Wednesday, January 14, 2009

America's Dairyland?

When I was a kid, I used to be convinced that someday, the business world would be divided into two sections: those companies owned by Coca Cola and the rest owned by Pepsi. 

I remember the day my beloved independently-owned Dr. Pepper went belly up and was eventually scooped up by Coke - Dr Pepper still doesn't have a dedicated bottler in the United States so actually finding it can some days be a challenge, but alas I digress -- read the whole sad story on Dr Pepper here.

Now I'm thinking that we Americans should be so lucky as to ever think the world would eventually be owned by two American companies. Global competition has fully engulfed us, and with it, the foreign investment/ownership of just about everything in the U.S.

So with that said, it was with mixed emotions that I read this week of the sale of Roth Kase USA, in Monroe, Wis., to Emmi, the largest milk processor in Switzerland. Only 17 years old, Roth Kase is one of Wisconsin's brightest success stories: a start-up specialty and artisan cheese plant that's won more than 100 awards for its cheeses since 1991.

Roth Kase Marketing Manager Kirsten Jaeckle told Cap Times Food Editor Susan Troller today in a story appearing in 77 Square: "This is a growth related acquisition for both organizations. Our assortment of cheeses are only growing, and there are no plans to change the direction we've been heading."

Roth Kase is a highly-regarded company that employs about 125 workers and has gotten rave reviews and many awards for its Swiss style cheeses, with Gruyere being a particular flagship cheese. And, although Roth Kase is one of the 100 largest milk processing plants in the United States, it is small in comparison to Emmi, which employs over 3,000 workers worldwide, and reported sales of over $1 billion in the first half of 2008.

Critics agree, and Troller says it best: "Roth Kase has been one of the catalysts for the explosion of interest in artisan cheese making and marketing in Wisconsin. It was one of two Wisconsin cheese companies that were honored Jan. 12 by the Dairy Business Innovation Center, a not-for-profit group that offers technical assistance and encouragement to Wisconsin dairy producers and processors. The DBIC award went to Roth Kase, and to Hidden Springs Creamery of Westby, a new Wisconsin creamery which has taken the cheese world by storm with its award-winning sheep's milk cheeses."

So I'm very glad to hear Roth Kase USA is going to continue making cheese in Wisconsin. It's too valuable of a company for us to lose. But, it joins a growing list of Wisconsin cheese plants now owned by foreign companies including: 
  • Arla Foods: This world-wide dairy products corporation based in Denmark, purchased White Clover Dairy in Holland, Wis., in January 2006. The sale has been very good for the company, with Arla pumping in money, renovating the old Holland plant, and retaining hundreds of jobs for the local economy.

  • Saputo: Canada's largest dairy firm purchased Wisconsin's largest farmer-owned cooperative, Alto Dairy, in April 2008. Alto was just in the beginning stages of converting itself from a commodity cheddar company to a specialty aged cheddar house, and had launched its highly-acclaimed Black Creek Classic Cheddar about a year before the sale. I see the Black Creek product is still in stores, so I'm very hopeful Saputo will continue the line.

  • Agropur: This Canadian dairy cooperative bought Trega Foods, a cheese company that was formed by combining three of Northeast Wisconsin's oldest cheese plants. The sale was announced at about the same time as the Alto Dairy sale, causing many to worry if perhaps Canadians were taking over Wisconsin. True to its word, Agropur has kept all three cheese plants up and running and the company appears as strong as ever.

  • Woolwich Dairy: One of North America's largest goat dairy processors, purchased land two years ago in Lancaster, Wis., and is now running a highly successful goat cheese plant with local workers in this small community. Word on the street is that the company is getting ready to expand the Lancaster facility due to high demand of its product in the U.S.
So as far as I can tell, the largest cheese companies left in Wisconsin that are privately owned by a U.S. citizen are: 

  • Sartori Foods, based in Plymouth, Wis. and run by third-generation Sartori family member Jim Sartori. This company purchased Antigo Cheese in 2006 and has rapidly expanded its line of American Originals.

  • BelGioioso, based in Denmark, Wis., is run by Errico Auricchio, who in 1979, moved his family from Italy to America to start his own cheese company. His children, Francesa and Gaetano, are both heavily involved in the company.

  • Sargento, owned by the Gentine family, is a Wisconsin-based dairy company that purchases cheese and crafts it into shredded blends, sliced products, "potato finishers" and cheese snacks.

  • Grassland Dairy, with 300 employees, is family-owned and currently operated by the third and fourth generations of the Wuethrich family, based in Greenwood Wis. The company just got a grant to develop and roll out a new artisan butter.

  • Klondike Cheese, owned by the Buholzer family, has a fifth generation coming up to take over the reins of this Monroe, Wis., cheese plant that makes feta, brick and muenster.
The good news is that Wisconsin still makes more cheese than any other state in the country, and we have more small, specialty and artisan cheesemakers coming online all the time. But the question remains: will we continue to be America's Dairyland? I would say yes. Will we be owned by Americans? Time will tell.

2 comments:

Dairy Guru said...

How about Grande?

Anonymous said...

I'm always amazed that we can fall back on the "at least its still made in Wisconsin" which will soon be "at least its still made in the US" to "at least its still made in North American, the new world..."

Since Wisconsin long ago came in second, now third in milk production how is it the Dairyland. Dairy is milk not cheese that is a by product. If the state would support small farms rather then encouraging large farms to the destruction of the small farming community this wouldn't be happening and certainly wouldn't be encouraged. DBIC is very proud that they brought the Canadians to Lancaster, what's wrong with that picture. Oh well, at least its still made in Wisconsin even if all of the profits are being repatriated to Canada, France, Denmark...