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Millerville gets hands-on with butter

The Millerville Cooperative Creamery has been making butter since 1929. Operator Mark Thoennes has worked at the plant since 1978. (Karen Tolkkinen | Echo Press)

Every two weeks, it's time to make butter at the Millerville Co-op Creamery.

It takes three days.

In an era when big butter brands like Land O'Lakes generate butter round-the-clock, Millerville takes an old-fashioned, labor-intensive approach, making it one batch at a time, cutting it, wrapping it and boxing it, all by hand. Its results draw raves on its Facebook page.

First, the cream gets trucked in and poured into the pasteurizer for a day.

Butter maker Mark Thoennes pipes it into the stainless steel butter churn and adds salt. The churn turns, whey drains out and the cream turns into popcorn-like curds.

After it thickens into a soft butter, it gets packed—by hand—into 90-pound boxes and chilled.

Day Three is butter-cutting day. It takes three people. Jenny Deschene from the front office may be the only bookkeeper in Minnesota whose job includes butter-cutting. She also assembles the distinctive yellow Millerville Butter boxes and stamps them with the date.

In a chilly room, they cut the pale yellow butter into one-pound squares, wrap it in paper and box it from refrigerators at their co-op. It also ends up on store shelves in Alexandria, Brandon, Ashby, Dalton, Evansville, Nelson, Clitherall and Glenwood.

"They always say it's a little spendier, but people come for it," said creamery manager Dale Thoennes, no relation to Mark.

In fact, the creamery could grow if management wanted. Some big stores such as Coborn's have asked to sell their butter, Dale Thoennes said. But he's always said no.

"Coborn's wants 2,000 pounds of butter a day, while we take three days to make 1,100 to 1,200 pounds," he said. "We've talked about getting bigger, but it means bringing in a whole new crew of people. I don't have the manpower to do it. ... We kind of stay where we want to stay."

Millerville has been making butter since 1929. Like most creameries, they used to buy directly from farmers. But as the number of dairies waned, it made less sense to keep milk trucks. In Minnesota, there are 3,470 dairy farms today, compared to 46,000 in the state in 1970, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

It's been at least a dozen years since the creamery last bought milk directly from a farmer, Dale Thoennes said. It now buys it from the Land O'Lakes plant in Melrose, Minnesota.

Nowadays, the creamery is well diversified. It owns a gas station and offers custom farm services such as crop spraying. Only its butter sales hint at what it used to be.

Butter sales heat up during sweet corn season and holiday baking time. They keep an eye on their own stash. When it dwindles to 300 or 400 pounds, they know:

It's butter making time again.