Meet Roger Larson, our retiring plant manager! I was able to ask Roger some questions about getting into the business, his experiences, and some advice for those coming into the industry. His vast knowledge and years in the business shines throughout his answers, and I learned even more about him during this process. He is truly a man we will greatly miss having here constantly, but we’re glad he’s stuck around part time during the transition to our new plant manager, William Knox.
But without any further ado, I give you….Mr. Roger Larson!
When did you get into the Cheese making business and why?
“My Father became the owner/cheese maker of the Bidlingmeier-Isley Cheese factory in 1953, which happen to be the year I was born. Prior to that he had been making cheese at the Darlington Cheese Factory that was being run by Hank Kolb at the time.
There are pictures of me as a baby sleeping in a swing next to the cream separator as my parents were making cheese so you could say being in a cheese factory became engrained in my persona at an early age.
As soon as we kids were old enough to be of some assistance, it was expected that we would help with making cheese and with helping cut the wood needed to run the boiler at the plant. I don’t think saying no was exactly an option.
In 1960 we changed from being a Swiss cheese plant to producing Muenster which were much lighter and as such increased my roll from maybe washing a few kettles and the milk receiving balance tank to helping package the muenster loaves which is exactly what my brother and I did each day before school.
From this beginning to the Health Valley plant to building the new plant in Juda to the Dakota Cheese plant, Kolb Lena Cheese Plant and finally to Maple Leaf I’m not sure the progression is a well thought out life’s plan as much as to continue doing what you know as the years pass”.
Did you have any mentors?
“The vision of the sage and experienced older gentleman that takes you under his wing and passes on his wisdom and knowledge I would have to say I am not familiar with. I think that through the years there are many people that have shared experiences and knowledge with me that I hope I have used in a productive way.
I thank each of these people even though I’m sure that few of them would know that I feel they taught me valuable lessons and are still on occasion in my thoughts”.
How long have you been at Maple Leaf? What was your starting position?
“I have been with Maple Leaf since September of 1993. I had been Production Manager at Kolb Lena Cheese Company for 6 years prior to then and having left that position, was trying my hand at sales with a Message on Hold Franchise I had purchased. Jeff called me and asked if I would fill in temporarily at Maple Leaf because he had a trip planned and one of his regular workers had quit. I started and never left.
My starting duties were pretty much the same as any worker hired into a cheesefactory. Dump and box the blocks, put the cheese into the presses and wash anything that needs washing could sum it up. It was hard work but I have to tell you, it was much easier than making cold calls and straining to keep on that smile needed to be a salesman”.
What was a typical day like a few years ago for you at Maple Leaf?
“That depends upon what the word few means. Before turning the start up duties to Shawn, the days were 10-12 hours of hard physical work and in hiring and training new employees as well as sharing many of the maintenance duties with Paul. After that, the needs to establish new HACCP and food safety protocols started monopolizing more and more of my time. I would spend over half my time working on the production floor and with the cheese makers and with the other portion being office related”.
How does someone get a job like this?
“I guess you have to be right much more often than being wrong and when you are wrong, work even harder to make it right.
I have attended classes for ISO and HACCP as far back as 1991 when the concepts were first being introduced. I have attended several UW offered classes and seminars dealing with the industry. Each such class has something to offer and I would certainly not say they were ever a waste of time. Some of what is needed to advance has to have been learned when younger. Work ethic and abilities can carry you far but I believe that high school courses such as Geometry, which teaches step-by-step logic, or algebra, which teaches you how to prove that what you have completed is correct are also very important.
Also be patient. Setting aside the plants I worked at that were family owned, I never asked for any of the promotions I eventually received. Even at Kolb Lena who were purchased by a French company shortly at I started there as a packaging supervisor and eventually became plant manager I never accomplished anything by self-promotion. If you are doing what is expected of you and more, you will be noticed”.
What is the biggest satisfaction you get from your job?
