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Recognizing Wisconsin's cheesemakers on National Cheese Lovers Day

NBC 26 Today morning anchor MacLeod Hageman is discovering northeast Wisconsin and visited Union Star Cheese Factory in Fremont on National Cheese Lovers Day
Union Star Cheese Factory workers cut blocks of cheese into smaller bricks.
Posted at 3:30 AM, Jan 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-20 10:42:34-05

FREMONT (NBC 26) — Wisconsin is undoubtedly known for its quality dairy products. There were 2,500 cheese factories across the state in the 1930s, and that number currently sits at 150 factories. Despite the decline, food quality has improved, and small family-owned cheese factories are still able to make a profit, but it's not easy work, especially with record-high inflation.

NBC 26 Today anchor MacLeod Hageman is discovering northeast Wisconsin and finding some of the best hidden gems across the region.

Employees at Union Star Cheese Factory in Fremont start their day before the sun rises. What's most impressive, they do everything under one roof — from production to packaging.

"Making cheese doesn't look appealing from the outside, but it's nice making a product every day that you can evaluate," Union Star Cheese Factory co-owner Dave Metzig said.

Metzig has owned Union Star since 1980, and he now manages the business with his son, John. That means starting each day of work at 4 a.m. to provide the freshest possible product for customers.

"The reason we start so early is that this is kind of like a donut business. It doesn't do any good to have any fresh donuts in the afternoon. Someone has to get up in the middle of the night to make the donuts. It's the same with cheese curds," Metzig said.

From start to finish, Metzig says the entire process takes about 5 hours to complete. He says about 10,000 pounds of milk is pumped into the building here, and then pasteurized in a machine. From there, everything is moved over into a giant vat where it's mixed for a few hours. Then, everything is laid out on a table where it's packaged and ready for sale.

"So, I come in and start selling and packaging. My favorite part is probably dealing with people," Union Star Clerk, Jerri Ratzman said.

Ratzman has been a clerk at Union Star Cheese Factory for nearly 22 years.

She says working in the small-scale factory gives her a chance to enjoy a little bit of everything with a crew that feels more like family.

"I pick the cheeses, I will price them, put them in a box. We do our delivery routes on Mondays, Thursday and Friday to various areas. We will take it to the stores and make people happy that way. Come back, we all work together, and we keep doing the same thing until the day is over," Ratzman said.

From packaging fresh curds, cutting blocks of cheese and taking orders on the phone, Union Star workers stay busy doing everything to keep this small factory alive.

"So, anyone can build a big cheese factory. The trouble is, you need to get a return on investment on the cheese factory, and that's what's hard," Metzig said.

Like any small business owner, Matzig says he's feeling the pinch of inflation, but he's keeping his prices low to ensure he doesn't end up losing any customers.