IT'S 5 A.M. at Dennis Kuehne's Browerville, Minn., dairy farm. As the sun begins poking over the horizon, he's already in the barn, listening to country music and milking 38 prize Holsteins -- just a few of the cows that provide the fat for Land O'Lakes butter.
"The cows like country-western music," he claims. "At least I haven't heard them complaining." The stereo blasts around the clock, right through two daily milkings -- while each cow munches 18 pounds of feed and washes it down with about 50 gallons of water -- and on through the night while they sleep. His cows respond by producing above-average supplies of milk with higher than normal percentages of butterfat.
Kuehne is one of 350,000 farmers who belong to Land O'Lakes, the largest butter-producing cooperative in the country. But butter is not the only commodity with which the members deal. Members sell seed, equipment, and livestock and their by-products to the cooperative. The cooperative, in turn, processes and distributes hamburger, turkey, margarine, milk, eggs, cheese and more to supermarkets and other outlets around the country.
The farmers are paid when their products are delivered to the cooperative processing plants and again at the end of the year when profits are determined.
But it's butter that makes Land O'Lakes a household name.
This seven-state, midwestern cooperative has undergone a growth-explosion since it began operating in 1921, with nothing more than a borrowed desk and a $1,000 loan. In 1981 alone, the cooperative sold 200 million pounds of butter, one of the biggest selling commodities Land O'Lakes has, says George Hildre, vice president and chief operations officer for dairy operations.
It's the quality of the milk that makes Land O'Lakes different from other butters, Hildre explains. While all butter must meet certain federal standards (for salt, fat, curd and water content), Hildre maintains that Land O'Lakes' strict control over milk quality makes the butter better.
Land O'Lakes butter is made with the cream skimmed from milk with top government grades. Each churning is tested for its palatability, body and bacterial content by a USDA inspector. Depending on the degree to which the butter passes the 10 routine tests, the butter is packaged under the Land O'Lakes label or one of 20 other private labels for use by food distributors around the country.
To avoid human contamination of the product, Kuehne and farmers like him take advantage of modern production techniques. Kuehne's $400,000 dairy farm includes mechanical milkers. The milkers plugged into pipes lining the ceiling of his barn lead to a 600-gallon, chilled holding tank. Every two days a refrigerated Land O'Lakes milk truck comes down the dirt road by his house, drains the tank and hauls it back to the production plant about 15 miles away.
To the uninitiated, the Browerville plant doesn't look large enough to supply almost half the butter Land O'Lakes sells. A staff of 125 employes work around the clock, seven days a week, at the plant, which is the major source of employment in this town of 693 where Main Street attractions consist of two cafe's, two Catholic churches and a gas station.
Twice a day, Dick Johnson and his two sons, along with 40 other "haulers," pull their silver trucks into the processing plant on Creamery Lane to deliver the milk collected from central Minnesota member creameries and farms like Keuhne's.
A full truck brings 28,400 pounds of milk (3,302 gallons) to be pumped into one of four 20,000-gallon holding tanks on the roof of the creamery. Milk samples, which have been taken at the farms, are sent to a laboratory, which will determine butterfat content -- the higher the butterfat, the more the farmers are paid. The average payment is 12 1/2 to 13 cents per pound of milk, and the average dairy cow produces 50 to 60 pounds of milk per day. From the holding tanks, the milk travels to separaters, where 61,000 pounds an hour are divided into cream and skim milk. The 9 percent that is cream is churned into butter; the remaining skim milk is pasteurized, dehydrated and packaged as dried milk powder. Nothing is ever wasted, says Al Stommes, manager of the Browerville plant. Even the liquid from the dehydrated skim milk is used for steam to process and pasteurize the milk and to clean the plant.
Meanwhile, the cream is pasteurized at 180 degrees, cooled to 40 degrees and sent to one of two continuous churns. Eleven-thousand-pound ribbons of salted butter ooze from the churn to be pressed into quarter-pound sticks and held in a refrigerator with a 2 1/2-million-pound capacity.
While the butter churns, buttermilk skimmed from it gets dehydrated into powder. Like skim milk, buttermilk has 85 percent of its moisture removed in a 360-degree dryer that can process 5,200 pounds of the sweet milk powder each hour.
Most of the Browerville powder is shipped to the Carnation Co. for reprocessing into their private blend of non-fat milk powder, Hildre says. The remainder sells under the Flash label to food processors around the country.
