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Wisconsin has nothing on Perham's cheesemaker

Wisconsin cheddar-heads beware... Minnesota may not be able to beat you on the football field (lately anyway), but cheese made in Perham, Minnesota, may be giving the "dairy and cheese state" a run for its money. In fact, the Perham plant ships 2...

Wisconsin cheddar-heads beware...

Minnesota may not be able to beat you on the football field (lately anyway), but cheese made in Perham, Minnesota, may be giving the "dairy and cheese state" a run for its money.

In fact, the Perham plant ships 240,000 pounds of cheese a week to Wisconsin --which is probably enough for Minnesota to claim a positive trade export balance with our boastful neighbor to the east.

In less than four years of making cheese at its Perham facility, Bongards has become a "big cheese." After the Minnesota State Fair, it was announced that Paul Wendt was the 2007 champion of the cheddar block cheesemaking contest. The award, bestowed by the Upper Midwest Dairy Industry Association, is based on point totals in four competitions, concluding at the state fair.

Wendt, 23-year employee at the Perham plant, isn't the only Perham cheesemaker that has been earning points. Terry Langer, Dave Kundo, Pat Honerman and Ross Vettleson also placed high in the four cheddar competitions. Plant manager Jeff Payne also earned points, and has been with the Perham Bongards plant since 2005.

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Wendt said he is just a "cog" in the operation, and that all employees can feel proud of the awards and the product they produce. The judges evaluate the cheese on body, texture, flavor and visual appeal, said Wendt.

It all starts with the cows--and dairy producers from throughout the region

Most important, said longtime lab technician Bernice Genoch, are the cows--are the farmers that raise, feed and milk them. "We can't do any of this without good quality milk," she said, commending the area milk producers who provide the basic ingredient.

And those dairymen--and women--provide plenty of it. Bongards Creameries has about 600 farmers that are either direct members, trade members or member cooperatives. To produce 5,400 pounds of cheese, it requires 54,800 pounds of milk. They provide 1.8 million pounds of milk daily to the Perham Bongards plant.

With capacity in the millions, size of Bongards operation is staggering

The scale of the 96-employee Perham operation is mind-boggling:

----The plant has the capacity to pasteurize 112,000 pounds of cheese per week.

----The cooler has the capacity to store 5 million pounds of cheese.

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----To lightly salt the finished cheese products, the Perham Bongards plant goes through about two million pounds of salt a year.

Bongards is more than just cheese. The whey processing often goes unnoticed, largely because the consumer doesn't really see the end product on the shelf. But, virtually every candy bar, every cracker contains whey, noted Bernice Genoch.

Production, sales of Bongards

products have soared in 2007

There is plenty to be proud of for the Perham Bongards crew. Plant manager Payne said the facility is producing more efficiently than ever. And, it is showing in the numbers, as 2007 has been a near-banner year for Bongards. This, after a poor year in 2006.

"The cheese market is up, and we're benefitting company-wide," said Payne.

Bongards ships product to China, Korea, Japan and Mexico, among other nations globally.

Bongards sliced American cheese serves one-third of Burger King's fast food operations here and abroad. Bongards provides all of the cheese for the Boorshead deli and related products, which is an east coast chain.

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Bongards' centennial is 2008

The cheesemaking success of 2007 is a perfect prelude to the 2008 celebration of the company's 100th birthday.

Bongards Creameries began in 1908 with just a small group of farmers who got together and had to take turns hauling ice to keep the milk cold. Only butter was made, and most of that butter was shipped out East. From there, it grew into natural cheese, then whey, and then processed cheese.

Perham plant bought in 2003

The purchase of its Perham processing plant in September of 2003 was a major move for Bongards. Perham is 180 miles away from its plant near Norwood-Young America, and the first time Bongards has produced cheese outside of its home-based plant.

The plant in Perham was originally owned by Land O' Lakes and had newer, state-of-the-art equipment. When it decided to close the facility, Bongards immediately became interested because its plant in NYA had aging equipment that was hampering its whey and natural cheese capabilities.

The Perham plant is now Bongards' primary manufacturer of natural cheese and whey. Most of the natural cheese is brought to the NYA plant, where it is processed through two main production lines.

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