It's all in the Taste

Published on Tue, 01/20/2009 - 9:43am

According to Myrna Ver Ploeg, current president of Maytag Dairy Farms (cheese making), today’s focus is the same as it was back in 1941. “It’s all about quality. Maytag Family Farms has always been about doing the right thing, being stewards of the land and stewards to both employees and customers.” Today, Maytag Dairy Farms continues to be family-owned with 11 members of the Maytag family taking an active role in the management of the enterprise. Growth has been slow and steady says Ver Ploeg. “Maytag Dairy Farms prides itself that Maytag Blue is an artisan cheese, handmade much as it was in 1941 using the traditional process.”

The history of the Maytag Blue cheese can actually be traced back to 1919 when the original Maytag Dairy Farms began. Elmer Henry Maytag, son of Maytag Corporation originator F. L. Maytag, started the dairy farm for the family and the community. Over the next several years, Maytag Holstein-Friesian herd became famous across the country as show cattle. The herd was actually the top award winner over a period of 20 years. To that point, the Maytag Dairy Farms bottled and sold milk.
In 1940, Fred Maytag II and Robert Maytag inherited the farm from their father. After learning of a process food chemists were working on at Iowa State University for making blue cheese, Fred talked to the ISU Dairy Science Department and by 1941 Maytag Dairy Farms began producing its now-world famous blue cheese. “The process remains the same as it was back in 1941,” notes Ver Ploeg. “We use the same hands on process in the same small cheese plant.” The cheese is made in small batches with each batch carefully watched over the course of months until the flavor is just right.
One major change has occurred since 1941. By the early 90s, 200 Holsteins comprised the Maytag Dairy herd. The decision came in 1993 to disperse the herd and as Ver Ploeg says, “to dedicate all of our attention to the production of Maytag Blue.”
As a result, Maytag Dairy Farms receives milk from small dairy producers within around 30 miles of Newton. “We have a truck deliver milk one to two times per day depending on the amount of cheese being produced,” says Ver Ploeg. The 1200-acres of farm ground remain in the family with a mixture of pasture, corn and beans.

Making the Cheese
To make sure that Maytag Blue tastes just right, Ver Ploeg along with the plant manager grades samples from each vat of cheese. It can vary in flavor and texture; hence the need for careful monitoring. The ultimate goal and end result is to create a cheese that is creamy in texture and just a little pungent to the taste.
Maytag Blue starts out as raw milk delivered daily from local dairy producers. The process of forming the cheese takes days. First, the milk is separated from the cream, and as the cheese begins to taken shape, forming the curds. The cheesemakers scoop the curds into cheesecloth for draining. Next, the curds are scooped by hand into stainless steel hoops. Fresh wheels of cheese are then hand turned to obtain the correct moisture level. A day later, the wheels of cheese are take to and stored in caves dug into area hillsides, where the cheese is exposed to high humidity and cool temperatures. This becomes the final step, which can take months before each wheel of Maytag Blue has finished the aging process.
The final step is packaging, which again, is done by hand. Each and every wedge of Maytag Blue is trimmed and wrapped by hand. As Ver Ploeg says, “We are committed to creating a quality artisan cheese for our customer.”

Looking Back and Ahead
Ver Ploeg was born on a dairy farm, so becoming part of the Maytag Dairy Farms has been a natural. The family-owned company prides itself on caring not only for its product, but its people. “We have employees that have been here for many years. The current office manager has been here 36 years and the former president, Jim Stevens was with Maytag Dairy for 60 years. He started out as a herdsman in 1945,” says Ver Ploeg. “He still comes back to help out.”
Ver Ploeg believes much of the success for Maytag Dairy Farms has to do with the quality employees and the fact that it is still looked at and treated as a small family business. She says with a chuckle, “You know it’s a small business when you get a phone call for the president, and I’m out in the shipping area helping load a UPS truck!”
She does add that things become hectic the last quarter of the year when the time of gift-giving comes around. At that point, seasonal workers are added to help with the packaging, shipping and mailing process.
The future looks good, and the marketing plan remains the same as it has been: selling its cheese to local catalog customers as well as cheese shops, delis and restaurants. The real key to Maytag Blue success still comes from its taste and word of mouth from satisfied customers.

Maytag Blue Cheese is available on-line at Plus, customers can visit the Maytag Dairy Farms specialty cheese shop or call 800-247-2458 to place an order.