White Hill Cheese Co. LLC sits atop a hill in the historic mining town of Shullsburg in Lafayette county in southwest Wisconsin.
It's a rather new cheese factory, specializing in Swiss cheese that began full production in August 2011.
The operation is a bit different than most in that it is a joint venture of Swiss Valley Farms based in Davenport, IA, and Emmi Roth USA, headquartered in Monroe.
While White Hill Cheese has been producing cheese for less than a year, the factory has actually been around since late 2004 when it was built by then-owner Shullsburg Creamery.
After less than a year, cheese production ceased and the facility sat empty for nearly six years, although the modern warehouse was used by new owner Swiss Valley Farms, the big Davenport, IA, dairy cooperative that had bought the property in late 2006.
Shullsburg Creamery dates to 1934 when Tony Pedersen, a Danish immigrant, began making butter and bottling milk in the small southwestern Wisconsin town. In 1938, Pedersen switched to making cheese, and after World War II began packaging cheese for area markets, and the business grew.
In 1972, the business was sold to Chicagoan Art Stocker, who continued to make cheese until 1994 when the company closed the cheese factory and moved totally into buying, packaging and marketing a full line of cheeses.
In 2004, Scott Stocker (Art's son), who now owned Shullsburg Creamery, made the decision to return to cheese making and built the modern facility and warehouse on land on the edge of town.
Cheese production started in early 2005, but the factory closed less than a year later when the company went into foreclosure.
In February 2006, the downtown facilities and business of Shullsburg Creamery was purchased by Rockford-based Mid-West Dairymens Co., a cooperative with some 150 dairy farmer members.
On April 11, 2006, all of the cheesemaking equipment in the former plant was sold at auction. In September 2006, Swiss Valley Farms bought the former cheese plant and its adjoining facilities.
The warehouse portion of the property has been used as storage by owner Swiss Valley Farms and, until a couple of years ago, by former owner Shullsburg Creamery II LLC. (The dairy cooperative has since built a new warehouse in Shullsburg.)
It was August 2010 when the joint venture between Swiss Valley Farms and Emmi Roth USA was announced along with plans to resume cheesemaking at the long vacant Shullsburg plant.
Swiss Valley Farms is a well-know dairy cooperative dating to 1958 when two midwest dairy co-ops merged to form Mississippi Valley Milk Producers Association (MVMPA) headquartered in Davenport, IA. The cooperative grew through merger to become a major Swiss cheese and cultured products producer.
Emmi Roth USA is a subsidiary of the Emmi Group that includes Emmi, the biggest milk processor in Switzerland. In 2009 Emmi acquired Roth Kase USA at Monroe, a well-known specialty cheese company, after holding a minority interest since 2006.
Roth Kase dates to 1863 when Oswald Roth began making cheese in Uster, Switzerland. In 1991, descendants Felix and Ulrich Roth and Fermo Jaeckle founded the company in Monroe and established a reputation of producing quality specialized cheeses.
The joint venture of Swiss Valley Farms and Emmi Roth USA led to the forming of White Hill Cheese Co., USA to make Swiss cheese at the 24,000-square-foot plant and 50,000-square-foot warehouse in Shullsburg.
Remodeling, including a new tanker unloading area, office and connection between the factory and warehouse, was carried out. The empty production facility had to be re-equiped for cheesemaking and the factory opened about a year ago.
Plant manager Walter Weber, who grew up on a dairy farm nearby and is an animal science graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, said that some equipment came from the closed (and being rebuilt) Swiss Valley cheese plant at Platteville. Some 15 of the former Platteville employees transferred to to Shullsburg and are part of the current 53-member workforce at White Hill.
Weber also says that the company has a very rigid sanitation program in place. Employees who work in the production area must change from street clothes to white uniforms and rubber "crocs" before entering the cheesemaking area. Prior to entering, they change their crocs for boots.
Oh, and visitors cannot enter the production area of the plant.
Weber also points out that the plant uses four 33,000-pound Double O vats, which are the only such vats in the U.S., so far.
"They are used in a couple of European plants," he says. "They will become more common because of the higher cheese yield."
It's all Swiss cheese
The planned 10.5 million pounds of Swiss cheese production per year consists of Regular Swiss, Baby Swiss and Lacy Swiss, with all production going to the two parent companies.
The whey goes to Muscoda Protein for further processing.
Growing demand for Swiss cheeses
"We are very excited about this partnership because it will allow us to respond to growing consumer demand for Swiss cheeses," Don Boelens, CEO of Swiss Valley Farms, said at the time of the announcement of the joint venture.
"This new joint venture allows us to dedicate an entire plant to Swiss cheese production," said Jim Natzke, vice president of operations at Emmi Roth USA. "It will also allow us to more fully utilize our Monroe cheese factory to produce Gruyere and other specialty cheeses."
At one time Monroe was known as "The Swiss Cheese Capitol of the World," but that was years ago when the cheese was made in copper kettle-vats. Today, Swiss cheese is made in a different manner and Illinois has become a major production center.
There are several varieties of Swiss cheese made in Wisconsin in conjunction with other cheeses, but White Hill seems to be the only factory devoted to making Swiss cheese as its only product.
White Hill Cheese is indeed an impressive facility that is just a year old and producing lots of Swiss cheese after its resurrection from being an empty building.
The cheese has been produced in Wisconsin for over 150 years and it looks like it will be here for a long, long time to come.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or email him at email@example.com.