Wisconsin Dairy, Meet Italian Cheeses
Burnett Dairy Co-op produces top-notch Italian cheeses
Three hundred miles north of Madison in a small town called Grantsburg near the Minnesota border, the Burnett Dairy Co-op has been supporting farmers for over forty years. Dairy farming is notoriously difficult in this area, yet the co-op buys milk from 240 milk patrons, area farmers who truck their milk to the dairy from up to seventy-five miles away. It’s a support system that’s vital for the area.
Farmers in the northwest part of Wisconsin face greater challenges than those in the southern third of the state. “We’re far enough north that getting a good crop every year is a challenge, and the cost of getting that crop is higher per acre or bushel compared to [farms] in the Corn Belt or Grain Belt,” says Earl Wilson, manager of the co-op’s cheese division and retail store.
Burnett Dairy Co-op, one of the northernmost dairy plants in Wisconsin, is able to pay farmers a fair price by cutting out the “middlemen” that large corporate dairies often include. They buy and process milk right at their plant, sell cheese from an attached retail store, and provide member farmers with important services like milk quality testing and animal care. In addition to the cheese side of the co-op, Burnett Dairy also runs an agronomy division with a full-service feed, seed, fertilizer and fuel store.
The co-op model itself plays a big part in the success of the dairy. “We’re still small enough that our board of directors is very hands-on,” says Wilson. He adds with a laugh, “If there’s something important to them, and of course pay price is, they let me know. They let me know if they don’t think I’m paying enough for milk. The farmer can be heard. When you get as big as [other large dairy corporations], the farmer doesn’t have an awful lot of say anymore.”
Another unique aspect of the co-op? Instead of the Wisconsin mainstays of cheddar or Colby, Burnett’s specialty is Italian cheeses, including their signature mozzarellas and provolones. When the co-op was founded in 1966, Americans were going crazy for pizza, and the demand for Italian cheeses soared. Carl Glockzin, the first plant manager at Burnett Dairy, helped to consolidate two long-standing creameries, Branstad and Wood River, and got the idea to start making mozzarella at the new co-op.
“At that time, there were plenty of cheddar makers around,” says Wilson. “Carl made the right choice.”
Burnett cheese is sold nationally, with a big market in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. Wilson has heard through the grapevine that up to fifty percent of restaurants and pizza parlors in the Twin Cities area use Burnett cheese. Locally, Burnett Dairy Co-op will make an appearance at the Madison Food & Wine Show October 22–24, and can be ordered online.
Wilson attributes the success of the dairy to one important thing: quality. The dairy strives to make a consistent, top-notch product, and their loyal customers “are willing to pay a little extra” for Burnett excellence.
“That has allowed us to pay a very competitive price for milk for this area,” says Wilson. Dairy farmers in Burnett, Polk, and Baron Counties depend on the co-op for the survival and viability of their farms. “If Burnett Dairy wasn’t here, there would still be some farms,” notes Wilson. “But I’m pretty convinced that the number of dairy farms in this area would be much lower than it is.”
Wilson also mentioned the importance of the dedicated “family” of staff that keeps the dairy running. “Everybody wants to go out and be able to say, ‘the things we produce are the best you can buy,’ and [our employees] believe that,” he says. Many of them have been with the dairy for over thirty years. They’re proud of the role of the co-op plays in the community and the high-quality cheese they produce, says Wilson. “That’s been our direction right from the beginning.”
Burnett's products are available on their website at burnettdairy.com or from their retail store: (715) 689-2748.
Photo above: Burnett Dairy Co-op's Fancy Mozarella, one of their signature Italian cheeses.