The Cheese Caves

Every so often, a story spreads around the internet about the government, cheese, and caves.

The claim regards billions of pounds of government cheese being stored in vast underground networks. While this tale has roots in reality, only portions of it are correct. People of a certain age will recall “government cheese,” an effort to turn excess milk production into food stores that could last longer than the cloudy liquid, curb dairy prices, and help feed those in need. The result was giant hunks of cheese that were stored in warehouses across the country.

And, yes, today, cheese does sit in vast underground networks, but it has nothing to do with the government. The government stopped storing cheese surpluses in the 1980s. Instead, Big Dairy likes to keep cheese in caves. Where are these spelunking hunks and why are they underground? Let’s go caving!

Ronald Reagan holds a hunk of government cheese

Springfield, Missouri is home to a 3.2-million-square-foot warehouse. If you drive around town looking for it, you won’t find it. At least, above ground.

In 1946, a man began a limestone excavation company in Springfield. By 1954, all the easy pickings had been harvested, so the company pushed the quarry under the surface. They employed the “room and pillar method,” which created giant pockets with relatively flat floors and ceilings. Though technically not caves, these new areas resemble the natural formations. Using this method paid off for the company big time after the limestone reserves were tapped out.

Today, the company is called Springfield Underground. The massive rooms now serve as warehouse space for, amongst other items, cheese!

Photo from Springfield Underground
The quarry before heading underground
Passages created by the room and pillar method

One attribute of caves – natural or artificial – stands above all others in this story: climate.

The temperature and humidity inside most caves are remarkably stable. Springfield Underground touts a constant temperature of 62 degrees Fahrenheit; humidity usually sits between 55% and 65%. Sheltered from the sun and outdoor weather, the cave’s consistent climate provides natural benefits and allows for energy efficiency if a tenant requires a slightly different setup. The company claims they can refrigerate between -20 degrees Fahrenheit and 55 degrees Fahrenheit, at controlled humidities, while saving between 30-50% on utility consumption.

In other words, if one needs to store massive amounts of cheese, caves are a great option. Cheese is more durable than milk, obviously, but one can significantly extend the dairy product’s life under controlled conditions. How much cheese is in Springfield Underground? Because the cave serves private companies, those numbers are not public. However, Kraft Heinz and the Dairy Farmers of America pay for storage, so the number is thought to be quite high.

An entrance to the cave - photo by Nathan Papes/News-Leader
The passageways are massive enough for tractor-trailers - photo by Nathan Papes/News-Leader

The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that companies stow approximately 1.4 billion pounds of cheese in cold storage. While that sounds like an exorbitant number – and it is – that’s only about 10% of the cheese consumed by Americans each year. The average citizen pounds 40 pounds of cheese, for a combined 13.5 billion pounds of consumption.

These caves are so large that companies store a slew of other items in them, as well. Other perishable goods that benefit from a controlled climate, such as coffee, wine, and alcohol, find a home in caves, too. But, stranger things also sit underground, including postage stamps, automobiles, and data storage servers. Some companies even use the spaces to produce their wares, claiming energy savings by avoiding the temperature and weather extremes of winter and summer.

Springfield Underground is not the only limestone “cave” to store cheese and other items. SubTropolis lies underground near Kansas City, Missouri. Ford stored cars there in the 1960s. Kentucky Underground exists near a town called Wilmore.

Ford automobiles in SubTropolis in the 1960s

These complexes are so large that train systems operate within them, in addition to tractor-trailer service. The next time you find yourself near an old limestone quarry, you might unknowingly be standing over a massive cheese empire!

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