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UW-RF Brings America's Dairyland to Shangri-La

By Jenny Bjelland
UW-RF News Bureau

NOV. 5, 2004--Last May, a University of Wisconsin-River Falls faculty member and three UW-RF students immersed themselves in the traditional Chinese culture of nomadic Tibet while educating the native people on the art of cheesemaking.

While considered a nomadic people, Tibetans do not travel by day and set up camp at night. The Tibetans of today reside in permanently placed structures with separate winter and summer homes.

Ranee May, an associate faculty member in the UW-RF College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences and the UW-RF dairy plant manager, explained the living arrangements. "Their house is a two-story house and they live on the top floor," she said. "The bottom floor is the stable or barn where they keep all their animals."

The Tibetans' animals, especially the domestic yak--a cross between the native cow "peinu" and the wild yak--is of great importance to the lifestyle and culture of this region. The yak provides the Tibetans with transportation, hair for weaving, power for fieldwork, yogurt, and milk.

May and the students hoped to teach the Tibetans to extract yet another use from the domestic yak. The production of cheese from yak milk would provide the Tibetans not only with another food source, but it could also fill a niche market and be sold to five-star hotels and restaurants throughout China. The added source of income would be useful to the primitive Tibetans who attempt to survive merely off of the food they produce themselves.

The trip was a result of a visit by Wong How Man, a UW-RF graduate, internationally acclaimed explorer, journalist and founder of the China Exploration Society, who in 2002 received the University's Distinguished Alumnus Award.

During his visit, he had the opportunity to taste the cheese produced at the campus dairy plant and was very impressed. According to May, about six months later he wrote and asked if she would be interested in developing a training program in China.

As a China native, How Man has worked hard to preserve the lifestyles and cultures within his country, while aiding the Chinese in survival. His exploration society hosted the group from his alma mater at the CERS Center near Shangri-La where the dairy plant was to be set up. The hope is for the dairy plant to operate as a cooperative where all local residents are invited to bring their yak milk for further processing.

The students chosen for this trip were employees at the University dairy plant who possessed a strong understanding of the process of cheese-making. These include: Joshua Boisen a 2004 graduate from Monticello, Wis., who has a degree in food science and technology, Charles Henn, a senior preveterinary science major from Shawano, Wis., and Joseph Bollman a senior agronomy major from Rice Lake, Wis.
After arriving in Shangri-La, the group went to work immediately transforming what May described as a room with "four walls, a floor, a ceiling, and doors" into a fully functional dairy plant.

Bollman explained that the goal was for the equipment within the dairy plant to be items "that were cost effective for the nomads" so that they could be easily replicated or replaced. Therefore, no special equipment was ordered, instead the group scattered throughout the town purchasing everyday household supplies.

For the more technical equipment the group looked to the village carpenters. "What we couldn’t buy, the carpenters fabricated," said May. "We drew a picture of it, and they made it. We didn’t even give them dimensions other than a basic shape with our hands. And they were great. Within couple of hours they had made exactly what we had asked of them."

A double broiler was set up, where the milk would be placed into a small pot that is placed inside of a larger pot already filled with water. A propane burner was then used as a heat source for the cheese vat. With the dairy plant completed, May and the three UW-RF students began making changes to the recipe they had brought with them.

Henn laughed as he described what happened. "The first batch of cheese we made was nasty. After that we knew the milk had to be strained before making the cheese."
He explained that the yaks had very long hair and that the milking techniques used by the Tibetans were less than desirable. Contaminants had influenced the flavor and other characteristics of the cheese. So for the rest of the batches the cheesemakers strained the milk to remove the hairs and miscellaneous particles.

Storing the cheese was also a problem. Beeswax was purchased from a local beekeeper. It was melted down, and the blocks of cheese were hand-dipped into it. This procedure is working temporarily, although new means of packaging are sought because dried beeswax becomes too hard.

While the Americans worked to perfect production of what Henn called "a type of frying cheese," five Tibetans watched the process. In the end two Tibetan women were selected to head the cheese-making process and the Americans watched on as the Tibetans successfully made their very own batch of cheese from yak milk.

"This is only the first step to many hurdles they have to cross," explained How Man, referring to the lack of hygiene techniques used during the milking process. A higher quality milk needs to come from the farms before health regulations can be met, and the product can be marketed. Currently the Tibetans are working to overcome these food safety issues.

the students so focused on giving something," he said. "They were more concerned about producing the cheese and demonstrating the procedure to the Tibetans than the grade they would receive for it."

The trip across the world was a success in all aspects, says May. Within three weeks the UW-RF group had completely transformed an empty building into a dairy plant, taught Tibetans to produce cheese, learned some Chinese language, and gained a mutual cultural respect for a people they otherwise may never have had the opportunity to meet.


Editor's Note:

Photo cutline: Student Joseph Bollman milking a domestic yak.

Last updated: Tuesday, 22-Jun-2010 16:21:17 Central Daylight Time

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