As a milk hauler himself, Rich Miller saw the images of milk that couldn’t be processed and knew he wanted to do whatever he could to help.
Miller noticed a friend, Don Timmerman, a retired dairy farmer and real estate agent, was working with Nilssen’s Foods in Baldwin raising money for vouchers that would allow people using the area food pantry to buy milk.
At around this time, Miller said he had been wondering what he could do to move some cheese. Miller, whose trucking company Miller Transfer in Roberts hauls for 165 farms in northwestern Wisconsin and into eastern Minnesota, said much of the milk he hauls goes to Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery and that his level of concern was raised after seeing the creamery asking farmers to cut production.
So Miller, Timmerman and another dairy farmer, John Vrieze, pooled some money to get cheese curds in the hands of families in need and in school lunches being handed out while schools are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I saw the dumping. Ellsworth mailed the letter out asking farmers to cut 7% production or asking some if they’re considering retiring this year to retire now,” Miller said. “I could see if nothing was done to cut production or selling out, it could come down to the creamery.”
Miller’s efforts started with the food pantry where his girlfriend’s mother volunteers that serves an average of about 175 Bloomer and New Auburn area families each week. Timmerman told him the Baldwin-Woodville area food pantry was serving another 120 families.
“I really didn’t know how many people were going to the food shelf, or how many school lunches were going out. It’s astronomical,” Miller said. “I called up and said, ‘I’d like to donate cheese curds.’ It just kind of snowballed. Word-of-mouth, it was just rapid-fire.”
By noon on the Monday morning following their first week of cheese deliveries, Miller said he already had requests for more than 3,000 pounds of cheese. That need, coupled with his desire to see milk continue to be processed, led Miller to dip back into his own bank account.
“I could see our funding was not enough, so I threw five grand at it,” he said. “At the same time, John reached out to some folks. Some big ones, like Compeer Financial, OEM Fabricators, Pioneer Seeds, donated. Once we got something going, holy smokes ...”
Miller said orders have been coming in quickly enough that Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery has limited them to 500 pounds per day to make sure they can keep up with packaging.
“The people, the support is huge,” Miller said. “What just blows my mind is I’ve got farmers donating money, handing my drivers money, giving the driver a check for $250.
“It’s huge. I’m loving it.”
Timmerman said he was impressed with the generosity of farmers who are struggling with low milk prices.
“The farmers are the ones we’re trying to help, and they’re donating too,” he said.
Miller said deliveries started in early April. In addition to food pantries in Bloomer, Baldwin and Roberts, deliveries have gone to schools in Baldwin-Woodville, Clear Lake, Amery, Clayton, Elmwood, Colfax, Osceola and Forest Lake, Minn.
“The food service people in schools are as happy as can be. They’re almost ecstatic,” Timmerman said. “They say the kids are just loving it.”
As of last week, Miller said donations accounted for well over 10,000 pounds of cheese curds so far. Timmerman said more than 2 tons had already been distributed.
“While those guys were picking up cheese curds the other day, the store manager at Ellsworth had a handful of envelopes that she said was all checks coming in,” Miller said. “She said, ‘You guys do realize you’re going to be handing cheese out until October.’ If that happens, I’ll be just tickled pink.”
Miller has been battling cancer for about four years, and recent treatments have kept him from hauling milk, he said, but that has given him extra time to focus on the fundraising efforts.
“I’m just trying to help the farmers,” Miller said. “They’ve taken care of me. The farmers have just been amazing.
“I know what I’m doing is just a drop in the bucket. But if I can move 50,000 pounds of cheese, that’s milk that gets put to use that may not have before.”
Dean Hines, a field representative with Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery who has been with the creamery for 45 years, said he appreciated the efforts Miller has made to help farmers and the creamery in a difficult time when demand for dairy products is down and dairy processing plants are filled nearly to capacity.
“We can’t wait until next year or next month or next week to do something. The milk isn’t stopping flowing,” Hines said. “Something needed to be done now. Rich knew the issues and took it upon himself to do something. Farmers had been helping him for years. He wanted to do something to help the farmers.”
Timmerman said they plan to make cheese curds available to food pantries and for school lunches for as long as their funds last. To contribute to the fundraising efforts, mail Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, PO Box 610, Ellsworth, WI 54011, and write “Donation COVID-19” in the memo line.
“The donations have just been phenomenal,” Timmerman said.
“It’s incredible how many people have donated,” Hines said. “Rich is quite a guy. He grabbed the bull by the horns and really did something about a bad situation.”
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