The Dairy Business Innovation Center, a key player in the rise of specialty and artisanal cheese in the state, will cease operations at the end of the month.
A letter sent to more than 200 clients last week informed them that the nonprofit was unable to find the $500,000 needed each year to run the operation.
The center, which helped create 43 new processing plants over the last eight years, had been funded by federal earmarks secured by U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis. In 2011, Congress agreed to a two-year ban on earmarks, and over the past two years the center has run on reduced funding.
"A thorough evaluation of new funding sources did not yield a compatible source of support, and the Board of Directors of the DBIC agrees that operations under the current model are no longer possible," wrote Patrick Geoghegan, president of the board, and Dan Carter, founder and chairman of the DBIC. "The center has served as a valuable member of a wide network of dairy industry resources here in Wisconsin."
Founded in 2004, the center, which will close Sept. 30, provides business, technical and marketing support for startup dairy operations or businesses looking to expand.
The center does not have a physical location but instead consists of a host of consultants from throughout the industry who collectively offer their input on projects for cheese entrepreneurs. Those that use the service pay a lower rate than they would if they were to contract with for-profit consultants, said Jeanne Carpenter, a spokeswoman for the organization.
"There are consultants out there, but they charge an arm and a leg," she said. "Our services were at no cost or low cost because we were federally funded."
The DBIC was instrumental in helping dozens of companies like the recently opened Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee, the state's first urban cheese factory; Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg; and Dreamfarm, a farmstead goat cheese operation in Cross Plains.
"Offering confidential one-on-one meetings, targeted advice, patient hand holding and knowledgeable input from team members provided clients potential scenarios for success," Carter wrote in a summary, separate from the letter.
The growth of the state's artisanal cheese industry since the DBIC's founding is telling. Wisconsin cheese plants have reported a $1.2 billion reinvestment in their facilities, and producers now make 552 million pounds of specialty cheese a year, double that made 10 years ago.
"The last eight years have been absolutely stellar," Carpenter said. "It's up in the air to see if anyone will fill the gap."