Jay McClelland

Jay McClelland, pictured holding a ball of Edam cheese.
Photo by David Ammon

MSU cheese is a tradition 85 years strong. For 30 of those years, Jay McClelland has had a role behind the scenes, making sure each ball of iconic MSU Edam cheese is hand-crafted to the standard MSU cheese lovers have come to expect.

Success through hard work is a family mantra for the Custer Dairy Processing Plant manager and Sturgis native.

“I try my best at whatever I do. My family instilled in me that the way to get ahead is to work harder than everybody else. When I was young, I started football as the smallest kid on the team and I had to work harder than anybody else and persevere,” he said.

McClelland began as an assistant cheesemaker in 1993. His uncle—a cheesemaker at the time—encouraged him to apply, and he was hired on the spot. He then graduated to cheesemaker, milk collection driver, milk delivery driver, warehouse supervisor, assistant manager, and now plant manager, a position he’s held since 2019.

“I’ve worked in every position, which is great for my employees because I know what they go through, so I try to make it easier for them,” he said.

While football was a pastime for the younger McClelland, music also was a passion. He was a drummer in bands for more than 25 years, traveling across the Southeast for weekend shows and showing up dutifully on Monday mornings to make MSU cheese. He said he found humility in hard work during that season of his life.

“Talk about humbling—going from a weekend rockstar to being at the dairy processing plant at six in the morning to make cheese,” he said.

The cheesemaking process is hands-on. Cheesemakers prepare the milk; add a culture called a starter; add rennet to curdle the cheese; cut and process the curds and then hoop or mold the cheese. A single vat of cheese takes up to six hours, and cheesemakers produce between two and three vats a day depending on need. The cheese is then immersed in a salt brine for two days and dried overnight before the wax is applied.

The team, which includes 10 employees and about 18 students throughout the year, produces 50,000 balls of Edam, 40,000 and 20,000 blocks of cheddar and pepper cheese, respectively, plus 10,000 wheels of Vallagret annually. They also make cheddar and pepper cheese spreads, and they produce MSU ice cream and butter from leftover whey or cream from the cheesemaking process.

McClelland said Edam is his favorite cheese.

“Our flagship product keeps people coming back every year,” said McClelland, noting that he’s in good company. “This past year, we received an email from a customer who lives in Edam, Netherlands, the town where Edam cheese originated, who said ours is the best Edam they’ve ever had.”

Whether hailing from across the pond, the country or Mississippi, he enjoys the people the job allows him to meet.

“I’ve met a lot of great people from all over. I also love seeing students coming through and watching them succeed in their next great adventure,” he said.

While the plant has been upgraded for automation, McClelland said he’ll continue to carry on the tried-and-true method of making MSU cheese.

“Our cheesemaking process is a tradition we don’t want to get away from. It’s what sets us apart.”

Jay McClelland, pictured in the Custer Dairy Processing Center