The Largest Dairy-Producing State Isn’t What You Think It Is

You can thank this West Coast state for all your favorite drinks, from wine to, now, milk.

Wisconsin likes to tout itself as “America’s Dairyland.” (No, really, that’s what the license plates say.) Well, it turns out California is the country’s leading milk producer and has held the title for more than 20 years. It also produces the most butter, ice cream and nonfat dry milk. (Wisconsin’s still No. 1 for cheese.)

Known for its world-class wine, towering redwoods and unmistakable Hollywood sign (oh, and these delicious recipes), California is also home to a whole lotta dairy land. There are 1,200 dairy farms in the West Coast state, 99% of which are family-owned. And because of this, there are almost 2 million dairy cows there, too. (FYI, that’s about twice as many cows as there are people in San Francisco!)

Why California?

Despite its reputation, California isn’t all sunshine and sandy beaches. It turns out California’s rainier region is actually great for dairy production. Lush Northern California, specifically Sonoma County, has plentiful green pastures, making for very content cows.

And Central California, the most agricultural portion of the state, has proven it’s not just suited for crops, like cotton, nuts and berries—but cows, too. Take Tulare County, which is located in this uber-fertile region. It’s the largest dairy-producing county in the nation.

Say Cheese!

Although Wisconsin still holds the title as largest cheese producer, the Golden State could be catching up. In fact, cheesemaking is the state’s fastest-growing dairy category. No matter where you live, here’s how you can make your own cheese at home.

Almost half of California cows’ milk goes toward cheese production, which, in 2018, amounted to a whopping 2.5 billion pounds of cheese. And California currently takes the cake—or should we say cheesecake?—in a number of varieties. It produces the most Hispanic-style cheeses (think cotija, Manchego and queso fresco), as well as the most Monterey Jack cheese, a variety that’s native to the state.

The most-produced cheese in California, however, is mozzarella. But California cheesemakers create more than 250 varieties and styles of cheeses, many of which are artisanal, i.e. handcrafted and typically small-batch. Can you say “holy cow”?

So even though many Californians might love their oat milk and their vegan cheese, it’s clear that dairy lovers have the Golden State to thank for helping satisfy their creamiest of cravings.

Dig into Our Favorite Recipes from California
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Annamarie Higley
Annamarie Higley is an Associate Print Editor for Taste of Home magazine, as well as the brand's special issue publications. A midwestern transplant originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she enjoys hiking, trivia-ing, and—you guessed it!—all things cooking and baking.