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State representatives celebrate local impact of cheese industry

DATCP Secretary Sheila Harsdorf and Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery CEO Paul Bauer (left) pose with other representatives during the Wisconsin Cheese Day celebration on June 25. Zach Dwyer / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 2
Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery CEO Paul Bauer speaks to the crowd at the Wisconsin Cheese Day celebration on June 25. Zach Dwyer / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 2

Gov. Scott Walker and other state representatives traveled throughout Wisconsin to 13 different cheese companies and facilities to celebrate Wisconsin Cheese Day on June 25. In conjunction with National Dairy Month, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Sheila Harsdorf visited the Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery to speak at the event and present CEO Paul Bauer with a certificate of appreciation from Walker.

Representatives from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, Dairy Business Association and Wisconsin Farm Bureau also spoke briefly before a crowd of people outside the front doors of the Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery. The group was then given the opportunity to take a tour of the creamery's facilities. Wisconsin Cheese Day particularly highlighted individual companies within the industry that have expanded their operations or achieved success in exporting.

"Wisconsin is home to 8,500 dairy farms, the vast majority of which are family-owned," Walker said in a press release. "Wisconsin Cheese Day is about celebrating the successes of these companies as well as the family-supporting jobs they create right here in Wisconsin."

The cooperative started in 1910, but began selling packaged cheese curds in 1968. Today the creamery produces 160,000 pounds of cheese curds daily, which has helped it earn the title of Wisconsin's Cheese Curd Capital in 1984. The demand for the product has led to a growth in facilities for the operation, which has undergone significant renovations in the last decade.

The Ellsworth facility focuses on the production of their flavored and all natural cheese curds, all natural cheddar cheese curd crumbles and sweet whey powder. The cooperative's facility in Comstock, Wis., manufacturers over 80 varieties of artisan cheeses and their newly-bought Wohlt Cheese facility in New London, Wis., produces only processed cheese, including singles and easy melt. This adds up to almost 300 jobs within the company, with over half being based in Ellsworth.

Harsdorf said in a press release that she was excited for the opportunity to recognize the value of companies like Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery for their effects on the industry.

"Through innovative research and new product development, Wisconsin cheesemakers continue to create high-quality, award-winning cheese for consumers worldwide," Harsdorf said.

This focus on exporting worldwide has been a focus of the creamery in the past decade. In 2008, the creamery made its first contact with direct distribution to China, according to John Freyholtz, director of operations. Freyholtz and Bauer have both taken trips to China to introduce the products in the foreign markets.

Speaker Paul Fetzer from the Dairy Business Association said that during a trip to China a couple of years ago, marketing teams said that they're finally starting to get people interested in cheese curds.

"Last year we did 35 million pounds of whey powder, and we know about 22 to 23 percent went straight to China exported by Ellsworth Creamery," Freyholtz said. "In 2017 we did 7.5 million pounds of powder and 30,000 pounds of cheese curds directly to China."

Ellsworth Cheese Curds are also sold nationwide at A&W and Dairy Queen stores and can be found in 49 of 50 states. Future expansion includes plans for Vietnam and a trial shipment of 40,000 pounds to Australia.

This is possible due to the growth within the last ten years to improve the plant through greater food safety, increased cooler space, major upgrades in whey production and new offices, according to Bauer.

"We run 24/7, with no planned outages more than 12 hours," Bauer said. "In the roughly 10 years I've been here, the longest outage was 20 hours."

While the industry is highly competitive, Bauer said it is still extremely interconnected and it benefits everyone when competition is doing well.

"Our co-op, between Minnesota and Wisconsin, has a billion-dollar impact," Bauer said. "It's nice to see that WEDC was here and that the government has recognized the dairy industry. Many people take it for granted because it's been a fixture for years."

With over 400 family dairy farms producing milk for the creamery, the company has received another piece of recognition for being a major player in the cheese industry.

Zach Dwyer

Zach Dwyer is a senior journalism student at UW-River Falls. He is an intern reporter for RiverTown Multimedia during the summer of 2018 covering features and sports. He was previously a news intern in the summer of 2017 for the Red Wing Republican Eagle. 

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