Situated between Madison and Milwaukee, Wis., on Interstate 94 in a 7,000-resident town called Lake Mills lies Crystal Farms Dairy Co.’s plant. 

“We are a great employer there,” says President Tim Bratland, who joined the company two years ago. “Whenever I think of the plant, I think of how much we invested in the community. Most of the people who work there also live in the town.”

“In a town of 7,000 people, employing more than 100 people means you have a big footprint. So we try to do everything we can to support the town,” Bratland adds. 

On a daily basis, Crystal Farms’ conversion plant, opened approximately 40 years ago, is taking bulk cheese blocks and converts it into shredded cheese, block cheese and other products. “On a typical day, you will see trucks coming in with a lot of bulk cheese. They have 640-pound blocks,” Bratland says. “Some of it we keep to make sure we have aged cheddar. What we do is take much of it and turn it into different sized products.”

A 640-lb. cheese block can be converted into a six- or eight-ounce shredded cheese bag, for example. “That is being packaged and then put into a lot of different cases. Sometimes, it is a corrugate case and sometimes a shelf-ready case,” Crystal Farms’ president states. “Once the product is converted and packaged, it is brought into our distribution center that is fully refrigerated.” 

“We will walk the floor and employees always come up to us. They are always trying to make us better. Loyalty is not something you see everywhere anymore.”

— Tim Bratland. president of Crystal Farms Dairy

Crystal Farms has a fleet of direct store delivery trucks that deliver to warehouses and wholesalers, as well as independent grocers. “Or, we use other freight carriers to deliver to larger retailers like Target, Walmart or Hy-Vee,” Bratland notes.

When the cheese is received, it undergoes extensive quality testing. “We have very high quality parameters in place, which is done before there is any plant conversion,” Bratland stresses. “Food safety is very critical. We do very well on our audits and we have very safe products.”

Crystal Farms is truly multigenerational. In fact, many of its employees have been at the company for more than 30 years.
Crystal Farms is truly multigenerational. In fact, many of its employees have been at the company for more than 30 years.

Crystal Farms also sanitizes and washes its Wisconsin plant on a daily basis. “That is done every evening across the entire conversion process,” Bratland asserts. “We make sure we have safe product out there.”


Crystal Farms processes shredded cheese, sliced natural cheese, chunk cheese, processed cheese, specialty cheeses like feta and ricotta, blue cheese crumbles, cream cheese products in block, spreadable and whipped, as well as standard stick butter in salted and unsalted varieties and spreadable butter. 

The company’s goal is to help consumers understand it is a Midwest born and bred company. In fact, it sources 99% of its dairy from the Midwest. “We believe sourcing closer to home is better for the product and for our carbon footprint,” Bratland relays.

“We used to purchase cheese from the west and east coast, which had to arrive in the Madison market. That is a lot of miles [to travel],” says Bratland. “Now, 99% is from the Midwest. Most everything we receive travels under 400 miles. It used to be 1,500 or 2,000 miles.”

Beyond local sourcing, many of Crystal Farms’ cheese suppliers are co-ops, whom the processor works hard with their dairy farmers to minimize transport miles. “We are also supporting sustainability efforts through FFA. One of the main things FFA is teaching young farmers is how to sustainably farm, including soil management, how they take care of their animals, greenhouse gas emissions and more,” Bratland says.

Plant safety; education; diversity, equity, and inclusion; fair compensation; and transparency are among Crystal Farms' biggest points of emphasis. These efforts have truly paid off.
Plant safety; education; diversity, equity, and inclusion; fair compensation; and transparency are among Crystal Farms' biggest points of emphasis. These efforts have truly paid off.

At the Lake Mills plant, Crystal Farms recycles all of its corrugate and has sustainable auditing via government agencies. “We also make sure our waste water is handled in a sustainable manner,” Bratland notes.

Crystal Farms is an independently operating unit of Post Holdings Inc.—a publicly traded company well-known for many cereal brands including Honey Bunches of Oats, Pebbles, Grape Nuts and Honeycomb, as well as its recent purchase of Perfection Pet Foods LLC—which has its own sustainability committee and produces its own annual environmental, social and governance report. 

Plant pride

Crystal Farms takes pride in the fact its plant is multigenerational. Many employees have been there more than 30 years. “A lot of our drivers have been with us for over 30 years. In fact, our drivers recently received a safety award from IDFA for overachieving on all of their safety parameters,” Bratland states. “…Our new plant manager, Todd Loebel, and Troy Emmerich, who manages our DC (distribution center) continue to improve our safety.”

Julie Funk, associate director of human resources, who works at Crystal Farms’ Edina, Minn., office, was awarded HR Business Partner of the Year for the Twin Cities, Bratland adds. “A big reason she was awarded was her work at our plant. We have been focused on education, DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), and safety and also making sure employees are being compensated fairly,” Bratland maintains. “She has done a lot of work on that front and we have a very loyal workforce.

“A lot of people love working for Crystal Farms,” he adds. “I think that means they feel they are being treated fairly, with respect, and a safe work environment. They really care about the brand.”

Although Bratland is based in the Minnesota office, he travels the 250 miles to Lake Mills every five or six weeks, along with Crystal Farms’ chief financial officer, Rick Hausman, who can be found at the plant every four weeks.

“We will walk the floor and employees always come up to us. They provide ideas and suggestions,” Bratland says. “They are always trying to find ways to make us better. That is awesome. Loyalty is not something you see everywhere anymore.”

One reason for the loyalty is the transparency Bratland professes, which entails all aspects of the business, including the team at the Lake Mills plant. Often discussed is the task at hand and what must be improved.

“I think the employees really appreciate that. They love the face-to-face conversations and that they can ask questions to the CFO or president,” Bratland proudly states. “That is great for me also, because it helps me make better decisions.”

Although only at Crystal Farms for two years, Bratland took this philosophy from Post Consumer Brands — a sister company to Crystal Farms — where he often visited plants as well. “I really appreciate what everyone in the plant does,” he relays. “They are there every day, and that was especially great during COVID. They had to be there. They could not be remote. The least we can do is be there with them. Without them, we cannot do our jobs. I tell them, ‘I will always listen to you.’” 

On the reverse, Crystal Farms ensures plant employees are represented and involved in the company’s national sales meetings, so they can put another hat on and know what a sales position is like on a daily basis. “We have to stay really connected. That is how we work better together,” Bratland suggests.

Overall, Crystal Farms aims to make sure everyone feels welcome and respected. “Treat others how you would like to be treated. It does not mean everyone will agree all the time. But they are always safe to voice their opinions,” Bratland states. “It is the right thing to do, and we are doing a great job of it at Crystal Farms.”

The company offers a lot of “momentum” and has a “really good team in place,” Bratland continues. “We have a younger team coming in and can marry that with a lot of veteran experience. We have a really good mix right now,” he concludes. “I am excited about 2024.”