Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Minnesota makes strong showing in U.S. Cheese Makers Contest February 27, 2023

Inside a Rice County dairy barn. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

AS SOMEONE WHO GREW UP on a dairy farm, I understand the hard work and commitment of feeding, caring for and milking cows. Every. Single. Day. Although the process has become easier with automation, the fact remains that dairy farmers can’t just walk away from the barn for a day. The cows still need to be milked.

As a child and teen, I labored in the barn, assisting my dad with feeding, bedding straw, and scooping manure. He did the actual milking. And he was under a time crunch to finish milking our Holsteins before the milk truck arrived to empty the bulk tank and transport our cows’ milk to the Associated Milk Producers plant in New Ulm.

That backstory brings me to today, nearly 50 years removed from the southwestern Minnesota crop and dairy farm where I learned the value of hard work. AMPI in New Ulm is still going strong and recently won several honors at the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association 2023 U.S. Champion Cheese Contest in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Forty-two judges evaluated entries based on flavor, texture, appearance and taste. There were 2,249 entries from 197 dairy companies and cooperatives in 35 states. Minnesota was well-represented. (Click here to see a full list of the winners by category.)

The abandoned milkhouse, attached to the barn on the farm where I grew up outside Vesta. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2009)

AWARD-WINNING BUTTER FROM NEW ULM

The 113 contest divisions include dairy products beyond cheese. And that’s where New Ulm’s AMPI plant scored, earning second place for its unsalted butter and third places for salted butter and flavored butter, specifically chipotle butter. AMPI’s Sea Salted Root Beer Butter which sounds, in Minnesota lingo, “different,” did not place.

I grew up on AMPI salted butter. The milk man—the guy who picked up the milk from our milkhouse—also brought blocks of butter. Dad just left a slip of paper indicating how many pounds we needed and the driver pulled the packages from his truck.

Lucky Linda Cheddar (Photo credit: Redhead Creamery Facebook page)

REDHEAD CREAMERY CHEESE CRAFTS A TOP 20 CHEESE

What I didn’t have back then was access to good quality cheese like that produced in Minnesota today. I love cheese. And yogurt and cottage cheese and ice cream and cheese curds…, well, all things dairy. This year a cheddar cheese produced by a small west central Minnesota cheese maker, Redhead Creamery, was named one of the top 20 cheeses in the country during last week’s national competition. And, yes, the president and CEO of this creamery in rural Brooten, Alise Sjostrom, is a redhead.

Redhead Creamery earned Best of Class in the Natural Rind Cheddar category with its previously award-winning Lucky Linda Clothbound Cheddar, named after Sjostrom’s mom. That top cheese was then chosen to compete against 19 other top cheeses for the honor of U.S. Champion Cheese. An aged Gouda made by the team at Arethusa Farm Dairy in Connecticut won the best cheese in the U.S. title. Two Wisconsin cheeses earned second and third places.

I have yet to try, or even find, Minnesota-made Redhead Creamery cheeses. But I will be looking for them locally, especially Lucky Linda Cheddar. I’d even like to take a road trip to the dairy and cheese operation, which offers tours.

Award-winning Amablu Gorgonzola from Caves of Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

CAVES OF FARIBAULT EARNS HONORS

My community is also home to award-winning handcrafted cheeses. This year cheesemakers at Prairie Farms’ Caves of Faribault placed second in the Gorgonzola competition with Ama Gorg. In the blue-veined division, Caves of Faribault earned fourth for its AmaBlu. These cheeses have previously won honors and they are well-deserving. I love Caves of Faribault cheeses, aged in sandstone caves along the Straight River. If you like blue cheese, and I realize either you love it or you hate it, then this is your cheese.

Krause Feeds & Supplies in Hope advertises the availability of Hope butter and Bongards cheese. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo June 2013)

MORE MINNESOTA WINNERS

Minnesota-based Bongards Creameries in Perham also earned a Best of Class with its Monterey Jack cheese in the national competition. Likewise, Kemps, LLC in Farmington took Best of Class for its pineapple flavored cottage cheese and second for its chive flavored cottage cheese. I didn’t even realize cottage cheese came in such flavors.

