Blair cheesemaker wins national award

Feb. 24—BLAIR — A medium cheddar produced in Blair has won a national award for its quality.

Associated Milk Producers Inc. finished second runner-up position (third overall) in the United States Championship Cheese Contest Thursday in Green Bay.

Dillon Sylla, the cheese plant supervisor at the Blair plant, said there are nearly 100 employees making cheese and whey at two sites. They watched a livestream of the announcement Thursday that they were selected in the top three cheeses.

"Just hearing your cheese is in the top three, it's really exciting," Sylla said Friday. "This is the cheese we make every day. We don't make a special block that we send to contests."


Sylla, who has worked for AMPI for eight years and has been cheese plant supervisor for 13 months, said they haven't changed their formula, so he was surprised they scored so highly. While his name is listed on the award, he was quick to credit everyone in the plant.

"It's the dedicated employees who make the championship cheese," Sylla said.

Sylla said they plan to hold a celebration this week in the plant, and he'll head to Madison later this week to accept the award.

Roughly 300,000 pounds of medium cheddar are made daily in the Blair plant, cut into 640-pound blocks.

"We have numerous customers that buy from us," Sylla said.

Sarah Schmidt, AMPI vice president of marketing, was excited about their high score and receiving the honor. AMPI was further distinguished as the only dairy farmer-owned company to have two entries named to the elite group of top 20 finishers.

"To crack the top 20 is special," Schmidt said. "I can't recall the last time we were in the top 20. We do regularly place well in our categories."

The second AMPI-made cheese in the top 20 is a ghost pepper jack — a spicy cheese — produced at AMPI's facility in Jim Falls.

Schmidt praised Sylla for working hard to make the high-quality product.

"There is a real art and a real science behind cheesemaking," she said.

Schmidt said the award also is dedicated to their milk producers across the region.

"We just love this connection to the dairy farmers and the cheesemakers who use that milk," Schmidt said.

Mike Wolkow, AMPI senior vice president of operations, noted that AMPI's entries topped 2,250 contenders from 197 companies.

"The dedication of our dairy farm families and cheesemakers — and all of the team members in between — ensures consistent championship-caliber cheese that we are proud to deliver to our customers in the U.S. and around the globe," Wolkow said.

Sylla's cheese finished behind an aged gouda from Connecticut and an American original cheese made in Egg Harbor, Wis.

"The men and women of the U.S. dairy processing industry are exceptionally passionate and dedicated to crafting quality products, and that commitment shines through in the high caliber of this year's winners. We congratulate them on their hard-earned and well-deserved success," said John Umhoefer, Executive Director for the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, which hosts the biennial competition.

A total of 35 states were represented in the 2023 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, with entries submitted across 113 classes. With an impressive 54 Best of Class finishes, Wisconsin earned the highest number of gold medals. Dairy manufacturers from California took home nine golds, and Idaho finished third in the ranking with eight Best of Class awards.

Hosted by WCMA since 1981, the biennial United States Championship Cheese Contest honors producers of cheese, butter and yogurt. A team of 42 nationally renowned judges evaluated all entries over the two-day event. The nation's Top 20 cheeses were announced following Wednesday's round of judging. For more information on the Contest and complete results for all classes, please visit