June 21, 2024
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Ellsworth boosts local community with its national reputation for curds

Photo courtesy of Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery
CURD CAPITAL — Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery was established in 1910 as a small local co-op focused on butter, and it moved to cheese production in the 1960s. Its cheese curd production and significant contribution to the state’s cheese industry led the village of Ellsworth, Wisconsin, to be designated as the “Cheese Curd Capital of Wisconsin” in 1983. 

Photo courtesy of Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery
BETTER WITH AGE — In addition to its famous curds, Ellsworth also offers premium-quality small-batch cheeses, including its 1885 Ellsworth Reserve line which was named to honor the ingenuity
and determination of local pioneers who made the Ellsworth caves for food storage and preservation.

By Rena Archwamety

ELLSWORTH, Wis. — This weekend, the 3,000-person village of Ellsworth near the western border of Wisconsin will host around 30,000 visitors, serving up more than 3 tons of its locally-made cheese curds during the annual Ellsworth Cheese Curd Festival.

This year named the No. 3 Specialty Food Festival in the United States in USA Today’s 10Best competition, the Ellsworth Cheese Curd Festival pays homage to Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery’s famous cheese curds and, more broadly, Wisconsin’s rich cheese and agricultural heritage. It features a wide array of cheese curd-inspired foods, unique tasting experiences, live music, an artisan market and a cheese curd eating contest.

Each year the festival also presents a unique, never-before-fried cheese curd flavor. For this weekend’s event, attendees can savor Ellsworth’s Garlic Dill specialty cheese curds, hand-dipped in a famous beer batter, fried to golden perfection and served with ranch dipping sauce. And in addition to these and traditional deep-fried cheese curds, the festival boasts other exclusive offerings such as Cinnamon Sugar dessert curds, introduced in 2018 and now a staple of the annual event.

“Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery has put Ellsworth, Wisconsin, on the map, establishing the small village’s reputation for cheese, particularly cheese curds,” says Paul Bauer, CEO and general manager, Ellsworth
Cooperative Creamery. “The early adoption and innovation in cheese curd production set Ellsworth apart from other producers.”

In fact, Ellsworth’s cheese curd production led to the village being designated as the “Cheese Curd Capital of Wisconsin” in 1983 by then-governor Anthony Earl, a title that underscores Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery’s significant contribution to the state’s cheese industry, Bauer adds.

• History and growth

Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery did not always produce cheese curds. It was established in 1910 originally as a small local co-op focused on butter, and it later moved to cheese production in the 1960s.

“This pivotal shift marked the beginning of a journey of award-winning cheese production and widespread recognition for our cheese curds, along with expanded facilities and production capabilities,” Bauer says.

Over the decades since then, Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery has added small-batch cheeses and quality processed cheese to enhance its range of products. In addition to its natural and flavored cheese curds, Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery’s diverse portfolio of cheeses includes small-batch varieties such as Cheddar,
Colby, Muenster and Monterey Jack, as well as specialty varieties like Smoked Cheddar, Salami Colby and its Antonella line. Ellsworth is committed to quality and variety to ensure it meets the diverse tastes of its consumers.

The cooperative has continued to grow through innovation and expansion, allowing it to stay competitive and relevant in the ever-evolving dairy market. Ellsworth has expanded its processing capabilities through strategic acquisitions of other dairies, including Comstock and New London, Wisconsin, as well as a new production facility in Menomonie, Wisconsin.

Bauer notes Ellsworth is particularly excited about its expanded ability to cater to buyers with specific needs in terms of cheese characteristics, such as melting points and texture for food production such as pizzas and meats. Customization and development of these cheeses help to meet the needs of this growing market.

“Throughout this evolution, Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery has remained steadfast in its commitment to quality. This commitment is evident in our production processes, ongoing product development, and the adoption of modified atmosphere packaging to ensure freshness and flavor,” Bauer says. “Exceptional customer service has always been a cornerstone of our operations, along with a dedication to customization and development in collaboration with buyers. These enduring values have helped us maintain a reputation as a trusted name in the dairy industry.”

Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery products are sold nationwide, including major retailers such as UNFI and Kroger, as well as local grocery stores and cheese shops across the country. The company also is experiencing growth internationally in the Central and South American markets.

“We have also experienced particularly strong growth in the East Coast of the United States, driven by the migration of Midwesterners to that region,” Bauer says. “Through this migration, the demand for Wisconsin crafted cheese is strong and growing. As a result, a new audience of Southeasterners are finding our products, and we are thrilled to introduce them to the exceptional quality of Wisconsin cheese.”

Bauer adds that recent international awards for Ellsworth’s flavored cheese curds, along with awards for its Antonella line of artisan cheeses, further have contributed to the growth of these products. Among its many awards, the co-op won first- and second-place awards for its flavored cheese curds at this spring’s World Championship Cheese Contest. Its Pepperoni & Marinara Antonella Cheese earned Second Best of Show at the National Milk Producers

Federation’s 2023 Cheese Contest, where its Dill Pickle Cheese Curds also received first in its category.

“The recognition and accolades have highlighted our quality and innovation, attracting new customers and fostering greater appreciation and demand for our products,” Bauer says.

• Local farms, community

As it expands nationally and internationally with its cheeses, Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery remains committed to the nearby communities of its 200 farmer-owners in Wisconsin and Minnesota, all within an 80-mile radius of the creamery’s headquarters, which ensures its milk supply is both local and fresh.

The cooperative’s farms vary in size, from small operations with 15 head and milking parlors, to large-scale farms with 1,000 head using state-of-the-art robotic milkers.

“This diversity reflects our commitment to supporting a range of farming practices while upholding a strong tradition of quality,” Bauer says.

“We are particularly proud of our long-standing relationships with our farmers,” he adds. “Two of our current farm families have been with us since our founding in 1910, exemplifying the enduring partnerships and dedication that are at the heart of Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery.”

The co-op strives to maintain the highest quality standards for its milk and dairy products through a combination of stringent quality controls and continuous improvement initiatives. The commitment to quality begins at the farm level, where it implements rigorous testing and monitoring processes to ensure the best quality for its production facilities. Ellsworth also offers incentives for its farmers to meet and exceed its high standards.

In addition to the care it puts into its products, farms and dairy cows, Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery is deeply committed to giving back to the community through its “Ellsworth Cares” program. This initiative focuses on a variety of community engagement efforts, including regular donations of cheese to local food pantries, supporting youth in agriculture and promoting education in the dairy sciences. Ellsworth also sponsors numerous local events and community projects, working to foster a strong sense of community and agricultural literacy.

“Our commitment to community engagement extends beyond our products. We have strong ties with the local communities where we do business and where our employees and farm families live,” Bauer says.

He adds that this connection is further strengthened by Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery’s employees, who collectively volunteer more than 7,000 hours each year to various causes and projects.

“Through these efforts, ‘Ellsworth Cares’ embodies the creamery’s dedication to making a positive and lasting impact in the region,” he says.



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