Part of the fun of running your own organization is planning tours that you personally want to take. So I booked a mini charter bus, invited members of my Wisconsin Cheese Originals organization to join me, and off we went for a Farm to Fork Tour of Pasture Grazed Butter.
First stop: the Chaseburg Butter Plant, which produces all of Organic Valley's Cultured Butter and a large portion of their pasture-grazed butter.
Dave Larson, head buttermaker and plant manager, gave us a personal tour of the butter factory, which is generally not open to the public. We got a behind the scenes look at the company's giant butter churn, ghee production facility, and packing equipment.
The Chaseburg dairy plant has been around forever. It began its life as a butter plant, but then in the 1950s was converted to a commodity cheddar cheese plant. It changed owners several times and in 1999, was shuttered by Swiss Valley. Two years later, Organic Valley purchased the facility and today operates it 24/7, with three licensed buttermakers and a staff of several local
employees. In the town of 302 people, the butter plant is the heart of the community.
The facility's make room is square, relatively small, and features what is probably the original terracotta block floor and giant glass block windows. Standing in the center of room, soaking up all the attention it duly deserves, is a ginormous stainless steel butter churn, which cranks out about 22,000 pounds of butter a day.
Next to the giant, rotating butter churn o' goodness is a long, horizontal spatula-type contraption on wheels which scoops the butter out of the churn, and dumps it in a trough. As we walked in, the churn has just dumped its latest haul - 3,500 pounds of butter per churn - into the trough. What I wouldn't have given for a piece of toast at that point, but alas, we were just there to watch!
Once dumped into the trough, another machine squeezes the beautiful golden yellow butter through a stainless steel tube to the packing machine, where it's pressed into waxed-paper-covered sticks and then packed by employees into one-pound paperboard boxes.
Each churn-load uses 7,000 pounds of cream and yields about 3,500 pounds of butter. Dave told us that batch churns similar to the one used at the Chaseburg Butter Plant are a rarity these days, as most plants use continuous-production equipment, which has to be WAY less exciting than watching cream turn to butter through the window of a giant batch churn.
It takes about an hour and a half to make a batch of butter at the Chaseburg plant. Dave explained that first, the cream thickens into whipped cream. Then, after about 40 minutes, the butter begins to "break" - which (I looked up later) means to separate from the residual liquid.
Dave then drains the buttermilk off and continues churning the butter until it reaches the right texture and firmness. We went back in after our first trip through the make room just in time to see this process in action, and Dave even opened up the door for us to take a peek.
As if seeing 3,500 pounds of freshly churned butter isn't enough to impress anybody, the smell of fresh butter is acutely amazing. I kept secretly hoping Dave would look away so I could reach my finger in and take a swipe of butter, but alas, the darn quality control managers were always watching.
"It's a lot like cooking," Larson told us, as I was trying to concentrate on his words and not on reaching my hand into the butter churn. "Anybody can follow a recipe, but that doesn't mean it's going to come out right."
At Chaseburg, it almost always comes out right, and that's due to the high quality work of the plant's buttermakers. It also probably has a lot to do with the recipe, which was originally created by Willi Lehner, Bleu Mont Dairy. Willi provided the recipe for Cultured Butter to Organic Valley several years ago and the plant still uses it.
I did get my wish to try the butter later in the day, as the folks at Organic Valley Headquarters in LaFarge very kindly hosted us for lunch in their Milky Way Cafe.
Tripp Hughes, director of product management, then led us through a butter-tasting experience. We tried five Organic Valley butters: European-style Cultured Butter, Pasture Butter, Organic Valley Salted Butter, a new whipped butter product and one more that I apparently never wrote down because I was too busy eating the Pasture Butter. Ahhh .... butter ... how I love thee velvety-golden goodness.
Later that afternoon, long after our butter comas had warn off, we stopped at the Miller Organic Dairy Farm near Columbus. Co-owner Jim Miller gave us a tour of his fifth-generation farm, which ships its organic milk to the Chaseburg Butter Plant, where it's made into the butter we got to try at lunch.
The final treat of the day: watching the first cow of the evening milking step onto the farm's new age carousel parlor, which rotates by floating on water. Chewing her cud and swishing her tail, as the Miller family employees began putting milkers on each cow one by one, I couldn't help but think: these are happy cows.
And happy cows make great butter.