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Raised on a 40-cow dairy farm in Bonduel, Jim Natzke has been involved in the dairy industry his entire life. He worked at a local butter manufacturer and at a milk bottling plant before finding an abiding passion in specialty cheese. For some 14 years he served in various management positions at Roth Käse and then Emmi Roth USA, including as vice president of supply chain and logistics. Natzke now finds himself in two fairly new positions. One is serving as operations manager for a small Monroe-based group that owns Maple Leaf Cheese, Alpine Slicing and Cheese Conversion and Edelweiss Cheese. The other is serving as board president of the Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute, which works to promote a robust state industry that now produces nearly half of all specialty cheese in the United States.

• What’s the role of the Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute among other industry organizations?

We try to focus on networking and education. For example, we recently started having a small exposition every spring to focus on one topic, such as labeling or marketing. We have a panel discussion with industry experts and then invite vendors to set up small displays and have discussions with individual companies. More than any other industry organization, I think we offer some basic information in an unintimidating environment so that smaller manufacturers, or people who are new to the industry, can get some facts and make some connections. The energy level and attitude produce a terrific environment for sharing and learning.

• If you had to pick your own favorite Wisconsin specialty cheese, what would it be?

Because of my career path so far, I probably ought to say Maple Leaf Cheddar or Edelweiss Emmenthaler, or even Roth Käse Gruyere, but I have to say Blue. Wisconsin has several really great Blue producers. Each one has a unique make process and a unique flavor. Some are technically better than others and would score better at a contest, but for me each has a personality that I enjoy tasting. Some are sharp and tangy and others are more on the musty side. Buy a few Wisconsin Blues and taste them side by side, and I think you will be surprised at the variety among them.

• Any thoughts about the new dairy plant slated for CALS?

To get such solid industry backing, especially since the economy in general is not that strong, is an indication of how important this project is to the industry. Since I graduated more than 20 years ago the building really has not been upgraded very much despite the fact that dairy processing is such a big part of our state economy. Dairy is not just an important industry for our state—it is part of our state’s identity as well. We have a great competitive advantage in dairy compared to the rest of the world. We have a critical mass of talent, infrastructure and, of course, milk to stay ahead. We need to support that potential by having an educational infrastructure that presses that advantage and makes the industry strong for future generations. I really hope it happens.