By Kristen Miller
COKATO, MN Janelle and Dan Lemke, owners of Morning Star Farms in Cokato, topped off a year of award-winning cheeses by receiving the highest award given by the Upper Midwest Dairy Industry Association.
For the past three years, the Lemkes have been perfecting their Sonny Road cheese with varieties now in 60 stores and co-ops across the state.
Making all their cheese on site at their rural Cokato farm, the Lemkes average 80,000 pounds of cheese a year, and roughly 300 pounds each day.
This year, the Lemkes entered cheese in four contests through the Upper Midwest Dairy Association, landing in the top three spots in each.
At the state fair this year, Sonny Farm Parmesan took first place, and its smoked Gouda took third. This was out of 50 entries.
After combining all the scores for the four previous contests, the Upper Midwest Dairy Industry Association awarded the Lemke’s Grand Champion in the miscellaneous cheese category at its fall conference Sept. 13-14. Categories also include cheddar and artisan.
“We got it very young in the game,” Dan said proudly of the golden calf trophy. Typically, this would be a lifetime achievement award for cheese makers like him, he said.
The Lemkes’ average score for all the contests was 98.32.
The Lemkes compete against large industry cheese makers. For example, Doug Anderson from First District Association in Litchfield was the winner in spring’s miscellaneous cheese contest.
Cheese is judged on various characteristics such as texture, and flavor.
What makes their cheese stand above the rest, the Lemkes say, is their cows.
“What it really is, is the milk,” Dan said.
The cows used to produce their award-winning cheese are Brown Swiss, mixed with some Holsteins.
“We have the finest milk to make the finest cheese in the world,” Dan commented.
While many who enter the contest make a special batch to be judged, the Lemkes take it off the shelves, which is another reason they think they win.
“The [cheese] we’re winning with is what we’re selling to people,” Janelle said.