State grant another sign of how Fredonia dairy is willing to embrace growth
When Cedar Valley Cheese was recently named one of the first recipients of a Grow Wisconsin Dairy Processor Grant, it was just another indication that the Town of Fredonia company remains in growth mode.
Cedar Valley was one of seven dairy operations around the state getting a share of $200,000 to promote innovation and job growth.
According to the state, the Grow Wisconsin Dairy 30x20 Processor Grant program — which runs parallel to a similar program of state dairy farmers — is aimed at improving the long-term viability of the state’s dairy industry.
Jeff Hiller, the third-generation owner of the business, said the $37,500 grant will be used to train dairy workers and maintenance staff on new $2 million shredding and cubing equipment being installed at the plant on the corner of Jay Road and Highway 57.
When the equipment is brought on line early next year, it is expected to result in the addition of four jobs.
“Eventually, when we reach full capacity it could mean as many as 14 new jobs here,” Hiller said.
The company currently has 60 employees, which he said makes it a medium-sized cheese maker by Wisconsin standards.
The company produces more than 44 million pounds of cheese a year, about 85% of that being mozzarella and 14% provolone. The remaining 1% goes into string cheese, for which the dairy has a devoted following.
The sale of cheese, cream and whey amount to $85 million a year.
The demand for the company’s cheese by frozen pizza and entree makers and Italian restaurant chains has grown so strong, the dairy has had to send blocks of mozzarella and provolone to outside plants for shredding.
“We decided we could save money and have better control over the product if we did the shredding in-house,” Hiller said.
That was the impetus for the construction of a 7,000-square-foot addition to house the automated shredding operation. Robotics will play a big part in that new production line.
“It is going to be state-of-the-art, which is why it will be important for our people to get the training they will need,” Hiller said in explaining how the state grant will be beneficial.
Cedar Valley is already a big part of the local farming community, accepting milk from 130 area dairy farmers. It processes more than 1.4 million pounds of milk daily.
Still, Hiller said he can see the operation growing to the point where the current facilities are not large enough.
He points to land the company owns on the north side of Jay Road and on the other side of Highway 57 as possible sites for future facilities.
“The demand for cheese is growing on the East Coast and throughout the Midwest, as well as throughout the country. As my generation grows older, the acceptance of pizza as a low-cost, nutritious food just keeps growing,” said the 50-year-old Hiller.
“The way I look at it, in the dairy business like most industries, if you are not moving forward you are losing ground. Even when the country was going through its economic downturn, we were fortunate enough to never have a down year.”
Some of the company’s cheese is also indirectly exported to Canada and Mexico.
Hiller’s grandfather, Ralph Hiller, founded Cedar Valley Cheese in 1947 when he bought a small cheese factory.
That building turned out to be in the path of Highway 57 expansion plans, so Hiller’s grandfather and father Bill bought the current property.
“In the 1950s, there were cheese plants at almost every intersection. Today, there are only a handful of family-owned cheese companies left,” Hiller said.
Originally, the company specialized in American cheeses, but that changed when a partnership was formed with Italian cheese maker Gino Boccotti.
Since becoming a specialist in Italian cheeses, the company has received the Seal of Excellence at five Wisconsin State Fairs for its string cheese, as well as ribbons for its mozzarella and provolone.
The dairy has seven licensed cheese makers on its staff, each with an average of 32 years of experience.
“Our head cheese maker was here working for my grandfather and father and when I started working at the age of 15,” Hiller said.
Loyalty is a noticeable trait among Cedar Valley workers. The plant manager has been on the job for 45 years, and the average employee has worked at the dairy for 18 years.
Jeff Hiller began managing the company in 1986, and in 1988, at the age of 24, purchased 50% of the business from his uncle.
In 1992, he purchased the remaining stock and became sole owner of the dairy.
The company completed its biggest expansion in 1995, more than doubling its production area. Over the next 19 years, it completed seven more expansions, culminating in the addition of the shredding operation.
State officials note that Wisconsin produces a quarter of the nation’s cheese supply. In the first three months of 2014, the value of all dairy product exports from Wisconsin increased 63% over the same period of time in 2013.
The value of just cheese and cheese curd exports jumped 70% in the first three months of this year, and whey — a by-product of cheese making that until recently was something to throw away — is now used as a food ingredient with a state export value of $44 million during the first quarter of 2014. That represents a 53% jump over the first quarter of 2013.
Other grant winners were: Harmony Specialty Dairy Foods, Stratford; Marron Foods, Durand; Dairyvative Technologies, Markesan; Shullsburg Creamery, Shullsburg; Taylor Cheese, Weyauwega; and Specialty Cheese, Reeseville.
Image information: CEDAR VALLEY CHEESE is adding a cheese-shredding production line to its plant in the Town of Fredonia.
Photos by Mark Jaeger