In another division of the national competition, whey protein concentrate 80 from Milk Specialties Global’s plant in small town Mountain Lake garnered the Best of Class and a second place (for instantized).

If there were other top winners from Minnesota in the 2023 U.S. Cheese Contest, I apologize for missing them. But after scrolling through pages of information, I stopped looking.

Cow sculptures outside The Friendly Confines Cheese Shoppe in Le Sueur. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo June 2013)

MINNESOTA IS DAIRY STRONG

What I realized is that small creameries to co-ops to large companies in Minnesota make a lot of dairy products. We may not have as many cheesemakers as the Dairyland State, but certainly enough for anyone who likes cheese and other dairy products to recognize Minnesota’s value in the dairy industry.

I saw Minnesota entries (again, I may have missed some) from Prairie Farms Dairy Cheese Division in Rochester, Bongards in Norwood, Agropur in Le Sueur, Stickney Hill Dairy in Rockville and First District Association in Litchfield. The varieties of cheeses range from pasteurized process American cheese from Prairie Farms to jalapeno and roasted red cheddar from Litchfield-based FDA, “a grassroots cooperative since 1921.”

This rural Dundas barn once housed a herd of dairy cows. No more. But the barn has been maintained. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2011)

CHANGED & UNCHANGED

Much has changed, yet much has not since I left the farm in 1974. Cooperatives remain as strong as ever, yet small scale artisan cheese makers, have also emerged. The demand for basic cheeses remains, yet cheese makers are crafting diverse flavors to meet consumers’ expanding tastes. Small family dairy farms have been mostly replaced by large-scale dairy operations. Change is inevitable. But one thing has not changed for me personally. I love dairy products, especially cheese.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Owatonna exhibit celebrates Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World October 8, 2013

MILK COURSES through my veins, for I am the daughter of a dairy farmer.

Inside the Wegners' barn, where dairy products come from.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from Ron and Diane Wegner’s rural Faribault dairy barn.

Growing up, I labored in the barn beside my dad and siblings—feeding cows, bedding straw, lugging pails of milk to the bulk tank, washing milking machines, scraping manure and more.

I smelled of cow, watched bovines’ tails flick flies and rise to release streams of splashing hot pee into barn gutters.

Sandpaper rough tongues sometimes grated across my skin. Cold, wet noses dampened the sleeves of my chore coat.

I carried gallons of frothy fresh milk to the house for pasteurization and consumption.

The Princess Kay of the Milky Way competition is a part of Minnesota culture. The Steele County exhibit features  photos of past county dairy royalty, including 1978 princess Kari Schroht, left, and 1976 princess Kathy Zeman, right. Earlier carved butter heads from past princesses were displayed in borrowed glass door freezers at the history center.

The Princess Kay of the Milky Way competition is a part of Minnesota culture. A current exhibit at the Steele County History Center features photos of past county dairy royalty, including 1978 princess Kari Schroht, left, and 1976 princess Kathy Zeman, right. Earlier this year, carved butter heads from recent past princesses were displayed in borrowed glass door freezers at the history center.

I knew cows and milk and once competed for Redwood County, Minnesota, dairy princess, a title I coveted but could not win because I lacked the poise and confidence and beauty to represent the industry.

A banner welcomes visitors to the Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World exhibit at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna.

A banner welcomes visitors to the Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World exhibit at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna.

These memories flit through my mind as I consider a recent visit to the Steele County History Center in Owatonna to tour the featured exhibit, Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World.

The exhibit is interesting and educational.

The exhibit is interesting and educational.

It’s a must-see exhibit which will trigger memories for those who grew up on dairy farms and educate those who didn’t. And, even with my dairying background, I learned a lot about the history of dairy farming in Steele County.

A vintage sign promoting butter in Minnesota.

A vintage sign promoting butter in Minnesota.

