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A bit more butter for Millerville

A co-op in this town of about 100 is ramping up its handmade butter production.

Stacks of Millerville Butter in yellow one-pound boxes.
Millerville is known for its creamery, which still produces small-batch butter which is cut and wrapped by hand.
Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press
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Until four years ago, neither Deirdre Hubbard nor her husband Eric knew anything about making butter.

But the couple now preside over Millerville Butter, one of the best-known products of this tiny city in northern Douglas County -- and since taking over have more than doubled production, with plans to produce even more.

“We just got into Fargo,” Deirdre said. “We’re in a small store in Fargo and hope to get into some larger ones and get into the Twin Cities and the St. Cloud area.”

Deirdre manages the Millerville Creamery while Eric makes the butter, which comes in hand-wrapped one-pound blocks.

Eric Hubbard is in his third year as the Millerville Creamery's butter maker. He makes, cuts and weighs the butter, which is then wrapped and packed by other employees.
Eric Hubbard is in his third year as the Millerville Creamery's butter maker. He makes, cuts and weighs the butter, which is then wrapped and packed by other employees.
Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press

They are considering building a new facility and recently presented a feasibility study to the board, she said. A new building would allow them not just to make more butter, but to incorporate a separator so that they can buy milk directly from local dairies. Millerville Creamery currently gets its cream from the Land O’ Lakes plant in Melrose, and buying local would save trucking costs for both the creamery and the dairy farmers. She said they have talked to local dairy farms, both conventional and organic, and the farms expressed interest.

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If the cooperative membership approves the plan, it will take quite a while to build a new facility. Deirdre said the project would be delayed by the difficulty obtaining building materials.

“If we started right now, it would take 2 1/2 years until it would be complete,” she said. “Just for ceiling materials, it’s a minimum of 52 weeks.”

Millerville Butter has a special niche in Millerville, population of about 100. In previous years, the town celebrated Butter Days in July, where it seems like every other person wears a Millerville Butter shirt or hat. However, the area has changed quite a bit due to bigger economic trends, and many dairy farms have closed. The creamery used to have about 100 dairy members, but is down to six now, simply because so many dairies have gone out of business, Deirdre said.

The Millerville Creamery has a unique business relationship with Gardonville Cooperative Telephone Association. Soon after Diedre was hired as the accountant, the old manager left, and she took his place. The coop was struggling financially, and since her husband worked for Gardonville, she asked if they could help. Gardonville now helps oversee the coop and also supplies employees as needed.

When the former long-time butter maker Mark Thoennes retired about three years ago, Gardonville asked who would like to learn to make butter, and her husband was the only one to raise his hand, Deirdre said.

Wrapping and packing butter at the Millerville Creamery.
Wrapping and packing butter at the Millerville Creamery. From left, clockwise: Fran Bitzan, Mark Thoennes, Eric Hubbard, and Lucy Bitzan. Thoennes, the creamery's former butter maker, can grab, wrap, and pass along a pound of butter in less than four seconds. <br/>
Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press

It took a long time to learn the ropes. You have to develop an ear for how it sounds in the churn, she said. You have to know when to drain the liquid and when it’s properly mixed, and a lot of that comes from hearing the noise it makes hitting the wall of the churn.

The process they use to make the butter results in sweeter, slightly saltier butter than mass-produced butter, she said.

When she took over, the Millerville Creamery was making 13,000 pounds of butter a year. Last year, they made 32,000 pounds. That’s not actually a lot of butter, Diedre said, but it did represent a big step up Millerville. They now make butter twice a month instead of once, and they sell it at 40 locations, up from about 10 when she first started. Restaurants have also used their butter, and Country Blossom Farm uses it exclusively in their products, she said.

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In Fargo, their products are now sold at Daily’s Market on Broadway. Store owner Andrew Young said his mother is related to Dave Wolf, Gardonville’s general manager, and saw his social media post about Millerville butter. Their store, which opened not quite three years ago, is always trying to bolster its supply of local and hand-made products, he said, so his mother inquired about selling Millerville butter. In February, they got their first shipment.

He brought some home and he and his husband cooked a steak dinner with the butter and loved it, he said. It costs 90 cents more per pound than the other butter they sell, but he thinks it’s worth it.

“It’s such a better tasting product than what’s out there,” he said. “It’s more creamy, it’s more rich. It spreads different.”

He thought some buyers might not like that it comes in a brick rather than divided into quarters. But so far, nobody has complained.

“I think it’s really neat that it comes in a one-pound brick," he said. "I think it’s easier to use.”

Reporter Karen Tolkkinen grew up in Plymouth, Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a journalism degree in 1994, and was driven by curiosity to work her way around the United States.
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