Anne Topham has been many places to talk about goat milk and cheese, but San Bernardo, Ecuador was different. The air was cold at 10,000 feet when she stepped off the bus after a five-hour ride up from Quito, and the street was dusty from months of drought. The village was practically vertical: simple, small houses and subsistence plots clinging to steep slopes of a deep, narrow mountain valley.
What she had come to talk about, though, was wonderfully familiar. Topham, who raises goats and makes cheese near Ridgeway, Wisconsin, made the journey to give farmers tips about caring for their new goat herds and trade ideas with the operator of the town’s new cheese plant.
“Cheesemakers love to talk to other cheesemakers,” she says.
CALS’ Babcock Institute for International Dairy Research exists to make sure that happens. For the past eight years, the institute has worked with state agencies to send Wisconsin dairy artisans around the globe to swap stories and share best practices. Such exchanges are mutually beneficial, says Babcock director Karen Nielsen.
“We want to help Wisconsin cheesemakers and other dairy product processors gain expertise so that they can compete in an international market,” she says. “And we’re using the same model to share Wisconsin’s dairy expertise to improve the health, nutrition and income of people living in poverty in Latin America.”
Topham was the first Wisconsin cheesemaker to participate in the exchange, traveling to France in 2003, a trip she says profoundly influenced the cheese she sells today. Since then, the program has sent cheesemakers to a dozen countries. Support from the UW Foundation’s Global Outreach Fund is helping extend the program to less-developed countries like Ecuador and Honduras. Babcock brought a group of Honduran cheesemakers to Wisconsin last year, and this year two dairy students from Honduras’ Zamorano Pan-American Agricultural School interned on Wisconsin dairy farms.
Topham’s visit to Ecuador was sparked by two Peace Corps volunteers who had read about the Honduran exchange through the Wisconsin Dairy Business Innovation Center. They convinced the Center to set up an exchange in San Bernardo, where they had recently introduced dairy goats to help local farmers find a more stable income. Topham gave the villagers tips on caring for their goats and showed them how to make ricotta for home use. But she says she learned at least as much from her hosts, noting that the local cheesemaker taught her how to make mozzarella.
“It was a true exchange,” she says.