DRESSER, Wisc. - Wisconsinites embrace winter almost as much as they love their cheese. It was only a matter of time until someone combined the two.
"Only in Wisconsin," laughs Polk County plow driver Kevin Jensen. A flip of a switch and his truck starts dispensing a mix of salt and cheese brine, straight from a local dairy plant.
"I've gotten ribbing from other counties," admits Moe Norby, the Polk County Highway Department technical support manager who came up with the idea.
Norby contacted F & A Dairy Products in Dresser which bathes its mozzarella and provolone cheeses in tanks of brine. Norby figured the same salt water that gives cheese its flavor could help clear icy highways too. He was right.
"It actually worked better for us at lower temperatures than regular salt brine. We believe because the organics in the product help it not freeze at lower temperatures," Norby said.
Norby says the brine is odorless once it's applied to a highway, though Jensen appreciates its bouquet while filling his tank. "It smells like cheese," he says, which suits him just fine. "I'm from Wisconsin, of course I like cheese."
Or maybe it's the smell of money. Polk County estimated its first year saving from cheese brine at $40,000. More cheese brine means less salt and fewer other de-icing chemicals have to be used on county roads.
The cheese factory, which gives the brine to the county, is saving money too. Chuck Engdahl, the plant's waste water manager, estimates annual savings as high as $25,000 due to brine no longer being transported to Superior for treatment.
The Wisconsin DNR issued a permit to F & A before it could begin diverting its brine for highway use. Barron County is now also regularly picking up cheese brine, as are a couple of towns.
The Milwaukee Public Works Department sent a truck to Dresser to pick up 600 gallons of cheese brine for a pilot project being run in the city. Early results have been favorable, according to a public works spokesperson.
Meantime, F & A has taken on a bit of celebrity status. The New York Times called this week and CNN was recently at the plant taking pictures of its ice-fighting brine.
"It's kind of nice to be known for that too," smiled Mike Breault, the cheese plant's manager. "It's a win, win."