Coordinated by the NCR-SARE Alumni Organization, the term "NCR-SARE Hero" recognizes the leadership, vision, contributions, and impact that certain people have made in the field of sustainable agriculture in the region.
As an artisan cheesemaker in Wisconsin for more than 30 years, Robert (Bob) Wills is no stranger to the sustainable agriculture movement in the Midwest. Wills, who holds a Ph.D. in economics as well as a law degree from the University of Wisconsin, had been working in Washington, D.C., and Chicago when he decided to leave that work behind and become a fulltime cheesemaker.
He now owns Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, Wisconsin and Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, aspiring cheesemakers are required to work under licensed cheesemakers, and as a Master Cheesemaker, Wills has enthusiastically shared his expertise with many artisan cheese brands. His specialty cheese plant allows interested producers an opportunity to rent space to experiment with new recipes.
With a mission of sustainable production and environmental leadership, Wills was the first cheesemaker in the United States to label his cheese as rBGH-free in 1993. Cedar Grove Cheese has a “Living Machine” greenhouse, which allows them to naturally clean their wastewater before it’s discharged into a nearby creek. In 2007, Wills, along with the 13 dairy farms who supply milk to his plant, became the first food processor in the Midwest to complete third-party certification for sustainable agricultural and food handling practices through Food Alliance, based in Portland OR.
In addition to his service to the cheesemaking community, Wills has served on the NCR-SARE Administrative Council, and was chairperson in 2005-2006. Wills has also served on the NCR-SARE Technical Committee. He has served on the Wisconsin Organic Advisory Council, the Center for Integrated Agriculture Systems advisory committee, the American Cheese Society Board of Directors, and is currently serving as president of the American Cheese Society Foundation. He won the American Cheese Society Above and Beyond Award in 2016, for volunteering in excess of 400 hours to develop their Best Practices Guide for Cheesemakers.
Leaders in sustainable agriculture offered tributes as Wills was nominated and selected to receive this recognition, including:
- “For 25 years, Bob has provided customers with sustainable and organic cheeses. He has also built a market for the sustainable and organic farmers who supply him with milk.” - Cris Carusi, Center for Integrated Ag Systems
- "My first contact with Bob was when we toured Cedar Grove cheese factory as part of the Training Tomorrow's Trainers conference. Bob's business was visionary in several ways. He offered a market for organic milk and for milk from cows not treated with BST. He treated his wastewater with a 'living machine' on site, rather than just spreading it or sending it to a treatment plant. But most important of all, he was helping a new generation of artisan cheese-makers get off the ground. That was 18 years ago. But just last week at our local farmers market we stopped at the stall of a cheese-maker we had not seen before. His cheeses are delicious -- and he is making them at Cedar Grove. Bob's willingness to mentor new cheese-makers and let them develop their own recipes and provide them access to a small commercial cheese plant continues to play a critical role in supporting sustainable dairy farms and food businesses in our state." - Diane Mayerfeld, Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, Wisconsin SARE
- "When I wanted to try making an artisanal cheese using milk from my grazing dairy farm, I approached some owners of cheese factories to see if they would work with me and it wasn't until I talked to Bob Wills that I found someone willing to help. I felt that cows fed on pasture would produce milk with flavors that couldn't be produced by feeding machine harvested feed. Bob was intrigued by our emphasis on sustainable dairy practices and traditional cheesemaking methods so was willing to help us develop our make procedure (that means recipe to the non-cheesemaking world), and let us make our cheese in his factory with his help and that of his staff. The project was a success on all counts resulting in an artisanal cheese called Pleasant Ridge Reserve that is still being sold world wide nearly 20 years later, and supporting a vibrant sustainable grazing dairy farm. Without Bob's help we never would have been able to get this project going. We will always be grateful to Bob for his help at a most critical time." - Mike Gingrich, past owner, Uplands Cheese
- "Bob Wills established the first 'Living Machine' in the entire US for treating his Cedar Grove Cheese plant wastewater on site. Additionally he opened Cedar Grove to numerous young would-be cheesemakers to try out their skill sets and product viability under his watch and on his dime. Bob is a remarkably selfless and gifted leader in sustainable agriculture." - Dick Cates, Center for Integrated Ag Systems
The NCR-SARE Hero Recognition honors individuals who 1) have provided service to NCR-SARE or national SARE, 2) have shown leadership in sustainable agriculture locally and regionally, and 3) have made lasting impacts to sustainability in the North Central region.
NCR-SARE is one of four regional offices that run the SARE program, a nationwide grants and education program to advance sustainable innovation to American agriculture. Since 1988, NCR-SARE has helped advance farming systems that are profitable, environmentally sound and good for communities through a nationwide research and education grants program. The program, part of USDA's National Institute for Food and Agriculture, funds projects and conducts outreach designed to improve agricultural systems.