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Local dairy evaluation club competes in events featuring some of America's biggest food obsessions

Students compete in a dairy evaluation event.
Students compete in a dairy evaluation event.

In our modern cultural zeitgeist, things such as being a wine taster may be seen as rather fancy—but what about the people who taste one of America's biggest food obsessions, dairy products?

KRWG Public Media student reporter Elier Soto spoke with NMSU’s Animal Science department professor Dr. Stephanie Clark to learn more about the dairy evaluation club and about a recent milk-tasting competition.


Elier Soto: How do they train for the competition?

Stephanie Clark: We spent 3 hours a week tasting dairy products and talking about them. What do you notice that stands out for you in this? What seems to be deviating based on your experience? What does it remind you of?

Elier Soto: I heard that the dairy evaluation organization just went through its hundredth competition. How was that?

Stephanie Clark: It was the 100th collegiate dairy evaluation contest; the contest itself started in 1916, but they canceled it for WW1, WW2, and the pandemic. I wanted to take a team; it was a challenge to get a team prepped in 4 months, but they were so interested that it wasn’t that hard; they were just dedicated, and it was just so special to participate in that.

We went to a conference; it was at the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. They got to go to their trade show and see a lot of the equipment that's made by engineers used in dairy product production.

They got to taste a lot of dairy products on display because the conference has this world cheese contest. It's a very prestigious competition where cheeses from around the world enter and compete, so they get to taste some of the best cheeses in the world.

Elier Soto: With crackers?

Stephanie Clark: There were sometimes crackers, grapes, nuts, you name it.

Elier Soto: How did the students react to the fact that this exists?

Stephanie Clark: I think they were impressed that this had such a history. At first, they came to check it out; they didn't know what to expect, but I think they enjoyed it because they kept coming back.

Elier Soto: How did you start this journey into this field?

Stephanie Clark: I grew up on a small farm in Massachusetts, and dairy goats were my main farm animals. I got my first dairy goat when I was seven; it was my seventh-year birthday present, and her name was Hilary.

She was a Nubian dairy goat, and I fell in love with the goats, and then when she had her first babies, she produced milk, and we had to figure out how to deal with the milk. That whole process, I was young—I was about 8 or 9 years old when I started seeing milk directly from the animal and turning it into other things. I was a food scientist before I knew what food science was.

At first, I didn't know food science was an option for college, so I went into animal science and was planning to be a veterinarian someday, but then when I discovered food science by mistake and fell in love with it, I realized I loved this: making new products, and being scientific and creative at the same time.

So I finished my bachelor's in animal science and then did a PhD in food science. My first job outside of college was as an assistant professor at Washington State University. There, a man who had previously coached their dairy evaluation product team was about to retire. He said, “Do you want to do it?” and I said, "Sure, I'll try,” and then I fell in love with that.

Elier Soto: You mentioned that a mistake took you to food science.

Stephanie Clark: Sure, well, when I was an undergraduate, I was in my sophomore year. I heard about some students doing undergraduate research, and I said, “Oh, I’m curious about science; I want to do some undergraduate research also." So I went to my advisor under animal science and said, “I want to do some undergraduate research on goat milk because of my experience with goats,” and she said, “Well, that's not animal science; that's food science; you have to talk to the people in food science,” and that's how I discovered food science by mistake.

Elier Soto: And for the future, will you continue to be a lactose missionary, taking these clubs to different places?

Stephanie Clark: That's a cool concept—lactose missionary—very cool. Well, you know, I’ve spent several years at two other universities, plus the other one I went to for my education. These are three schools, so this is my fourth, and I’d like to be here for a dozen years. I plan to be here for a while.

But I am kind of an ambassador or missionary for the collegiate dairy evaluation contest and sensory evaluation of dairy products in general. I think it is so fun to be involved in tasting dairy products.

Elier Soto: What’s your favorite part of these competitions? Like tasting or community...

Stephanie Clark: Oh, being exposed to all of these wonderful dairy products is one of my favorite parts, but there’s also a great community. For a lot of people like me who are passionate about dairy products, being around other people who are passionate about dairy products is fun. For me because I’m kind of a cheese nerd. So it's both being exposed to the great dairy products and the great people.


Elier Soto is a student employee at KRWG Public Media and is studying digital filmmaking at NMSU.