Milton cheese whizzes win state, head to national FFA competition

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Jim Dayton
Friday, May 19, 2017

MILTON—Understanding the subtle taste differences between sharp cheddar and mild cheddar probably isn't a marketable skill on a resume.

But a sensitive palate is necessary to be an FFA state champion, which definitely looks good on a resume.

The Milton FFA milk quality and products team won state last month, defeating 75 other competitors. Next stop: Indianapolis for the national contest in October.

The competition delves into the scientific nitty gritty of dairy products. It tests students' knowledge of production, marketing and processing, team coach Linda Kleven said.

It includes questions on facts most students would tune out in high school science classes, such as milk's specific gravity and its freezing point, she said.

Preliminary competitions are held around the state each year, and they often have different formats. Generally, students need to know tedious and technical information about dairy.

That won't always be practical in a student's future career, but the competition has benefits for everyone, Kleven said.

“They practice as a team,” she said. “They get a lot of good skills they can use later in life, even if they don't go into anything with a farming background.”

None of the four students on this year's team have much farming experience, so Kleven played a bigger role in preparation, Milton FFA adviser Stacy Skemp said.

“It just shows you don't have to have that background,” Skemp said. “If you study the material and have a good coach, you can learn everything without having access to that hands-on experience. They just had to work a little bit harder.”

Kleven has been coaching the team for nearly 15 years. This is the first time she will take her students to nationals, although she did tie for first in a past state competition.

Milton had another first-place tie this year, and it defeated Kiel in a scoring tiebreaker. The tiebreaker process is not revealed to competitors, Kleven said.

Kleven tries to make her study sessions enjoyable so kids grasp the material and look forward to the practices. Her effort resonates with her students.

“My favorite part is the people I'm with because they make it really fun, and our coach is the best,” junior Kailey Persons said. “She's always there for us even if we're completely wrong.”

Practices before the state contest focused on taste testing. Kleven cut up different cheeses, and students had to tell her what varieties they were.

Junior Kiara Heussner doesn't mind the cheese quiz, but the milk tests can be nasty. Milk samples are tainted with garlic, sanitizer or other contaminants, and students must figure out the problem.

Kleven tells students to forget their table manners and spit the milk into a garbage can to avoid the risk of getting sick.

“When it comes to milk tasting, it's not very ladylike or pretty looking when you're spitting it out,” she said. “But that's just part of the competition.”

Kleven is excited for scholarship opportunities if her students do well enough at nationals. Skemp looked forward to the recognition the team would receive, comparing it to a basketball team going to the state tournament.

Who knew cheese tasting could be as high profile as three-point shooting?

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