Three Dodge County area dairies get state grants

March 5, 2019

MADISON — Three area dairy processors were awarded state grants last week to help fund innovations aimed at adding to their product lines and their bottom lines.

Columbus-based Sassy Cow Creamery intends to use their $20,000 Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection grant to explore a new market to them — bulk milk sales to school districts.

“We sell now to a few smaller schools, Montessori schools, but not public schools,” owner James Baerwolf said.

Changes are coming to the requirements that public schools offer only fat-free and non-flavored milk, said Baerwolf, which creates opportunities for processors to sell more milk to schools.

Some states, though not Wisconsin yet, are even looking at bringing back whole milk to schools so students can receive the nutritional value of whole milk’s increased percentage of dairy fat, he said.

Sassy Cow also will be focusing on sales of bagged milk to schools that dispense milk by the glass to students. Some schools are finding buying bagged milk more economical than milk purchased in half-pint containers and Sassy Cow wants to have the equipment in place to meet the demand, Baerwolf said.

The creamery already distributes milk in the Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago markets and could add school districts as customers in those areas, too, he said.

Acquiring public school districts as customers means submitting competitive bids, a process Baerwolf said can be “expensive” to participate in, as he said different districts use different bidding processes.

Adding customers could mean adding more employees, as “anytime you can sell more milk, you need more people to do the work,” Baerwolf said.

Baerwolf appreciated receiving DATCP’s Dairy Processor Grant to help Sassy Cow stay current in an increasingly competitive industry.

“You need new products to stay profitable and it seems that new packaging or equipment keeps getting more and more expensive,” he said. “So it’s certainly helpful to get some financial help for those things.”

Although there’s a lot of work to be done, Baerwolf hopes to have some schools as new customers this fall.

Joey Widmer, of Theresa-based Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, was pleased to be awarded a $27,500 grant, which he said is being used to help automate the traditional methods they use to make cheese.

Widmer’s is the only cheese company in the state that makes brick cheese curds, Widmer said; the rest make cheddar curds. Widmer’s have been cutting 100-pound blocks of brick cheese by hand. The grant will help fund the costs to engineer a device that cuts the blocks of cheese.

Cheese is also hand-scooped from vats into forms and packed into boxes. Automating that process is also being looked into, Widmer said.

“We’re going to keep doing things same way but the changes will make it simpler, increase production and make some tasks easier on our employees,” he said.

Reeseville’s Specialty Cheese Co. is using their $15,000 grant to help add a cheese popular in India to their line of ethnic cheeses.

India is the leading milk-producing country in the world and some of that milk is used to make paneer cheese, “the single most consumed variety of cheese on planet earth,” said Paul Scharfman, Specialty Cheese’s owner.

Paneer cheese “has grown nicely for us,” said Scharfman, who is encouraged to increase production by the growing popularity of Indian restaurants in the U.S.

The company will put the grant to use toward engineering costs of developing an automated production line for paneer cheese. A lot of planning has still to be done, but Scharfman said he plans to raise and invest millions of dollars in a new production line that he believes will be a great opportunity for his firm.

Scharfman said he appreciates the state’s support of the dairy industry and the grant helps defray some startup costs for his latest venture.

Since 2014, DATCP has awarded $200,000 annually in grants to dairy processors. The money is intended to spur innovation, improve profitability and sustain the long-term viability of the dairy processing industry.

“Wisconsin dairy farmers produce some of the nation’s highest quality milk. Milk produced in our state is the key ingredient in making a number of award-winning, nutritious dairy products that are enjoyed around the country and throughout the world,” DATCP Secretary Brad Pfaff said.

Grant recipients are required to match at least 20 percent of the grant amount. For 2019, DATCP received 14 grant requests totaling about $350,000.