After 100 years, Silver Lewis Cheese, one of the original four-corner crossroad cheese factories perched on the back roads of Wisconsin, is not only still making cheese, but is going full speed ahead. Having just completed an expansion that not only doubled its size, but doubled production, this 15-farmer strong cooperative is one of Wisconsin’s best examples of what can happen when a rural community pulls together.
It was nearly five years ago when the plant’s long-time cheesemaker decided to retire and put the cheese factory up for sale. Back then, six dairy farmers were shipping milk to the plant – one of them being Don Silver, as in THE Silver in Silver Lewis Cheese.
Don is the fourth generation dairy farmer in his family to ship milk to Silver Lewis Cheese. His great grandfather was one of the founding fathers of the cheese plant and Don’s grandfather, father and now Don have been milking cows on nearby Silver Road ever since.
“In 1897, two local dairy families decided to develop a cheese plant here — one was the Lewis family, who donated the land for the factory, and the other was my great-grandfather who put up the money to build the building,” Don told me this week, as we waited for Agriculture Secretary Rod Nilsestuen to arrive. Don and five of his dairy farm neighbors – most of them board members of the Silver Lewis Cheese Cooperative – gathered at the plant on Monday to host the Secretary, who was visiting to see this Wisconsin success story.
And it IS a success story. Silver Lewis is now up to 15 dairy farm “patrons”, has doubled the plant size with a recent expansion, added a 20,000 pound cheese vat, added four employees, and is now making cheese six days a week.
The dairy farm patrons are quick to give “new” owners Josh & Carla Erickson all of the credit. The Ericksons purchased the factory in 2005, taking over from long-time renowned cheesemaker Bob Gmur. As a couple of “young kids” — they have grandchildren of their own, but they seem pretty young to me — the Ericksons set out to bring Silver Lewis alive. And boy have they succeeded.
Josh is the lead cheesemaker and Carla pretty much does everything else. She takes orders, waits on customers at the plant’s hopping retail counter, oversees packaging, shipping and even flips cheese forms when she’s walking through the plant (example A: picture above – that’s Carla on the right).
They’ve also started having monthly meetings with their dairy farm patrons, keeping everyone apprised of the financials of the plant. It’s pretty obvious both groups have nothing but great respect for one another, and it’s showing with the growing number of cheese being shipped out of the place. I was there for only an hour on Monday, and in that time, seven pallets of cheese -mostly Edam and Muenster – were wheeled out the door onto waiting semi tucks.
Also, good news for those of you who by now are thinking you should start looking for Silver Lewis cheese in your stores. The truth is, you’ve probably been eating it for years. Up until now, the plant has sold nearly all of its cheese as private label to the cheese distribution industry, who sells it under dozens of brands. However, Carla proudly showed the first Silver & Lewis labels to Secretary Nilsestuen on Monday. The labels show off the plant’s Old World cheese and speak to the high quality of the Silver Lewis product.
So, finally, after 112 years, Silver Lewis cheese will soon be in a store near you, with the Silver Lewis name on it. My favorites are the veggie cheese – Monterey jack with a plethora of vegetables mixed in – Havarti, Day Old Brick and Muenster. But then again, it’s going to be very hard to go wrong when you see the new Silver & Lewis label. Feel free to try them all.