Milk

Rock Dell Creamery still buying milk 135 years later – Agweek

BYRON, Minn. — Rock Dell Creamery celebrates its 135th anniversary this year, but co-manager Phil Suess said there’s not going to be a party like they had for its

100th year.

Times are different today, and the creamery that was buying milk from producers across five counties in 1889 is now only buying milk from a single farm.

Suess, a dairy farmer for more than 65 years, has served as co-manager of Rock Dell Creamery for nine years. Diane Severson manages the store with Suess, and handles the financial work.

“Supposedly we’re the oldest operating co-op left in the state of Minnesota,” Suess said on a recent Friday inside of his office in the store. “A lot of the small creameries, financially, couldn’t continue to keep going, but we’ve been very lucky with that.”

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Rock Dell Cooperative Creamery on Dec. 29, 2023.

Noah Fish / Agweek

The creamery is still owned by the patrons who sell milk or who have equity in the business. Suess said there are about 50-60 individuals left that have equity in the business but only one farm with a share.

“That keeps us as a co-op,” Suess said of the one farm still selling milk to the creamery, which is Hart Farm located just miles down the road from the creamery. “Twenty-five cows — so just a small operation.”

Suess said the last five to six years have been the worst for dairy producers because of capacity at creameries.

“The processing plants haven’t kept up with the production, so we’re fighting for spaces for milk,” he said.

Suess said the dairy industry is changing.

“The big co-ops are phasing the small dairies out — they don’t want us,” he said.

Co-ops would rather pull into a large dairy with a semi and take a whole load of milk in 20 minutes than stop at 10 or 15 smaller farmers to get a load, Suess said. He doesn’t blame co-ops for consolidating, either.

“You either consolidate or go by the wayside,” he said.

But Suess said that milk isn’t how Rock Dell Creamery is making money today, and if they were to stop getting milk from Hart Farm, they would continue to operate as a co-op, selling feed and other products.

“We have a very good feed business, and a very good small line pet feed and different things like that, that we sell that helps keep the money going,” Suess said. “We’ve got cheese and ice cream, and butters and candy bars and pop — and all kinds of stuff. Like a little convenience store out in the middle of nowhere.”

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Phil Suess helps Beth Davis at Rock Dell Cooperative Creamery on Dec. 29, 2023.

Noah Fish / Agweek

The creamery hours are Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. and Saturday mornings from 9 a.m. to noon.

“We’re going to stay open as long as we can,” Suess said. “We don’t see an end in sight at this time, because we’re very strong financially.”

He said on an average week, the store has around 35-40 people come in to buy products. Suess said they have a loyal customer base for a few reasons, including location.

“Location is very good for our customers, plus the fact that even though we can’t compete with the prices of Fleet Farms, everybody in the area wants to keep these local small places alive and open,” Suess said.

Beth Davis, who lives on a hobby farm with her family a few miles away from Rock Dell Creamery, stopped in on a recent Friday to pick up the family’s usuals.

“We get the good ole

Bongards cheese

and pick up our chicken feed,” Davis said. “You can’t beat local.”

She said her family has been coming to the store for over 30 years.

“My grandkids — so the third generation of my family is coming here now,” she said.

Some customers come for the conversation, and the longest ones happen on Saturday mornings.

“A lot of guys will come in and we’ll sit in a chair and we’ll talk for half an hour,” Suess said. “Saturday morning is our coffee time, and I’ll have probably anywhere from five to nine farmers come in and sit here for the morning and drink coffee and solve the American problems for the week.”

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The original cash register at Rock Dell Cooperative Creamery on Dec. 29, 2023.

Noah Fish / Agweek

In July of last year, Dave Distad, longtime manager of Rock Dell Creamery, passed away.

“Dave was here for almost 50 years — he managed his place forever,” Suess said. “A good manager keeps a good place open, and he wasn’t tough, just one of the nicest guys you’d ever wanted to meet.”

The top half of the creamery building is filled with remnants of a different time.

“The upstairs in this building is clear-full of nostalgia,” Suess said.

Walking through the piles of stuff, Suess points out old separators, motors and the butter wagons they used at one time. There’s even the original safe from the early 1900s. They still use the original cash register, Suess said.

“And we don’t take credit cards or bank cards,” he said. “It’s cash or check.”

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He covers a wide range of farmers and agribusinesses throughout Minnesota and surrounding states. He can be reached at nfish@agweek.com

He reports out of Rochester, MN, where he lives with his wife, Kara, and their polite cat, Zena. He grew up in La Crosse, WI., and enjoys the talent from his home state like the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers and Grammy award-winning musicians Justin Vernon and Al Jarreau.




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