The pretty picture of Land O'Lakes' first 50 years is clouded by high interest rates and a failing economy, much to the consternation of these growth-oriented farmers, says Hildre. Total profits fell from nearly $49 million in 1980 to less than $13 million in 1981.
"Seems like when the farmer has it tough, we all have it tough," Hildre explains, adding that since the cooperative retains a large inventory, a lot of money is tied up. Since a good share of the company's money comes from loans, increased interest rates have put a heavy burden on the cooperative.
But a large profit isn't the only concern of 30-year-old Kuehne. Job security is equally important. Times are tough, he says. If his family eats well during the year and he is still able to pay the bills, then he considers it a profitable year. Feed costs and loan payments alone cause him to rely on the guarantee that his milk will sell. "There's a big difference between a cooperative and a private corporation," he says. " A private corporation can say, 'Too bad, we're done with you today,' and turn around and go into peanut butter. In a co-op they can't."
Left to their own devices, these farmers will keep Land O'Lakes butter and butter substitutes in the marketplace. Scientists in their Minneapolis test kitchens spend their days developing new dairy products to use in processed foods or to use as substitutes for whole butter. Their latest product, "Country Morning Blend," combines 60 percent corn oil and 40 percent butter.
But anyone in love with whole butter knows that no matter how many alternatives, butter can't be beat. So when the food scientists are not busy developing new products, they devise new butter-rich recipes. Here is their latest for butter cookies, along with some others that feature butter at its best. BUTTER COOKIES (Makes 3 dozen) For Cookies: 2 1/2 cups flour 1 cup sugar 1 cup sweet butter, softened 1 egg 1 teaspoon baking powder 2 tablespoons orange juice 1 tablespoon vanilla Food colorings of choice (optional) For Frosting: 4 cups confectioners' sugar 1/2 cup sweet cream butter, softened 3 to 4 tablespoons milk 2 teaspoons vanilla Colored stars, sugars, flaked coconut, etc., for decoration (optional)
In a 3-quart mixing bowl combine all cookie ingredients. Beat at low speed, scraping sides of bowl often, until well mixed (about 1 to 2 minutes). If desired, divide dough into thirds. Color 2/3 of dough with food colorings of choice, mixing until evenly colored. Cover; chill until firm enough to roll (2 to 3 hours or even overnight). Roll out dough, half at a time, on well-floured surface to 1/4-inch thickness. Be sure to work quickly because as the dough softens it becomes sticky. Cut with 3-inch cookie cutters. Sprinkle colored sugars on some of the cookies or bake and decorate later. Bake near center of 400-degree oven for 8 to 12 minutes or until edges are lightly browned. Cool completely on wire rack; spread with frosting or decorate.
Combine all frosting ingredients in 1 1/2 quart mixing bowl. Beat at low speed, scraping side of bowl often, until fluffy (1 to 2 minutes). Frosting can be spread or used with decorator. LE POULET AU BEURRE D'ESCARGOT (Chicken with Escargot Butter) (8 servings) For stuffing: 1/2 pound plus 2 tablespoons butter 4 large cloves garlic, minced 8 to 10 shallots or scallions, minced 2 tablespoons each chives, chervil and parsley, minced ( 1/2 teaspoon each dried) 1 teaspoon dried thyme Salt and freshly ground black pepper 2 chicken livers 3 or 4 tablespoons cognac 2 cups stale bread crumbs For chicken: 2 roasting chickens, 3 1/2 pounds each 5 tablespoons butter 1 1/2 tablespoons cooking oil 2 cups chicken bouillon*
Cream the 1/2-pound-plus-2-tablespoons butter in a mixing bowl with the garlic, shallots or scallions and herbs, working thoroughly to make a homogenous mixture. Season with salt and pepper.
Chop the raw chicken livers, combine them with the cognac and blend thoroughly with a fork. Add half of the bread crumbs, blend in the herb butter and add the remaining bread crumbs. Taste and correct the seasoning. Set aside.
To prepare the chicken, turn the chickens breast side up. Lightly loosen the skin of both chickens so that the stuffing can be inserted; first detach the skin on either side of the tail with the point of a knife. Then, dip your fingers into the oil and gently insert them under the skin of the breast. (If you have long fingernails, put on rubber gloves, so as not to pierce the skin.) Push your fingers gradually farther under the skin to loosen it as much as possible. In the same way, loosen some skin along the thighs and legs and a little on the back. Carefully fill the areas between the flesh and the loosened skin with the stuffing (do not put in too much) and pat to distribute the stuffing with the rest of the stuffing. Sew up all the openings and truss the chicken.
