Growing up, Venae Watts and her brother, Adam Mueller, current owners of Minerva Dairy, put butter on every single item of food in their house. After-school sandwiches? Butter both sides of both pieces of bread. They lived by their Grandma Lorraine’s adage, “there’s not much in life that can’t be made better with butter.”
The siblings come by their love for butter honestly as the fifth-generation of the oldest family-owned creamery — one that has been in business for more than 125 years. The company has been equally male and female-led throughout the generations.
The company started in 1894 as Radloff Cheese in Wisconsin when an ancestor, Max Radloff, chose butter over his family’s furniture business. The second generation, Roland, led the company for years until his wife unexpectedly passed away. Roland’s daughter Lorraine married a competitor and dairyman by the name of Delbert Mueller. They moved the business to Minerva, Ohio. Not being able to pay rent with butter they built an apartment in the dairy and raised the fourth generation. In 1976, Phil Mueller took over the business when his father passed away. He navigated the dairy through dark times and raised the fifth generation with his wife, Polly.
This history plays a significant role in the Minerva dairy story because, to this day, they use old family recipes and slow churn their butter in 1,000-pound churns. Most industrial churns are 2,000-pound churns. The butter from Minerva Dairy is 85 percent butterfat and comes in flavors such as unsalted, sea salt, garlic herb, maple syrup, pumpkin spice, smoked maplewood, everything bagel, and lemon poppy seed. They say this creates a richer, creamier, and more flavorful product.
“It’s a craft, not all batches are exactly the same,” Watts explained.
When Minerva Dairy first began in 1894 in Wisconsin, it made cheese, butter, and ice cream at various locations. Over the years it consolidated to one location and limited its offerings.
Along with creating small-batch butter and cheese for food ingredients, Minerva focuses on the cows that produce the milk for their products. They work with several local dairies for a pasture-raised product ensuring that customers know who made their butter and where it is sourced.
Innovation and creative approaches has been vital to the business. Now Minerva Dairy butter can be found in select retailers nationwide or shipped directly to your door.
“Doing things the same way is how you stop growing,” Watts said.
Becoming the oldest family-owned creamery in the world did not come without struggles though. Throughout five generations, the company has grown and changed, with each generation able to make their own mark — and their own mistakes.
“Our dad gave us room to grow and room to fail without criticism,” Watts said. “Everyone was willing to make changes and learn.”
Keeping those things in mind, along with being willing to combine traditional methods with modern technologies has led to the success of Minerva Dairy. Watts explained that her father allowed her and Adam to find their niche within the company, make mistakes and learn from them, and fall in love with the industry.
That willingness to make changes and learn is vital to helping any business, but especially a family-owned business that hopes to survive and thrive. Right now, Watts and Mueller are raising the sixth generation at Minerva Dairy, and all of their children are involved, regardless of age. The family has always given responsibilities, whether 6 years old or 24 years old, to help them and the business grow.
“It is a lifestyle, not a job in agriculture,” Watts said.
This dedication to the lifestyle and growth is how Minerva Dairy has made it for over 125 years. Watts explained that other creameries were older than them, however, they did not remain family-owned establishments throughout the years.
“We have to have love before everything,” said Watts. “We see our family every day, so we must make sure we all have the same goals, and we don’t internalize things too much. That goal for us is to make a great product, at a good price for our customers.”
The family that owns Minerva Diary has lives that have been made better by butter over the last 125 years and they are working and raising the next generation of butter makers to make better butter. For their families. For their customers. For the craft. For the butter.
Michelle Bufkin Horton is a freelance communication specialist whose goal is to help producers bridge the farm-to-plate knowledge gap that exists with consumers today. She uses her full-time position as the Membership and Communication Director at the Arkansas Cattlemen’s Association to interact with producers and work on building that connection.