By JASON KROEKER

Press staff writer

HOPE -- At a small creamery a few miles south of Owatonna, butter is being made the same way it was done in 1919.

The Hope Creamery was one of the stops on a Steele County dairy tour organized by the county's planning department. More than 60 people visited the Hope Creamery Tuesday, where butter has been produced for more than 85 years.

Victor Mrotz, who owns Hope Creamery with his wife Kellie, explained the butter making process and also opened up the second floor of the creamery, which was once used as a dance hall.

The Hope Creamery Co-op was ready to close its doors for good when Mrotz and his wife Kellie bought the creamery in March 2001. At that time the creamery produced 30,000 pounds of butter annually, selling most of it to a few places around Hope.

Hope Creamery now makes 300,000 pounds of butter a year, selling its product to more than 50 restaurants, 40 Twin Cities grocers and 20 retail markets near Hope.

"We use old technology, so it has a different flavor," said Mrotz. Hope Creamery also washes the butter while it is in curd form, giving it a distinct taste.

The butter is still made and sold in 1 pound blocks. Recently Mrotz began offering unsalted butter in addition to salted butter.

Mrotz doesn't make the butter himself, however. He leaves that up to a man that has been doing it for four decades. Gene Kruckeberg, the current butter maker, began working at the creamery in 1964.

The creamery has seven employees, most part time.

Mrotz plans to expand Hope Creamery into the organic market later this summer. He has begun the certification process and should be ready to produce organic butter by August. He has also followed the necessary steps to make his butter kosher.

The other stops on the dairy tour focused on feed lots, compost barns, manure application and water quality protection.

"We want to let people know the dairy industry is a vital part of the community," said Dan Vermilyea, Steele County feed lot specialist and organizer of the event.

Niel Broadwater, a regional extension educator with the University of Minnesota, promoted compost barns. The barns, most of which are in southwestern Minnesota, are becoming more popular in Steele, Olmstead and Winona counties, he said.

A compost barn uses packed sawdust that is stirred by a machine while cows are being milked to capture waste and keep the cow's living quarters clean.

He said it keeps cows cleaner, prevents infection and prevents injury.

Another specialist that spoke along the tour was Dave Wall, a hydrologist with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Wall said that while manure can pollute the ground if it is not spread correctly, it can slow erosion if used right.

He said dairy farmers need to make sure manure is tilled into the soil and that they follow setback requirements. It is also crucial, he said, to test the nutrient content of the manure to maximize its value.

"If it is done right, it can actually improve water quality," Wall said.

Jason Kroeker can be reached at 444-2376 or at jkroeker@owatonna.com.

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