Waupun Dairy and prison farms turn out milk, ice cream and skilled employees

Gloria Hafemeister
Inmates fill crates with half-pint containers of milk at the Waupun Dairy in Waupun.

WAUPUN, WI – Milk and ice cream that inmates across Wisconsin and beyond enjoy is made with milk sourced directly from the state-owned herds housed at the farm outside of Waupun, and from the herd near Oregon, Wisconsin.

Last week Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) Secretary Randy Romanski and members of the media got an up close look at both Waupun State Farm and the dairy processing plant, both overseen by the Department of Correction's (DOC) Bureau of Correctional Enterprises (BCI).

DOC Secretary Kevin Carr says the two dairy farms and the Waupun Dairy processing plant are staffed by BCE employees, as well as men in the custody of DOC at John C. Burke Correctional Center in Waupun. 

The dairy processing plant and the farms are part of the BCE’s program to train inmates to be productive workers once they are released from custody returned back into their communities. Wes Ray is the BCE director and oversees work at these facilities and other manufacturing facilities in the BCE system.

MORE: DOC shows off new addition and opportunities at Waupun Farm facility

Raw milk from both the Waupun and the Oregon farms is shipped to the Waupun facility where it is made into skim milk, ice cream and sherbet.

Korey Fietz, manager of the processing plant, showed off the modern clean-in-place (CIP) system for the large bulk tanks and pipelines leading to the bottling and ice cream making machines, along with quality testing protocols, cream separating system and packaging lines.

Ice cream and sherbert are made and packaged in individual 4-oz. serving containers and shipped to state-owned facilities in Wisconsin and Minnesota.  Making these products provides jobs for inmates and helps teach them basic work skills.

Cream for the ice cream is poured into one of two 4000-pound tanks where vitamins are added and processing is done. While one tank is processing the product, the second is being filled to ensure a steady stream of product which is packaged in individual 4-ounce containers then sent down the line where the ice cream is into 48-carton boxes and shipped out. Individual half-pint cartons of milk emblazoned with the Waupun Dairy logo are shipped out daily.

In fiscal year 2021, the Waupun Dairy produced: 89,000 five-gallon containers of skim milk; 350,000 cases of skim milk half-pints; 18,000 cases of ice cream; 7,000 cases of sherbet.

Bernie is one of 26 prisoners working at the processing plant. He has been incarcerated within the DOC for about a year and a half and he has worked at the processing plant He told the visitors he started out in the crate room and now is working on the milk carton line. 

“I learned discipline and being part of a team," Bernie said. "Getting out of the (Burke) Center is the best part of it.”

The dairy processing plant is one of several places where workers from 11 correctional facilities are provided with opportunities to receive vocational training and develop work skills. BCE sells a variety of products and services to federal, state and local government agencies, and non-profit organizations.

Individual half pint milk cartons are packaged at the dairy facility at Waupun, located near the John Burke Center that provides 26 workers in the plant.  The milk is shipped to Wisconsin and Minnesota facilities and is not marketed to the general public.

While state statutes dictate that BCE be a profitable enterprise, paying expenses and employees, it does not compete with the private sector in marketing its products.

Instead, BCE’s primary customers are the Wisconsin DOC, Wisconsin Department of Health Services’ facilities, and Minnesota Department of Corrections facilities.

Ray is proud of the fact that more than 90% of those who have gone through the work programs while incarcerated have successfully found employment when released.

“We work hard to help these people get jobs," he said. "We meet with potential employers and let them know what BCE is and how these people can help with staffing challenges. We are very focused on helping our former workers get jobs.”

To work in the dairy processing plant, the farms or any of the other BCE enterprises workers must apply for the jobs. 

In order to apply for one of the posts, inmates must have earned a high school diploma or equivalent degree and must have at least 12 months without a rule violation within the prison. After applying, inmates go through an interview just as they would on any other job.

Once on the job, inmates have the opportunity to move into higher level jobs if they want.

Secretary Romanski says the two dairy farms and the processing plant is an important part of Wisconsin’s dairy industry. While they each provide quality products, more importantly, workers are learning a work ethic that comes from performing important tasks on the farm or in the processing facility.

Romanski said it was his first time to actually tour the facility and he was impressed with the cleanliness and quality control on both the farm and at the processing plant. The DATCP regularly inspects farms and he notes that the DOC farms have consistently had high marks following inspections.