Farm Horizons, February 2009

Bongards' has century of growth

Starrla Cray
Staff Writer

Any way you slice it, Bongards’ Creamery has come a long way since its debut a century ago.

It all started on Oct. 18, 1908, when a group of about 25 farmers from near the Carver County town of Bongards met to organize a cooperative creamery.

A modest brick building was constructed and butter making began. The butter maker was the only employee, so shareholders all had to pitch in, cutting and hauling ice for cooling.

“They held the first meeting to find a way to market their milk,” Bongards’ office manager Karen Nagel said. The farmers started by selling some of the cream, and their first butter shipments in February 1909 were to a customer in New York.

Butter production continued until 1938, when the Bongards’ board was faced with tough decisions. Equipment was wearing out and in need of repair, and manager Fred Hedtke resigned because of health problems.

The board had to decide if more money should be invested into the company.

They decided to take a chance, and hired Jack Budahn from Arlington as general manager. Budahn served in this position for more than 50 years, helping Bongards’ Creamery to remain strong.

Four years after Budahn was hired, Bongards’ began producing cheese.

Arle Jones, from West Concord, was hired as Bongards’ first cheese maker. During World War II, demand for cheese was high, and four extra employees were hired. In 1942, Bongards’ also completed an addition to the plant building.

“They first started with natural cheeses like Colby, cheddar and Monterey Jack,” Nagel said. Later, more varieties were added.

Currently, Bongards’ produces about 60 million pounds of natural cheese every year, Bongards’ General Manager Keith Grove said.

In 1973, another big change occurred for Bongards’ Creamery — processed cheese production. Processed cheese has become Bongards’ primary product, with about 90 million to 100 million pounds of processed American cheese being made every year, Grove said.

Bongards’ also produces whey products such as whey protein isolate, whey protein concentrate 80 percent and deproteinized whey powder. The company uses a special low-temperature processing system to keep the whey proteins in their most natural condition.

In 2003, Bongards’ purchased a plant in Perham with newer whey powder equipment. The Perham plant also produces all of Bongards’ natural cheese. Some of that cheese is then made into processed cheese at the plant in Bongards.

Across the street from the Bongards’ plant is the company store.

“We are expanding our retail store,” Grove said. “By this summer, we’ll have more products to offer.” Cheese and other products can be ordered online, by phone or in person. In addition to the traditional varieties, Bongards’ offers specialty cheeses such as garden vegetable, bacon, pepper jack and horseradish.

Nagel said Bongards’ Creamery is always working to develop new products and to keep customers satisfied.

Some information for this article was taken from a newsletter written by Bongards’ office manager Karen Nagel.

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