Remove the grease from the chicken bouillon. Put the chickens into the broiler pan or a shallow roasting pan. Set the pan over medium heat and melt 2 tablespoons butter. Brown the chickens on each side. (If some of the stuffing escapes, don't worry.) Pour 2/3 cup of chicken bouillon into the pan. Turn the chickens on their sides and set them into a 375-degree oven for 45 to 50 minutes, until they are tender. Turn them halfway through the cooking. Remove the chickens and keep them warm while completing the sauce.
Add about 1 1/3 cups chicken bouillon to the liquid in the roasting pan, set over heat and deglaze the pan, scraping the bottom with a fork to collect all the sediments. Strain, return to the saucepan, set over heat and let the sauce boil for about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and swirl in 2 or 3 tablespoons of butter.
To serve, coat the chickens with some of the sauce and serve the rest in a sauceboat.
*Note: Use either canned broth or make your own by simmering the necks, gizzards and wing tips with a sliced carrot, an onion and a bouquet garni for 1 hour). From "Simca's Cuisine," by Simone Beck LAMB CHOPS WITH BEARNAISE SAUCE (6 to 8 servings) 8 2- to 2 1/2-inch thick lamb chops Salt and pepper For Bearnaise Sauce 1/4 cup wine vinegar 1/4 cup dry white wine 1 tablespoon minced shallots or scallions 1 tablespoon fresh tarragon or ( 1/2 tablespoon dried) Pinch pepper Pinch salt 3 egg yolks 2 tablespoons cold butter 1/4 to 2/3 cup melted butter 2 tablespoons fresh minced tarragon or parsley
Begin broiling salt and peppered lamb chops according to desired doneness (rare will take 4 to 6 minutes per side, medium 8 to 10 minutes per side). Meanwhile, boil the vinegar, wine, shallots or scallions, herbs and seasonings over moderate heat until the liquid has reduced to 2 tablespoons. Let cool. Beat the egg yolks until thick (about 1 minute). Strain the vinegar mixture into the egg yolks and beat. Add 1 tablespoon of cold butter and thicken the egg yolks over low heat. Beat in the other tablespoon of cold butter, then the melted butter by droplets. Correct seasoning and beat in the tarragon or parsley. Pour over lamb chops and serve or keep warm over a double boiler. From "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," by Julia Child MRS. GURREN'S POTATO FANS (4 servings) 3 uncooked potatoes 8 tablespoons butter Salt and pepper to taste 2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley
Thinly slice potatoes lengthwise. With a knife, cut from top to bottom in half-inch cuts, but don't cut through at the bottom. Place in a single layer in the bottom of shallow roasting pan. Dot with butter generously. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and parsley. Bake at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes, basting often to prevent potatoes from drying. TARTE AUX POIRES (6 to 8 servings) For pastry: 2 cups flour 1 tablespoon sugar Pinch salt 2/3 cup butter For pear filling: 5 to 6 medium, firm pears 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1 1/2 cups water 1 cup sugar 1 1/2 cups milk 2 egg yolks 2 tablespoons flour About 1 tablespoon chopped, candied ginger
Prepare crust by sifting together the flour, sugar and a pinch of salt. Cut in the butter with two knives or fingers until well mixed and the butter is the size of small peas. Work into a ball, wrap and chill for 1 or 2 hours. Press pastry into the bottom of a 9- or 10-inch deep dish pie pan with your fingertips until the crust is smooth and even. Bake at 400 degrees for 5 minutes, then set aside.
Peel, core and slice the pears in half lengthwise. Arrange in a large saucepan, sprinkle with lemon juice and add the water. Poach gently. After 15 minutes, add 1/3 cup sugar. Continue to simmer for another 5 to 10 minutes. Very carefully remove the pears to a plate and let them cool. The syrup in the saucepan should continue to simmer until it is greatly reduced and very thick. Warm the milk in another saucepan with the remaining sugar. Beat the egg yolks well with the flour and whisk in the warm milk. Cook over low heat until it just begins to thicken. Chop candied ginger and sprinkle on the bottom of the pie shell. Arrange the pear halves in a circle in the pie crust and pour the custard over it.
Bake at 400 degrees for about 40 minutes. The custard will have brown patches on top. Let it cool slightly, then pour the syrup over the top. Cool to room temperature. Serve as soon as cooled or store in refrigerator until serving time. Adapted from "The Vegetarian Epicure," by Anna Thomas.