In Her Own Words - Linnea Burnham

Volume 141, No. 9, August 19, 2016

After discussing in some detail the aging of the American Cheese Renaissance, I want to share an interview with a very promising future. Linnea Burnham, owner of the blog and winner of a Watson Fellowship, tells us about her adventures in cheese over the last year.

I have included a link at the end to a full YouTube video of the interview, which is highly recommended.

Dan: Welcome Linnea, you got the chance of a lifetime to travel and see what the world is like for small artisan cheesemakers. What ignited your interest?

Linnea: My grandfather, who used to raise Holstein cows, gave me a passion for dairy farming. Later, I was selected as a Rotary exchange student and sent to the Franche Comté region of France, where I discovered cheese.

Linnea Burnham in a cheese cave during one of her many travels.

Dan: What is “the Watson” and how does one go about getting it?

Linnea: The Watson Fellowship is a one-year grant for purposeful, independent study and travel outside of the United States in the year following graduation from college. Watson Fellows receive funding to step off the beaten track and fully engage with a project of personal significance with the hope that they will, as Thomas J. Watson said, “Come home and then do something about it.”.

Dan: That’s wonderful! So how did you find out about it?

Linnea: I walked into the Middlebury College guidance office and explained to the head of Fellowships, Lisa Gates, there was nothing I would rather do than intensively study artisanal cheese production around the world. She suggested the Watson. As soon as I read about it, I knew we were a perfect match.

Dan: So you put out an application. Did they then interview you?

Linnea: The Watson application process starts with local selections and continues upward to the national level. I went through several interviews in Middlebury, Vermont until I was invited to meet with a representative from the Foundation for their final decision.

Dan: Were you a little nervous?

Linnea: Absolutely! The Watson is the most incredible Fellowship that exists. It’s an opportunity to spend 12 months independently studying anything you want around the world.

Dan: Just to understand clearly what a fellowship is, basically, they give you enough money to follow your passion around the world, but for how long ?

Linnea: Watson Fellows receive $30,000 for 12 months of research. Each Fellow receives the same lump sum to cover everything from plane tickets to lodging, food costs to project work expenses.

Dan: So there was a lot of work and planning on your part to make this happen.

Linnea: Certainly. I traveled to Norway, England, Italy, Switzerland, South Africa, Brazil and Mongolia. I had to make my own contacts in every country, plan my whole itinerary, and purchase all my tickets, visas, health insurance, etc. In some countries, this was easier because I spoke the language or was familiar with the culture. In other countries, I couldn´t plan much ahead. One of my last project countries, for example, was Mongolia, and there’s no way to really contact Mongolians who are making cheese beforehand.

Dan: What was your core idea in doing this particular project ?

Linnea: My core idea was to examine how social, cultural, and economic forces shape cheese makers’ lives. My year involved working alongside producers, from those who uphold totally traditional methods to those who combine old techniques with modern technologies. I wanted to deepen my understanding of the passion that drives artisanal production while exploring the balance between a global outlook and the need for sustainable, regional food systems.

Dan: So is the fellowship ending?

Linnea: I don’t see the fellowship as ending but as a beginning of a lifelong journey dedicated to cheese.

Dan: What was the most different place of all?

Linnea: Mongolia, a country I traveled to to see what cheese-making would be like in a largely non-industrialized country, turned my world upside down. Perhaps more so than any other country I visited. In Mongolia, I lived in a yurt with a nomadic family. Mongolians make cheese without any modern technologies and use soured horse milk as their coagulant. They also hang the cheese to dry on the walls of their yurt and do not add any salt to it.

Dan: As a young woman to go all the way across the world and just kind of show up at somebody’s yurt, by chance, I would think that this kind gives you little bit of a faith about people in the world.

Linnea: Absolutely. I’ve thought about that a lot and how I have so much more faith in humanity now. I was traveling all alone, and sometimes felt vulnerable. But we only hear the worst about certain places and I was repeatedly impressed by the kindness I received from total strangers along the way.

Dan: Next Steps?

Linnea: I believe that dedicated individuals with big dreams change the world. When I think about life after the Watson Fellowship, I want more than anything to build off of the knowledge I acquired this year, work alongside passionate people and keep learning about artisan cheese. I used to think I would be a cheese maker but now I want to work in international exportations to continue seeking out and supporting the producers, traditions, and landscapes of fine cheese all around the world. I am also a writer and I can see myself one day becoming a voice for small cheese makers and farmers, a voice that I hope will be heard not only locally but perhaps around the world as well.

Dan: To those people out there that are reading this, if you’re smart and you work in the import or export of cheese globally, Linnea would be a very, very good person to try to get into your organization! Thank you for sharing your adventures!

You can find the YouTube of the full 30 minute interview at

Dan Strongin is a former president of the American Cheese Society, chef and business coach for small to medium value added businesses, and the owner of the sites, and the Facebook group Enjoy Cheese. His online course: “Cheese: How to Buy, Store, Taste, Pair, Talk About and Serve”, is available at Dan can be reached via email at

Dan Strongin encourages your comments regarding this column. Comments can be made anonymously to


Other Strongin Articles written for Cheese Reporter

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As Our Industry Evolves, So Should Our Terminology:

Other Cheese Reporter Guest Columnists
Visit John Umhoefer
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