Salemville Cheese Co-op creates market for Amish farmers’ milk

Jan Shepel
Salemville Cheese Cooperative makes and markets a number of kinds of cheese, made from milk from Amish families who milk their cows by hand and ship that milk in cans to the factory near Cambria. Their cheesemaking process is based on blue and gorgonzola types of cheese.

CAMBRIA – Maintaining a way of life for Amish dairy farming families and preserving a successful canned milk market are two of the core missions of the Salemville Cheese Co-op in rural Cambria—things they have been doing for decades.

“It’s more to do with sustaining a way of life for people in our community who want to milk cows,” says Nelson Schrock, the operations manager of the plant. “These Amish farmers have got it in their blood, farming is their way of life.”

Speaking at a recent dairy exchange at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Shrock explained the value of the cooperative plant to other members of the dairy industry. A large new addition to the country cheese plant last year positions the co-op for growth and is a strong step in meeting the mission of the plant for its local Amish community well into the future.

When the co-op began in 1984 there were 20 patrons with an average of 10 cows in their herds and 10,000 pounds per day came into their cheese factory to make blue cheese. Today there are more than 60 patrons with an average of 15 cows and 25,000 pounds of milk comes into their plant each day. In addition to the milk from their Amish community members, sometimes milk can come into their new intake area on bulk trucks from other farmers as well.

Shrock said the plant, which is eight miles north of Cambria in Green Lake County, is a key part of the local Amish community, offering jobs and a profitable market for those who milk cows.

The Amish community which surrounds the dairy plant got started in 1978 when families migrated from northern Indiana. At that time there were four creameries in the area but within a few years they were closed or getting ready to close. One of them, Salemville Cheese, had been a cheese factory and the owner/cheesemaker came to the leaders of the Amish community to see if there was interest in keeping the plant in business.

The community gave the project a green light, allowing members to work in what for Amish folks is a non-traditional setting— it uses electricity. Shrock’s father, William and his uncle, LaVern Miller, took the lead and the plant got started in 1984, once again making blue cheese. That same year there was a 1,000-square-foot cooler expansion at the cheese plant.

Schrock explains that once the mold that creates blue cheese is in a cheese plant it permeates the facility and no other kind of cheese, like Cheddar, can be made there. The exception is Gorgonzola cheese, which is a close enough cousin to blue that there isn’t a problem.

When the plant was getting off the ground another arrangement had to be made for Salemville to move forward—the plant had to have a non-Amish owner.

“That is a standard for the community,” he said. In those first years the plant had gone through several owners but the current owners, Canaan Properties, Inc., have stood with the community for over 20 years.

The people behind Canaan Properties, Susan and Stan Harris, have been friends of Nelson’s family and the Amish community for more than 35 years.

“They were friends before they were business partners,” he said.

As the plant began to crank out blue cheese, they ran into a problem—not enough sales of their finished product.

“We struggled for six years,” says Nelson.

Then in 1990 they began working with Dan Carter, Inc., which was looking for domestic suppliers of specialty cheeses.

“That was one of the best things that ever happened here,” he added. That was also the year that the Salemville brand was born.

When DCI got the Amish specialty cheese into a variety of retail markets a substantial amount of value was added to the milk brought into the plant. In the early years about 90 percent of their cheese was sold into “commodity” channels. But once those specialty connections were made, virtually all of the co-op’s cheese has been sold at retail – for higher prices.

Expanded product line

Today their expanded product line includes a Rocky Meadow brand of cheese, Amish blue, gorgonzola, a Reserve aged blue and a smokehaus blue. The products can be found in large retailers like Hy-Vee, Whole Foods and Kroger, he said, as well as other major outlets. It is sold in every state of the Union, he adds but the greatest amount of product is moved in the East.

As that business took off, the plant added cold storage and then space for packaging. In 2016 they broke ground for a large expansion and completed it in 2017.

Dan Carter’s DCI Cheese Company was sold to Saputo Specialty Cheese in 2011 and Nelson notes both have been very good to work with; those relationships are highly valued by the co-op and the community. Members of the DCI marketing team went along over to Saputo.

“Their marketing efforts have made all the difference,” he adds. “Without those efforts our farm-gate milk prices would suffer. Because of the marketing, we are able to pay our farmers prices that are superior to Class III.”

New additions to the Salemville cheese factory include larger state-of-the-art pasteuriization facilities and more space to make and age cheese. Here cheese is being made from the milk brought in to the factory from Amish farms.

One of the things that the marketing team has done in recent years is bring their buyers to the plant and visit the farms where the milk comes from.

“They really believe in getting buyers to the plant, having them watch the milk come in and see the cheese being made.” After such a visit one buyer moved all her business to Salemville, he says.

“Since the community doesn’t allow mechanical milkers and since our farms are all family run, we meet a lot of truly artisan requirements for our buyers. It is a true fit for the farm-to-table movement,” Schrock said.

In addition, all the Amish farmers shun the use of genetically modified crops, so down the road there is the potential opportunity to use that as part of their story.

“We did a survey for the plant and every farmer raises non-GMO feed. All our farmers are virtually organic, they just haven’t been certified,” he noted.

Besides offering a place for Amish dairy farmers to sell their milk in cans, the plant offers employment. Schrock said his employees are all from the Amish community including licensed cheesemakers and food safety specialists who have all been trained in their areas.

“They aren’t afraid of hard work,” he said.

