinity and failing to get a Watson [Fellowship], I went out anyway and spent three years working for different farms and cheesemakers around Europe. I came home to Wisconsin and went to the University of Wisconsin for dairy science, where I started with a much wider perspective than most of my classmates. I think that helped me approach milking cows and making cheese in ways that aren’t common here, and that has made all the difference for us.
How did Trinity prepare you for the work you do? The Anthropology Department exposed me to all kinds of different information—ethnography, economics, law, politics—that helped me feel conversant in lots of different business situations. Like a lot of small business owners, I have to be able to communicate with a wide range of people and information: suppliers, employees, lawyers, accountants, government officials, customers all over the world, etc.
Was there a professor who was particularly influential? There was a wonderful group of anthropology professors: Jane Nadel-Klein, Frederick Errington, Beth Notar, James Trostle. They taught me how to be inquisitive and skeptical at the same time—how to think critically about the world.