Tap into Wisconsin’s rural roots and its cornucopia of tasty products at creameries, orchards, farmers’ markets and wineries. It’s about cheese and much more.
Wisconsin and cheese go together. In fact, America’s Dairyland leads the nation in cheese production, turning out more than 600 varieties. What better trip souvenir than a block of cheddar or bag of curds.
While we often associate Wisconsin with cheesy goodness, many are surprised to learn that cranberries are big business, too. Did you know that more than half the world’s supply of cranberries is grown on 250 Wisconsin family farms?
For tour groups exploring Wisconsin, some of the best experiences involve getting out into the countryside and meeting the growers and producers responsible for some of our favorite foods. Everyone likes to eat, but few of us know where our food comes from and how it ends up in the grocery store and on the dinner table.
Connecting travelers with farm life plays a major role in the state’s tourism scene. The term for this wildly popular phenomenon is agritourism. Visiting traditional farms, cranberry marshes, cheese factories and farmers’ markets give vacationers a refreshing peek into rural life—and many opportunities for tasting.
Cheese Shops in Wisconsin
The National Historic Cheesemaking Center in Monroe, a shrine to the cheese and dairy industries, spotlights the evolution of crafting Wisconsin’s most famous product. Along with exhibits, the video “How to Make the Greatest Cheese in the World” tells you all you need to know about curds and whey. Group tours led by docents, including retired cheesemakers, are offered year-round.
Also in Monroe is Alp & Dell Cheese, a retail store connected to the Emmi Roth USA cheese plant. This group-tour favorite offers a large selection of cheeses from traditional cheddar and Swiss to specialty cheese made with sheep and goat’s milk. You can enjoy free samples and watch cheese being made from the viewing hall.
On weekday mornings at Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese in Kiel, groups can see cheesemakers work their magic over massive stainless steel vats. A short video in the little museum covers the whole process, from the time milk is received from 20 small dairy farms to the finished product. Founded by Otto Henning in 1914, Henning’s is a fourth-generation family enterprise that daily produces between 12,000 and 20,000 pounds of cheese—cheddar, colby, mozzarella, farmers and gouda. Specialty cheddars in the store range from blueberry cobbler and pumpkin spice to apple, bacon, chipotle and tequila lime. A wedge of cheddar in the shape of a cow or Wisconsin map makes the perfect gift.
In the Lake Winnebago Region near Fond du Lac, LaClare Family Creamery in Malone invites guests to sample goat milk cheeses and observe cheesemakers through viewing windows. Guests also enjoy watching the goats on the 26-foot-tall climbing silo and posing with the friendly four-legged critters. Guided tours can be arranged. The cafe menu includes salads and sandwiches featuring LaClare cheeses; save room for ice cream made from goat’s or cow’s milk.
Wisconsin Farms Grow Berries, Cherries, Ginseng and Apples
Central Wisconsin is cranberry country. Harvest time for the state’s No. 1 fruit crop, from mid-September through October, is the perfect time to tour a cranberry marsh in the Wisconsin Rapids and Tomah areas. Flaming fall foliage contrasts with the vast crimson lakes where workers shovel the floating berries onto an elevator belt that conveys them to waiting trucks. In downtown Warrens, groups can learn about the tart red berries at Discover Cranberries, a museum, cafe and gift shop housed in a historic cranberry warehouse building. The shop sells everything from cranberry relish to cranberry wine. Its old-fashioned ice cream parlor dishes up five flavors of cranberry ice cream.
Central Wisconsin, to the surprise of many, also produces a lot of ginseng root. In fact, Marathon County, with more than 1,000 ginseng farms, has been declared the Ginseng Capital of the World. Visit Wausau can help arrange a tour to one of the larger operations.
By Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin, the Bayfield area abounds with berry farms and fruit orchards. Summer travelers flock to the Fruit Loop for strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries. You’ll also find sweet and tart cherries. The area’s 10 apple orchards are popular fall destinations.
Apple Holler, a year-round tourist favorite in Sturtevant, invites groups to participate in an “Ag-venture.” The 78-acre family farm offers pick-your-own apples, peaches and pears, plus orchard and farm tours, hayrides and sleigh rides. The farm-to-table Red Barn Restaurant serves delicious down-home cooking. Treats in the farm store and bakery include apple butter, apple cider, apple turnovers and apple pies. You can feed the goats at the Golden Goat Bridge.
