California is about to become the big cheese.
Already the nation's largest milk producer, the Golden State (think cheddar) will pass Wisconsin to be the top cheese maker by 2005, the California Milk Advisory Board said Monday.
Size matters, according to state dairy officials, who point to the numbers: There are 1.7 million dairy cows in California and 2,100 dairies that sell more than $4 billion in milk annually and pay about $600 million in wages. California made 1.7 billion pounds of cheese last year. That was behind Wisconsin's 2.2 billion -- but not for long.
Wisconsin officials claim to be unimpressed. They say they know California someday will become the nation's top cheese whiz. Anyway, they argue, it's not quantity but quality that counts.
"It's not about who makes the most," said Patrick Geoghegan, spokesman for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. "What matters is who makes the best."
Milk and its byproducts are California's top agricultural commodities. Last year, the state produced 20% of the nation's milk and cheese, compared with Wisconsin's 26%, and the milk board said California's share would be as much as 30% within a decade.
Since 1995, the number of California cheese makers has grown to 64 from 50, while cheese varieties have tripled to 200. Cheese output has risen by double-digit rates in nine of the last 15 years; Wisconsin's has gone up about 10% in the last 10 years. And during that time, California grabbed the national lead in making butter, ice cream and powdered milk.
People shouldn't think only "about technology and computers when they think of growth industries in California," said Stan Andre, chief executive of the milk board.