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A sad month in Wisconsin dairying

John Oncken

It’s not been a good month for Wisconsin dairying. The release of a host of dairy producers from their processing arrangements by two companies (Nasonville Cheese and Grassland Dairy Products) left an estimated 75 farmers without a home for their milk. It appears there are still 40 (or thereabouts) dairy producers without a home for their milk as the May 1 cutoff date approaches.

Some Wisconsin farmers released by their dairy producers may have to sell their dairy cows if they don't find a home for their milk before May 1.

What happens then, is a question I’ve been asked many times. My answer is I don’t know, other than that the farm will have to cease milking and the cows will have to be sold. What other choice is there? No dairy producer can store milk for any length of time and the cows must continue to eat and milk.

I do know that the situation is one of great tragedy. The dairy producers all owe money and have bills being paid for with the milk check. That milk check also pays for the family food and living expenses - everything. Many lives will be shattered - how do you pay for the farm with no income?

No answer

Doom and gloom for sure but I’ve not heard any answer or even a logical suggestion as to an answer. It’s not something that anyone has faced or dealt with on such a scale before. Yes, dairy farmers have been cut off by their processor before but there was always another processor waiting to take the milk.

One friend asked: Why not make the milk into cheese and give it away under a government program? My answer: A month notice isn’t enough time to get such a program up and running. Someone would have to make the cheese and store it, but all the cheese factories are full up so couldn’t make extra cheese from a million pounds of milk per day. And, the paperwork (for milk from so many farms) would be too complicated.

I’ll admit this has bothered me to no end and I feel so bad about those families - I’m sure I have written about some of them over the years but no names have been released as yet so I don’t know for sure.

My heart and thoughts are with these producers. I wish I could help.

Butter wars

Kerrygold butter has been in the news. It’s basic ingredient is produced by Irish cows.

In a much less serious vein, there are two “butter battles” much in the news the past couple of weeks.

One centers on the 123-year-old Minerva Dairy in Ohio that has filed a federal lawsuit against Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel and Ben Brancel and Peter J. Haase of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture’s Trade and Consumer Protection division, arguing that the state’s ban on the sale of ungraded butter unconstitutionally protects large Wisconsin-based dairies and that the state has no right to enforce an “antiquated” statute it says interferes with interstate commercial butter sales.

Interestingly, Minerva had its start in 1894 as Radloff Cheese in Hustisford, Wisconsin and has been selling its artisanal products in Wisconsin for decades.

Another pending lawsuit attempts to prevent Irishgold butter from being sold even though it went off the shelves some time ago.

I’m not sure what caused all the uproar about butter but both actions center on the 1953 butter grading program initiated in Wisconsin as a means to ensure butter quality.

Wrong name

Ornua Foods North America, filed a lawsuit against Old World Creamery for using the name 'Irishgold” on butter it was processing at its Sheboygan plant. Formerly the Irish Dairy Board, Ornua North America is an agri-food commercial cooperative which markets and sells dairy products, including Kerrygold butter, on behalf of its members, Irish dairy processors and the Irish dairy farmer.

But, because Kerrygold is graded, packaged and produced in Ireland retailers are banned from selling the butter in the state.

Minerva Dairy in Ohio had its start as Radloff's Cheese in Hustisford, WI, in 1894 and closed in 2003 after moving the operation to over to Ohio.

Ornua has filed a court document in the Eastern District Court of Wisconsin, stating “consumers wanting to purchase Irish butter will likely be misled into thinking that defendant’s Irish Gold butter is the work around for selling Irish butter in Wisconsin and will purchase defendant's product thinking it is Kerrygold Irish butter.”

“Our core purpose is to bring quality Irish dairy products to markets around the world. We do this by sharing the story of Irish farming and explaining how Irish dairy products are produced from the milk of grass-fed cows, the most sustainable dairy farming system in the world,” the company says.

Who is Old World Creamery of Sheboygan, I wondered, so again I put on my research thinking cap. It turns out that Old World Creamery is owned by the Knaus family who also own Weyauwega Cheese and Steve's Wholesale Cheese LLC (trade name Homestead Cheese) at Sun Prairie that is managed by Steve Knaus, longtime Sun Prairie businessman (and former fire chief for some 15 years).

The story:

“We bought the empty Deans, Verifine milk plant in Sheboygan last year and installed butter making equipment,” Steve Knause explains. "Ornua Foods came to us to grade, process and label Kerrygold  butter for them- we have five State butter graders available - so they could sell butter in the state."

"After a lot of friendly discussion, we couldn’t agree on a contract and they walked away. We had already purchased the butter from them (and also from other Irish buttermakers, so we came up with the name Irish Gold and introduced it at all Woodman’s Markets in Wisconsin on Tuesday, April 11."

Irishgold butter produced by Old World Creamery was sold for only a few days and then went to court and was pulled from the market because of a possible trademark dispute.

Three days later, Irishgold butter was pulled from the shelves as per direction of a Judge because of a possible trademark dispute. However a week later the company’s “Old World Creamery Pure Irish Butter” was on the shelves at all Woodman’s Markets.

“We’re excited to once again be able to get our product on the shelves in the Badger State,” said Knaus, managing partner of Old World Creamery.

Meanwhile, the histrionics about being fined or going to jail seem to be a bit blown out of proportion. Ag Department Spokesperson Raechelle Belli and Tim Anderson, Director of Field Services said that DATCP did send a reminder notice of the butter grading rule to grocery stores on occasion.  And that they were in the process of working with Kerrygold to get them back in the state.

“Yes, we’ve enforced the law over the years when it came to our attention but we’ve never encountered such a strong base of advocates before,” Belli says. “We’ll get it fixed.”

Knause is a bit surprised by the whole thing.

“We had a friendly discussion but we couldn’t arrive at a price to process and package the bulk butter, I’d still do it for them,” he says.

In a visit to Woodman’s, I saw that in addition to Old World Creamery Pure Irish Butter, that Land O’Lakes European Super Premium butter was also offered as choice along with several regular names that most of us buy.

The future? I suspect that DATCP will review the butter grading rule and continue to work with out-of-state butter processors so that their butter will again find its way to Wisconsin. Be patient.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at