Maple Leaf Cheese Cooperative notified of cheese plant shutdown

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
After a 24-year partnership, Maple Leaf Cheese Cooperative and the Maple Leaf Cheesemakers Inc., are parting company, leaving 25 small and medium-sized dairy farms looking for a home for their milk.

MONROE – After a 24-year partnership, Maple Leaf Cheese Cooperative and the Maple Leaf Cheesemakers Inc., are parting company.

Bob Bade, treasurer and milk producer for Maple Leaf Cheese Cooperative, said the farmer-owned cooperative was notified by Maple Leaf Cheesemakers Inc. that they will no longer be making cheese at the Monroe facility beginning Nov. 20, 2020.

"They told us it wasn't economically viable for them to keep making cheese at our plant," Bade said.

According to a statement released by Maple Leaf Cheesemakers Inc., "Dairy market volatility coupled with the coronavirus pandemic has forced them to make the tough decision to discontinue production of their award-winning cheese at the Monroe facility.”

Bade noted that the cooperative had been in negotiations with Maple Leaf Cheesemakers for the past year in an attempt to fashion a better contract for the co-op.

"We initiated the contract discussion which has pretty much gone nowhere. The pandemic hit, talks stalled. We had been working on a temporary contract since April," he said. "We're committed to keeping this factory open and the co-op going because we don't want to lose the market. If we do, it will be harder for small farms to make a go at it and control their own destiny."

Maple Leaf is one of Green County's 12 operating cheese factories today and is a consistent award winner for its artisan cheeses.

The cooperative was established back in 1910 by a group of local family farmers in order to establish a consistent, trustworthy market for their milk. Maple Leaf is still locally farmer-owned. Bade says this group of dairy producers churned out 3.79 million pounds of milk in August for the plant.

According to the agreement forged in 1982 between the two entities, the cooperative owns the facility on Twin Grove Road and provides the milk and hires the Maple Leaf Cheesemakers group to make the cheese. The cheesemaker group owns the equipment and provides the labor, including the cheesemakers.

The cheese plant produces gouda, cheddar, havarti and different varieties of Monterey Jack cheese. Maple Leaf also scored on the international stage at the 2020 World Cheese Championship when its cheddar cheese was among three Wisconsin cheeses to place in the top 20 of its respective division.

While Maple Leaf Cheesemakers recognize the challenge presented to the 25 dairy farms that have supported their cheesemaking efforts, the group of 35 workers staffing the plant will be offered employment at the cheesemaker group's other cheese operations, which include Alpine Slicing and Cheese Conversion Co. and Cheese Louise, Inc., also in Monroe.

“As a board, we are disappointed with the short notice, but view this situation as an opportunity,” said Bade. “We’re committed to working diligently to find a new partner to ensure our farmer-owners and other suppliers have a place to sell their milk.”

Presently the cooperative and cheese plant is owned by 25 dairy farmers. Bade says they’ve worked with the Maple Leaf Cheesemakders making cheese under contract with the cooperative since 1982.

“Our board is working hard to help our farmer-owners and other suppliers find a temporary location to sell their milk,” says Bade. “We’re also looking for a new strategic partner who shares our commitment to making world-class specialty cheeses under a new brand.”

Bade says he is optimistic that the cooperative will find another cheesemaker willing to work with them to start up another new brand.

"We'll pull through," he said. "We have a lot of the right people on our side."