More than a dozen apple orchards make the Eau Claire area a prime harvest-time destination. Ferguson’s Orchards, a center of agri-entertainment, offers apple and pumpkin picking, corn mazes, haunted houses and wagon rides. Eau Claire also is the largest grower and producer of horseradish
Set among the bluffs of the Mississippi River in Prairie du Chien, Shihata’s Orchard features u-pick apples and can arrange a wagon ride and tour of the packing house. A half hour to the northeast, on a hill known as Orchard Ridge, five orchards flank Highway 171 in the community of Gays Mills, which proclaims to be the Apple Capital of Wisconsin.
Door County also abounds with apple orchards but is most famous for its cherries. Farm markets at large orchards like Lautenbach’s (in Fish Creek) and Seaquist (Sister Bay) sell not only freshly picked cherries but cherry products ranging from juices and jams to donuts, muffins and strudel. Most Door County orchards offer pick-your-own cherries in July and August. During blossom-viewing season in mid-to-late May, the highways and byways are lined with cherry trees cloaked in pink and white flowers. Apple blossoms’ peak time arrives about a week later.
Farmers’ Markets Feature the Bounty of Wisconsin
For seasonal bounty, tour groups have a field day at farmers’ markets across the state. The Dane County Farmers’ Market is a beloved Madison tradition. On Wednesdays and Saturdays from April to November, vendors throng Capitol Square, with about 130 showing up every Saturday. All of the items for sale are grown, raised and produced in Wisconsin by the person behind the stand.
The Stevens Point Farmers Market, a community staple since 1853, is the oldest continuously operating such market in the state. It is held daily (Saturday’s the big day) from May to October on Mathias Mitchell Public Square, a lively gathering spot surrounded by 19th century brick buildings.
Wisconsin’s Newest Agritourism Attraction
Brand new on the agriculture scene, the Food + Farm Exploration Center in nearby Plover spotlights the intersection of farming and food, the people who make it happen and the processes that take it from field to fork. Dozens of immersive, multi-sensory activities and exhibits provide a new perspective on agriculture and food production. In the Farm Tech Shed, sit in the driver’s seat of mammoth machines that keep the industry moving. The learning space extends beyond the center’s walls to encompass four demonstration fields, each with its own crop rotation and center pivot irrigator. Welcoming visitors to the attraction is the world’s largest potato masher, a 39-foot-tall sculpture that invites selfies.
Raise a Glass to Wisconsin Wineries
Viticulture is also part of Wisconsin’s agricultural scene, and many wineries offer group tours. Door Peninsula Winery, the state’s largest winery, dispenses free samples of many of its 70 wine varieties. Most popular are the Blackberry Merlot and Cherry Mimosa, an “applewine” combing cherry wine and sparkling apple cider. The popular winery is one of eight on the Door County Wine Trail between Lake Michigan and Green Bay.
In Greater Green Bay, groups can savor the fruit of the vine at places like Von Stiehl Winery in Algoma and Parallel 44 Vineyard & Winery in Kewaunee. In Baraboo, 20 minutes from Wisconsin Dells, wine fans flock to Baraboo Bluff Balanced Rock and Broken Bottle wineries. Bailey’s Run Vineyard, nestled in the rolling hills of New Glarus, commands one of the most scenic views of any winery in Wisconsin.
Agricultural fairs are staged across Wisconsin every summer. The ultimate ag party is the Wisconsin State Fair, an 11-day August extravaganza in West Allis. Fair goers attend pig races, see milking demonstrations and feast on deep-fried cheese curds and roasted sweet corn dripping with butter. The fair’s iconic cream-filled pastry, officially known as the Original Cream Puff, has been a staple since 1925, when Wisconsin’s farmers and bakers came up with a way to showcase the wheat and dairy industries.
No discussion of agritourism is complete without mentioning Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center. At this massive red barn just off Interstate 43 near Manitowoc, visitors can witness the birth of a calf and explore interactive exhibits that explain the origins of our food. The on-site Wisconsin Cafe dishes up farm-to-table fare using locally sourced ingredients from America’s Dairyland—the state’s license plate tagline since 1939.
By Randy Mink