Other regional Amish communities have studied what has been accomplished at Salemville to see if they could make it work in their areas.

“They are asking us to tell them how we did it so they can help the farmers in their communities,” he says. Schrock credits the fact that the whole community helped with the project and it was started some decades ago.

After the cheese is made and removed from its forms, it cures on racks and then in cold-storage areas. Salemville manager Nelson Schrock explains that once blue cheese is made in a facility, the mold that is necessary to produce that cheese becomes dominant in that environment and makes it difficult to make any other kind of cheese, like cheddar for example. So they have built their process on blue and related gorgonzola cheeses.

“It could be a challenge to do it now,” he adds. “But every Amish community now has a produce auction. Why not dairy?”

There are 40-50 Amish communities in the state, Schrock estimated. Salemville is one of three plants in Wisconsin that takes in canned milk.

He adds that cows have such long, productive lives on the Amish farms that most are in the herd for eight to 10 years and many farmers have the opportunity to sell off springing heifers because they don’t need them as herd replacements.

Schrock himself became one of the plant’s farmer/patrons in 2015 when he bought an 85-year-old timber-frame barn from a neighbor. With help from family and friends, he took the barn down and re-erected it at his farm. Now he begins his days milking cows before he comes in to manage the plant. He wanted to milk cows to see what other farmers face on a daily basis, but also to have chores and teach responsibility to his children.

Economic engine

Partnerships with buyers, workers and farmers have helped make the Salemville Cheese Co-op an economic engine for the community, Schrock says. The average age of farmer/patrons milking cows is 37 years old, he notes, which is quite a bit younger than Wisconsin’s dairy farm population overall.

“Having those younger farmers puts us in a position to keep this going into the future,” he said.

Positioning for the future has also meant expanding the facilities. In 1995 they added 2,500 square feet of cold storage and in 2004 they added 8,300 square feet for packaging and storage.

The plant employs 35 Amish workers from the community doing production and packaging of the cheese. For 15 years the plant had only one licensed cheesemaker, Schrock’s uncle LaVern. But today there are two licensed cheesemakers on staff along with four apprentices.

Those cheesemakers have scored Best in Class awards for gorgonzola at the National Cheese Contest. Nelson credits the many resources available in Wisconsin—the Center for Dairy Research, University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association—with helping put all the pieces together to run a solid business.

The financial impact to the greater community, says Nelson, is from $3-$4 million, something he and the five-member board of directors appreciate.

Last year Canaan Properties completed its largest expansion yet, with the backing of the Salemville Amish co-op, allowing them to completely move out of the 117-year-old cheese factory next to the road where they started. This addition includes 15,000 square feet and includes a fully enclosed bay to unload full cans of milk and reload the washed and sanitized cans.

The building of the new cheese plant and intake employed a number of Amish carpenters, and non-Amish vendors. The bank required a licensed general contractor to oversee the project.

New intake for cans

The process starts at the intake where contracted milk haulers bring the milk into the plant in an enclosed box truck designed to haul cans. All the Amish dairy farmers put their milk in cans and cool it in a tank filled with well water at the farm.

One of the missions of the Salemville Cheese Cooperative is to preserve a market for Amish farmers who want to ship their milk in cans. The plant's new intake facility was built with a conveyor system to bring in cans which are then weighed and sampled, emptied, washed and returned to a contractor's truck that returns them to the farm. (The truck is driven by a non-Amish driver.)

The haulers now enter the new intake, where a conveyor system allows workers to empty the 10-gallon stainless steel cans. Each can is marked with a farm number; weights and samples are taken and recorded from each as they are emptied. The cans and lids are washed, sanitized and returned to the farm.

The milk then moves through a state-of-the-art pasteurization center and goes into cheese vats in the next room.

Workers place curds in small round forms and once that curd is set, the cheese comes out of the form and goes into brining tanks. The cheese eventually ends up in cold storage to be aged until it reaches the requirements of its standard of identity.

“We inventory 250,000 pounds of blue cheese on a daily basis,” Schorck said.

Of the 1-1.5 million pounds of production at Salemville each year, 80 percent of it is sold as crumbled cheese and the plant packages its products under numerous labels. “We have 45 different SKU’s,” he said.

Future ideas

While the co-op is still enjoying the new facility, they are mulling over ideas for the future. There is an opportunity in doing goat’s milk cheese at the plant as another product line and expansion of production is now possible with the added facilities.

Schrock said he gets calls all the time from non-Amish dairy farmers with 20 cows or 35 cows who are having a hard time finding anyone who wants to pick up their milk and he sympathizes with them. It’s possible that down the road Salemville may join with other Amish communities who are selling their milk into commodity markets and leaving $4-$5 on the table because they ship in cans.

“Most Amish dairy farmers in Wisconsin still use canned milk,” he adds.

“This is a model that is working. It wasn’t an overnight success and you need a committed community,” he says. “Economically the hogs had to go and then the steers had to go and the chickens had to go. We think this is a way to keep dairy farming a viable part of the Amish community.”

The retail cheese store at the front of the factory, Schrock said, has been a profit center and has been part of the facility from the start. Despite its location on a fairly remote country crossroads, there was a steady stream of retail cheese shoppers during our visit on a windy winter day.

During the summer the cheese store is a stop on organized tours of the local Amish businesses and is especially busy when gardeners are out in the country buying plants from nearby Amish-run greenhouses. During the summer months four nearby campgrounds are full and many of those campers stop in for cheese.