For example, Steele County gained its world-wide Butter Capitol reputation after Owatonna Manufacturing Company invented the mechanized butter churn in 1893, revolutionizing the dairy industry.

But two decades prior, in 1873, the county was well on its way to establishing a strong dairy reputation with four local cheese factories producing 150,000 pounds of cheese, more than any other Minnesota county.

Information and artifacts from the days of bottled milk delivery.

Information and artifacts from the days of bottled milk delivery.

At one point, Steele County boasted two dozen-plus creameries.

Coveted butter

Hope Creamery, south of Owatonna, still produces coveted, award-winning Grade A butter in small batches. Butter boxes from Steele County creameries are displayed behind glass in the exhibit.

In December 1926, thieves stole 19 tubs of butter valued at $700 from the Steele Center Creamery.

Two Steele County women, Mina Holmes and Marianne McRostie, won numerous national awards for their hand-churned butter.

Photos of some spectacular Steele County barns are showcased.

Images of some spectacular Steele County barns are showcased.

Yes, so many accomplishments led to this southern Minnesota county holding the title of Butter Capitol of the World from 1898 – 1940, says Jerry Ganfield, who along with a committee of four women involved in the dairy industry, created this remarkable exhibit. Ganfield, holds a background in communications and marketing, grew up in Iowa and worked one summer during college as a milkhouse operator. Today he lives in a barn turned house near Bixsby and volunteers with the Steele County Historical Society, serving on its board of directors.

A portion of the expansive exhibit on Steele County's dairy industry.

A portion of the expansive exhibit on Steele County’s dairy industry.

Work on the Butter Capitol exhibit began in January with the historic display debuting in mid-July. It runs through November 10. Eventually, many of the items will be returned to the farm machinery building in the Village of Yesteryear (next to the Steele County History Center) where most were previously displayed.

Visitors can get down low and check out the udder on the model cow in the photo above.

Visitors can get down low and check out the udder on a model cow.

Perhaps I am a bit biased being a dairy farmer’s daughter and all. But this exhibit is one of the most impressive, thorough, detailed and interesting I’ve seen in a county history center.

Just another view of a portion of the exhibit.

Just another view of a portion of the exhibit.

Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World is well worth a drive to Owatonna to peruse.  Just give yourself two hours, minimum, to tour the display.

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BONUS PHOTOS:

Vintage signs are abundant in the exhibit.

Vintage signs are abundant in the exhibit.

This tin toy barn, right, caught my eye. I've never seen one prior to this. The exhibit also features an incredible handcrafted replica of a barn.

This tin toy barn, right, caught my eye. The exhibit also features a handcrafted replica of a barn.

A familiar site to me, a cow in a stantion.

A familiar site to me, a cow in a stantion.

Also familiar, those Surger milkers in the background display.

Also familiar, those Surger milkers in this display. My dad used these before he installed a pipeline.

Indian Maid Feeds memorabilia is displayed in glass cases along with an impressive collection of butter molds and other items.

Indian Maid Feeds memorabilia is displayed in glass cases along with an impressive collection of butter molds and other items. Indian Maid Feeds was sold from the late 1950s – 1984 by Owatonna Elevator Company. The brand pictured an Indian maiden to recall the legend of Princess Owatonna, whose health was restored by drinking the mineral spring waters of the area. The exhibit also features a large wooden logo of the princess that once rested atop the elevator. You’ll need to visit the exhibit to see that vintage art.

FYI: To learn more about the Steele County History Center/Historical Society, housed in a fabulous new building opened in April 2012, click here.

The Steele County History Center encourages kids to join its Time Travelers Club and History Detectives. The detectives meet at 10:15 a.m. and the travelers at 6:30 p.m. the first Thursday of each month at the History Center, 1700 Austin Road, Owatonna.

Click here to read a Minnesota Public Radio story about Hope Creamery.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A wannabe dairy princess June 20, 2013

The barn where I labored alongside my father while growing up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. File photo.

The barn where I labored alongside my father and siblings while growing up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. File photo.

