The oldest portion of Burnett Dairy’s Grantsburg plant is destroyed from a fire that started the night of July 20. 
The oldest portion of Burnett Dairy’s Grantsburg plant is destroyed from a fire that started the night of July 20. PHOTO SUBMITTED

    GRANTSBURG, Wis. – With the rollercoaster of events and emotions that dairy farmers have already endured so far in 2020, patrons of the Burnett Dairy cooperative suffered another low after a fire started at their cooperative July 20.
    Between 10-10:30 p.m., an employee noticed smoke at Burnett Dairy’s plant in Grantsburg, said Stephanie Miller, marketing manager for the cooperative. After the employee called 911, all employees on site evacuated the building.

    Several area fire departments were called to the scene to help extinguish the blaze.
    Miller said one shift of employees was making cheese at the plant, which processes soft Italian cheeses, including mozzarella and provolone. Although Burnett Dairy has another plant in Wilson, Miller said the Grantsburg plant is the larger of the two and processes more milk. About 100 dairy farmers sell their milk to Burnett Dairy.
    Ted Johnson, who has been a patron of Burnett Dairy for 17 years and has been on the cooperative’s board of directors for seven years, found out about the fire at about 11 p.m. July 20 after finishing chopping third crop alfalfa.
    “The biggest question I had was making sure there was a home for our milk,” said Johnson, who milks 300 cows near Star Prairie.
    By the next morning, the arrangements had been made to send milk to other processors.
    Marianne Peterson learned about the fire the morning of July 21.
    “The most important thing is that staff noticed it and got out of there,” she said. “I’m happy no one was hurt in the fire.”
    She was also happy the milk from her dairy – a 400-cow herd near Pine City, Minnesota – already had a new home that morning.
    But she also had other emotions after learning of the blaze.
    “It’s a sinking feeling,” she said. “That’s where our milk has gone all 47 years we have been farming. We have never shipped anywhere else.”
     The cooperative dates back much longer than that with roots in the Branstad and Wood River creameries in the late 1890s, according to the Burnett Dairy website. Part of the fire destroyed the oldest part of Burnett Dairy that once was the Wood River Creamery.
    “Burnett Dairy’s got a lot of history,” Johnson said.
    More recently, the cooperative has focused on marketing its cheeses, including its Wood River Creamery brand.
    “The dairy has been profitable the last few years, and its pay price is right up there with anyone else in the area,” Johnson said. “We’re always talking about different ways to get out there to improve the quality of our cheese, get into new markets. We’re a small cooperative, and we’ve really emphasized the brand names … to make connections with consumers.”
    But right now, the board will be focusing on cleaning and rebuilding along with the work that goes with that.
    Although this will be a hurdle for the cooperative, Peterson is optimistic looking forward.
    “It’s going to be a bump in the road and will cause inconveniences, but it’s not a co-op breaker,” she said. “It will be fine. I have that confidence.”