A Mentorship Memoir: Inspiring the Next Generation of Cheesemakers 

By Steve Funk

Mentorship in the dairy industry is more important than ever. 

The next generation has exciting opportunities ahead, and can benefit from technological advancements, developments in food safety, and an ever-expanding menu of dairy product innovations. At the same time, our young leaders also face many new challenges from unpredictable consumer preferences to economic and supply chain concerns. Mentorship can help them make the most of their opportunities and learn to navigate challenges like seasoned pros. 

I’ve been in the dairy industry for more than 40 years and have come close to retiring more than once, but the truth is I love my career, and I love everything about making great cheese. There’s both an art and a science to making healthy and delicious cheeses and cultured dairy foods. By blending tried-and-true wisdom from mentors with modern food technologies, new generations of cheesemakers can build on the foundation of best practices while continuing to evolve and innovate. 

Earlier this year I was asked to be a mentor for this Innovation Competition sponsored by the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center (NE-DBIC) (I encourage you to look it up).  The competition was funded by a $1 million grant for growth of Dairy in the Northeast via product Innovation, and both companies and individuals could apply. 

With over 50 applicants, the committee chose 10 finalists, and I was asked to be a technical mentor/advisor for one of them. Each finalist also got a marketing mentor and received $20,000 toward their competition goals. The Top three winners from the competition all got an additional $55,000. 

I worked with Bell & Goose Cheese Co. in South Hampton, NH, (about 8 miles from where I used to live before moving to WI), which opened in 2017. The owner, Anna Cantelmo, makes a marinated Feta cheese (among others) and was looking for expansion of her market and improvement of shelf-life, yield, and flavor of the cheese.  

I worked with Anna on protein to fat ratios, adding a better coagulant, XDS, and more calcium which improved their yield, structure and shelf-life right away. We also discussed milk quality, more effective pasteurization, culture changes, procedure changes, and some basic principles for quality cheese.  

Bell & Goose was not one of the Top 3 winners, but it was a thrilling competition, and the winners all had significant growth plans. The main reason B&G was not a Top 3 was not having big enough growth plans to use more NE milk, and limited marketing. But Anna learned a lot, she was grateful for my help, and I have been asked by her to continue to support Bell & Goose, which I will. (I will be on a family vacation a few miles from there this month and my family, and I have been asked to come by, taste some of the great cheese they make, and have dinner.)

I’m grateful to have spent my entire career in the dairy industry. I know that not everyone can say they love going to work each day, but I’ve been able to say that truthfully for more than 40 years. This is one reason that giving back and providing opportunities for others to embrace cheesemaking and dairy production as a career is so important to me. My current goal is to help more mentorship arrangements, both formal and informal, flourish industry-wide. I feel a sense of responsibility to leave a strong and vital legacy so the next generation can advance the craft of cheesemaking and the dairy industry can thrive for many generations to come. 

I have been asked to mentor again next year, presuming the competition gets funding again, which I will look forward to. I met a lot of good people, some future NJ customers I hope, and really enjoyed it.