GROWING UP ON A MINNESOTA DAIRY FARM, I’ve always loved dairy products.

Fresh milk from our herd of Holsteins.

Butter and cheese from the bulk truck driver who picked up milk from our farm.

Singing Hills Coffee Shop's delicious maple bacon sundae.

One of my new favorite ice cream treats, a maple bacon sundae from Singing Hills Coffee Shop in Waterville. File photo.

Ice cream from the Schwans man. (My older brother often sneaked the tin can of vanilla ice cream from the freezer and climbed atop the haystack to eat his fill. He failed to remove his spoon, leaving damning evidence connecting him to the ice cream caper. I was too obedient to attempt such thievery.)

Sliced strawberries, cucumbers and Amablu Gorgonzola cheese added to Romaine lettuce made a perfect salad. I topped the salad with lemon poppyseed dressing.

Sliced strawberries, cucumbers and Amablu Gorgonzola cheese added to Romaine lettuce make a perfect salad. I topped the salad with lemon poppyseed dressing. File photo.

My cheese tastes have, thankfully, expanded beyond American and Velveeta, staples of my childhood. I especially favor the blue cheeses made and aged in sandstone caves right here in Faribault and sold under the names Amablu and St. Pete’s Select. If you like blue cheese, this is your cheese.

Cow sculptures outside The Friendly Confines Cheese Shoppe in LeSueur. File photo.

Cow sculptures outside The Friendly Confines Cheese Shoppe in LeSueur. File photo.

I bring up this topic of dairy products because June marks an annual celebration of all things dairy during “June Dairy Month.” This moniker is imprinted upon my brain. I once ran, albeit unsuccessfully, for Redwood County dairy princess.

Krause Feeds & Supplies in Hope advertised the availability of Hope butter and Bongards cheese. File photo.

Krause Feeds & Supplies in Hope advertises the availability of Hope butter and Bongards cheese. File photo.

Steele County, to the south of my Rice County home, is apparently a big dairy county having at one time served as home to more than 20 creameries. One remains, in the unincorporated village of Hope, producing Hope Creamery butter in small batches. The creamy’s organic butter is especially popular in certain Twin Cities metro eateries.

Owatonna, the county seat, once claimed itself to be “The Butter Capital of the World.” That butter capital title will be the subject of an exhibit opening August 1 and running through November 10 at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna. The exhibit will feature the area’s rich dairy history to current day dairy farming in the county. Events will include a roundtable discussion on the dairy industry and, for the kids, butter making and a visit from a real calf.

Notice the cow art on the milkhouse in this image taken this past summer.

Cow art on the milkhouse of my friends Deb and John, who once milked cows in rural Dundas. File photo.

Calves. I love calves. More than any aspect of farming, I loved feeding calves buckets of warm milk replacer or handfuls of pellets. I once named a calf Princess and she became my “pet,” as much as a farm animal can be a pet. Then my older brother—the one who ate ice cream when he wasn’t supposed to—told me one day that my calf had died. I raced upstairs to my bedroom and sobbed and sobbed. Turns out he made up the whole story of Princess’ early demise. She was very much alive.

The vibrant art of Faribault artist Julie Falker of JMF Studio.

The vibrant art of Faribault artist Julie Faklker of JMF Studio. File image.

And so, on this day when I consider June Dairy Month, my mind churns with thoughts of butter and ice cream, of calves and of the dairy princess crown I never wore.

FYI: Faribault area dairy farmers Ron and Diane Wegner are hosting “A Day on the Farm” from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. this Saturday, June 22. Their farm is located just south of Faribault at 25156 Appleton Avenue. The event includes children’s activities, photos with a baby calf and free cheeseburgers, malts and milk. Event sponsors are the Rice County American Dairy Association and the Minnesota Beef Council. The Wegners’ daughter, Kaylee, is the current Rice County dairy princess.

The Redwood County American Dairy Association in my home county of Redwood in southwestern Minnesota is sponsoring a coloring contest for kids and a trivia contest for adults. Click here for details. 

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling