Today, we continue our Project Milwaukee Series: What’s On Our Plate? We’re exploring the impact the food industry has on the local economy. As we reported yesterday, more than 14,000 people in the greater Milwaukee area work for food and beverage manufacturers. But the number grows by thousands, when you include the workforce involved in building machinery for the food industry and moving its products, as well as making them more appealing. WUWM’s LaToya Dennis visited a few local employers that enhance Wisconsin’s food industry. When most people go to the grocery store, they probably don’t give much thought to all the work that goes into making the items on the shelves. I mean really, when was the last time you thought about what went into making your strawberry yogurt the perfect color? Well that’s what Dina Dicks does every day. She works for CHR Hanson in West Allis. The company makes coloring and other food additives. Dina and I met in one of the company lab.
“You take different coloring components and you know determine what ratio of those components you need to match the final shade and then combine those two into a system,” Dicks says.
Dina is mixing a yogurt color for a company in Canada. The pigment reminds me of a radish, and that’s probably because she’s using one, according to David Carpenter.
“In this case, this is a natural color. And so Dina is probably using I would say a carrot or a radish or some sort of a natural coloring compound that comes from a vegetable usually or a fruit,” Carpenter says.
Carpenter is president of the operation here, the North American headquarters of CHR Hanson. It employs upwards of 200 people, including at another plant in New Berlin. The company is based in Denmark, but according to Carpenter, opened its branch here in 1929 because it specialized in adding value to dairy products and Wisconsin had plenty. Many of the lab employees here have degrees in food science and chemistry, and that’s enabled the company to continue evolving.
“We manufacture Lactic Acid bacteria, which is used in the basic fermentation process in the manufacturing of cheese, yogurt, sour cream, buttermilk, fermented sausages and other fermented food products,” Carpenter says.
Now if you’ve never heard of CHR Hanson, you’re not alone. Carpenter says it’s set up that way.
“We’re behind the scenes; you’ll never see our name mentioned on retail products. But if you purchase a yogurt, there’s a good chance that the cultures in that are from CHR Hanson,” Carpenter says.
Not only is metro Milwaukee home to a global food science company like CHR Hanson, but some of its biggest competitors, Danisco and Sensient, are located in Wisconsin as well. Another food-related industry that quietly goes about its business is machine-making.
“We make the equipment that you would use to turn oil into margarine and we make the machinery that you would use to turn cream into butter.”
Glenn Ivarson owns and runs Ivarson Inc. His dad started the business nearly five decades ago. It also manufactures the machines that make packaging equipment. Ivarson’s office on Milwaukee’s far north side is filled with packages made for brands such as Land O Lakes Butter and Philadelphia Cream Cheese. According to Ivarson, the majority of his 50 employees are skilled laborers, and the machinery they make is sold to companies across the world.
“We’ve got equipment in Australia, New Zealand, Japan in Europe. The majority of what we do, probably 90 percent is in Canada, United States, Mexico and Central and South America,” Ivarson says.
Walking through the factory, its clear Ivarson supports other local manufacturers.
“This panel, like most of the other equipment that we build, it’s all Allen Bradley,” Ivarson says.
Ivarson estimates his company’s sales at about $15 million worth of equipment annually. He says after paying taxes and investing in research and development, there’s not enough money left for him to get rich. Still, he believes the food industry, especially dairy, is a great business to be in.
“I’m in an industry dealing with food. People always need to eat,” Ivarson says.
Ivarson, like many other companies in the food industry, hire trucking companies to move their goods, but the Port of Milwaukee also plays a major transportation role. For instance, it handles a lot of grain. Port Director Eric Reinelt says the majority comes in by truck from local co ops and farmers within a 90 mile radius. Workers load the product into a grain elevator until a purchase order comes through; then they transfer the grain onto a ship, usually headed overseas. But Reinelt says other modes of food transportation also converge at the port.
“if we can do it by river barge down the Mississippi we’ll do that, by lake barge. If we can do truck and rail transfer kind of business, what’s called a transload facility business, we’ll do that. We’re really a transportation hub and a distribution hub, and whether it goes by water, truck or rail is of little consequence to us,” Reinelt says.
Reinelt says the Port also receives shipments of raw materials, such as steel, that local companies use to make agricultural machinery. While he can’t give an exact number, he says the food economy supports a lot of the 300 jobs at the Port of Milwaukee. There’s no overall tally of the number of people in southeastern Wisconsin whose jobs are tied indirectly to the food industry. But there are hundreds of companies here that enhance the food economy and the quality of food we consume.