Pine River Dairy spans five generations
MANITOWOC - Laurie Olm and her sisters remember working in their father’s dairy business as little girls, sweeping floors for a dime or lending a hand in the store.
Today, the women are owners and top management of Pine River Dairy, just outside the city of Manitowoc, which produced and sold more than 3.2 million pounds of butter in 2016.
The business has been in the family for more than 70 years and is going strong. And it is surely a family affair.
Olm, a fifth-generation family member in the business, serves as president, and her sister, Pam Olm Waak, is director of the Butter Packaging Department. Another sister, Shari Olm Riesterer, is vice president. And Shari's daughter, Samantha Hammel, is quality assurance manager.
The girls took over the business from the parents, who still are involved with the dairy. Dad Roland Olm Jr. is a consultant, and mom Jacque Laures is a lab technician. Roland's sister Sally Meyer serves as treasurer.
It's easy to see the family gets along easily, as the women joke and tease back and forth as they talk about the history and success of the business. Visitors can also see they take pride in what they do.
“Everyone cares,” Hammel said. “Everyone puts their time into it. They’re enjoying what they’re doing.”
Her aunt agrees.
“I’m proud to work with my family,” Olm said. “I'm proud we get along so well, and produce a great product. I love being down in the store, where I started out as a child. I’m always happy to see customers. I’m proud we’re still here, and proud we could have enough money to do improvements over the years.”
The dairy business spans three centuries for the Olm family.
In 1877, brothers Herman and Ferdinand Olm, who immigrated from Germany to Wisconsin with their family in 1849, began making cheese in the town of Meeme. Two years later, Herman built a cheese factory in the town of Rockland, and in 1903, Herman's son, Otto, started a cheese factory in Valders.
Otto's son Roland bought a cheese factory in Cato Falls in 1926. It was destroyed by fire three years later. In 1931, Roland and his wife bought a cheese factory that is now known as Pine River Pre-pack. The Olms sold that business in 1945.
Cheddar cheese was made at the site until 1951, when the business switched full-time to butter making, Olm said due to low availability of milk.
A decade later, Roland Olm Jr. joined the business. His sister Sally came aboard in 1965.
Laurie Olm became part of the business in 1982, later joined by her two sisters.
The dairy employs 18 workers, some have been part of the business for more than 20 years.
Although the business has been modified and passed to younger generations over the years, the process of making butter hasn't changed. Butter still has only two ingredients: cream and salt, Olm noted.
Nine or so suppliers deliver tens of thousands of pounds of cream several days a week. The cream is pasteurized and cooled in large holding tanks. Buttermilk is separated and used for a specialty butter, and creams are tested for fat content.
Eventually, cream is pumped into one of two large churns. Depending on the type of butter being made, each batch becomes about 1,000 pounds of butter, typically taking 45 minutes or so to churn. The super-soft butter is loaded onto a giant rolling cart and moved to a team ready to box it for delivery.
Last year, about 75 percent of Pine River's butter was produced for companies that use it as another food ingredient, in products like candy, cheese spread, garlic bread, chicken kiev or baked goods
The remaining butter is used either for retail sale or restaurant use. Local restaurants, including Gills in Whitelaw, Village Hearthstone in Hilbert and the Courthouse Pub in Manitowoc, buy Pine River butter, Olm said.
Because Pine River Dairy is a small operation, they can make small batches to accommodate a variety of buyers, adding coloring, salt or no salt, and spices and flavoring.
Thousands also visit Pine River’s retail store to buy locally made cheese, bacon and meats, butter, cookies, soups, souvenirs and, the hot-seller: 25-cent dipped ice cream cones. An observation window allows visitors to watch the butter-making process.
Families often make a day trip to the dairy. Pine River added a small park with picnic tables across the road from the factory, and Olm said they might expand the factory and retail store.
The women are proud the business won a 2016 award from the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association for their specialty cinnamon/honey butter. They're also proud to be part of the state's dairy tradition.
“Farmers are really recognized in our area, as they should be,” Hammel said. “People don’t always think 'I could get a job in a cheese factory or a butter factory.' There's a lot of jobs for people in this industry, and they don't realize it."
As smaller cheese and dairy makers have closed or been bought out by larger operations, Olm said she's glad Pine River Dairy has survived and thrived.
“I think we’re a great asset to the community,” Olm said. "I'm proud that we're still here, and proud that we could have enough money to do improvements over the years. And I'm proud to work with my family, and that we get along so well."