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Josh and Carla Erickson are doing something they enjoy : making 13 - 14,000 pounds of cheese a day at Silver & Lewis Cheese Factory Co-op (Silver Lewis for short), from about 55,000 pounds of milk supplied by some 24 dairy farmers. They work long hours and much of the work is muscle taxing as they move cheese around by hand.   

Bought in 2005

The Ericksons began making cheese at the Silver Lewis factory in 2005, after buying out and taking over from longtime cheesemaker Bob Gmur. Actually, they bought the cheese making equipment/marketing segment of the then smaller factory -  the building and land is owned by a group of dairy farmers.  

This is one of the few very unique cooperative operations like it in the state. The Ericksons own everything inside the factory and are responsible for processing the milk from the farmer co-op members into cheese and marketing it at a profit. 

Most of the dairy cooperatives across the land - Foremost Farms USA, DFA and Land O' Lakes among them - are also owned by the farmers, but hire the manager and marketers who are paid a salary but have no financial ownership in the business. 

It’s family

Josh has been making cheese all his life starting as a high school student at the former Davis Cheese Co-op in Browntown, then at Spece Cheese in Browntown and after that for 21 years at Prairie Hill Cheese at Monroe. 

He is the head cheesemaker at Silver Lewis and is assisted by his brother Jay, also a licensed cheesemaker. Carla pretty much does everything, including taking orders, oversees packaging and shipping and is the accountant. 

The Erickson’s daughter Angie Keepers also works fulltime at the factory “doing everything.” She, her husband and two children live in the apartment above the cheese factory.

Angie and another young women, Brandy Williams are full time employees at Silver Lewis. Both admit they “love the physical work involved” and “they are good,” Carla Erickson says.  

All told there are 12 employees (including the family) at Silver Lewis.  

“Titles don’t exist here,” Carla says. “We all do most everything, we are all laborers.”

Early to rise

The work day starts early at Silver Lewis: Jay Erickson comes in at about 1 a.m. to start the cheesemaking process, Josh and Carla arrive at 3 to 4 a.m., with Angie and Lona on the job by 6 a.m.

Other employees also come in early and the cheesemaking is usually completed by noon or so.  

11 years ago

When I first visited (and wrote about) this small cheese factory 11 years ago, there were 12 dairy farmer patrons. Now there are 24.

The co-op is headed by president Don Silver who farms nearby. 

Yes, Silver, like in Silver Lewis, who is the fourth generation dairy farmer in his family to ship milk to Silver Lewis Co-op. His great grandfather was one of the founding fathers of the cheese plant. 

In 1896, two local dairy families decided to develop a cheese plant - the Lewis family, donated the land for the factory, and Don’s  great-grandfather put up the money to build the building.

And “on April 1, 1897, the plant opened,” Josh Erickson explains. “Only a small corner of the original building remains, after remodeling over the years,” he continues. 

There have been two major remodeling projects since my last visit:  a cooler and more table room on the back allowing for the addition of an 18,000 pound vat to join the two existing 10,000 pound vats;  and offices and the cheese sales store in the front.

“We can’t really do much more,” Carla says. “The highway runs close alongside the factory and there is a big hill in back.”   

The Ericksons continue to make a wide variety of cheeses with muenster, farmers and brick leading the way. Much of the cheese goes east to long-established customers - via the way of distributors that they work with.

“We have a ready market for our cheese," Josh says. “And our popularity comes mainly by word of mouth.”

Another move in recent years was the addition of cheese with the Silver Lewis label, something they did not do before. Now you can buy Silver Lewis cheese at the factory store and at neighboring towns. Most of the cheese however is sold under private label to the cheese distribution industry, who sells it under dozens of brands. 

What is the major challenge in making cheese today, I asked”  

“It’s labor,” Josh responded. “It seems that very few people are interested in working hard and long these days. Young people were not raised to work a regular job - they were brought up by parents who gave them everything except the drive to succeed on a working job."  

We’ve had new employees who quit because they ‘couldn’t keep up’ with the two young women, Angie and Sandy," added Josh. "It’s a problem that our cheesemaking industry and others face.”

Why would anyone work 12 hours a day, take few or no vacations and never expect to be rich and famous? Consider - many people such as dairy farmers, small business owners and cheesemakers do that every day.   

Call it love and pride

I have an answer: Because they seriously love what they do. And they love their job and life because they are producing something they can see, feel and sell to others who will consume and enjoy. 

Not like friends of mine who work for the government or huge corporations who have told me they spend all day doing paperwork and at day’s end have nothing to show for their efforts. Nothing such as widgets (or this column), or milk or cheese to show for the day’s work. 

"That’s why we leave early on Friday to travel for hours to our cottage up north where we build piers, fix windows, cut the grass or do other labor intensive work," a then racquetball opponent friend explained to me years ago.  “We work our hours and get paid so we can do the things that result in things we can create and be proud of.”

The University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives calls Silver-Lewis 
co-op "the second oldest continuously running co-op in Wisconsin."  The oldest being the former Patrons Mercantile Cooperative of Black Earth, now known (after a 2000 merger) as Premier Co-op, at Mount Horeb.

What prompts a dairy farmer to ship milk to the tiny Silver-Lewis Cheese Co-op?

"Our farmers are very devoted to Silver-Lewis," Josh says. "Their milk may have been coming here for decades and generations. Most of them want to see where their milk goes and are proud of the cheese that's made from it. And, we pay well."

Indeed, pride is the key to making cheese at a small cheese factory and you can see it, feel it, hear it and eat it. A visit to Silver Lewis at Monticello or one of the state’s small family operated cheese factories will tell the story better than my words.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or e-mail him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.

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