“When I was involved with the production side of the plan,t the satisfaction came from winning. By this I mean that I was always creating little contests or goals that were designed to test myself. Turn the cheese faster, spill less curd, get the table rinsed before the people running the auger were done all became a self judged contest. One I recall was to not produce a vat of cheese all year that had to be sent to process. A nearly impossible challenge and not a goal I ever achieved. I did have one year were only 3 vats were made that we were unable to sell to customers. Not a win but close.
Producing contest winners was and is somewhat satisfying but producing cheese every day that could do well in a contest both in flavor and appearance is more so”.
“I was here when Maple Leaf moved from the tiny plant on Hwy 59 to this facility. I always thought I would see the time when this plant could no longer meet our needs and it would be necessary either build or relocate to a larger plant. Not being a part of that is a disappointment but I’m not sure dissatisfaction”.
Any words of wisdom for those in the cheese-making field?
“Every solution almost always causes a new problem. The key is making sure the problem solved is more serious than the one created”.
“I know that most of the people I have worked with have heard me say time and again “Everything Matters”. By this I mean that a very small change, even one that you can’t see doing anything immediately, can have a significant affect long term.
What are you doing to fill your new spare time?
“I think it takes a time away from working everyday to find a new direction. I don’t believe enough time has passed.
For now I have rearranged my workshop and have started a couple of projects. The weather has been nice so doing many of the outdoors things around the house has kept me busy. I suspect that I will eventually fall into a rhythm but as of yet have not”.
What is your favorite type of cheese? Why?
“I would say good 2-3 year old Cheddar would be the cheese I would most use. It is versatile in melting on other foods, in cooking, on sandwiches and is a good nibbling cheese.
I like Swiss cheese at a year of age and love, on occasion, to eat the rBST free Gouda and Jeff’s Select we produce”.
What are the most memorable events you’ve experienced since being in the industry?
“I guess winning first place in the World Cheese contest is memorable as well as the first day we produced cheese in my own plant in Dakota”.
How has the cheese making industry changed since you’ve started?
“One of the largest changes I have seen is the elimination of most of the cheese brokerage houses such as Dorman’s, Armour or Pauly Cheese where a cheese plant would sell all of it’s production. It forced people who were good or even great cheese makers to become salesmen and women. A lot of small plants closed because they were unable to make the change.
A second big change is in the availability of complex starter strains to every plant through starter companies. Before this, each plant had strains that were unique to them and the difference in cheese quality plant to plant was more pronounced. These starters have made for more consistent product throughout the industry. I’m not certain that it is an improvement.
More recently, last 10 years, the value of the whey has increased beyond anything thought possible just 20 years ago. Whey was always treated as an afterthought to cheese making now it has to be considered in all plans.
The huge emphasis on food safety is rather recent”.
How do you see the industry changing in the future?
“I think that plants will become less diversified in the products they produce to allow for more automation in production.
I think that the need to sell to large customers will force plants to be able to produce large volumes quickly.
I believe there will be new technologies that will increase shelf life or enhance flavor or improve food safety in the Cheese industry”.
What do you feel have been your greatest achievements in the industry?
“It is hard to differentiate between an achievement and the many things done as part of the job. In my career I have worked for 4 different cheese companies at 7 different plants as part of the job. Being able to step into each of these situations and use some of what I have learned at previous plants to make the present I hope better is an achievement in itself.
If I have been able to pass along at least 50% of what I have experienced, both successes and failures, to people younger than myself, That would be perhaps my greatest achievement”.
As I am typing this blog, I am rushed with feelings of content just to know Roger Larson. With such a vast background, there is so much information he knows that he has shared with so many of us; not only here at Maple Leaf, but with our customers, clients, and colleagues in the industry. He has helped Maple Leaf win many awards, produce high quality artisan cheese, and earn respect from others in the industry.
Please leave a comment if Roger has in some way touched your life and we’ll make sure he sees it!
For now, we’re off to see who else we can wrangle into an interview!!! Stay tuned for more “Meet…” blogs, and learn a bit more about the amazing people we have the opportunity to work with!
Until next time; peace, love, and grilled cheese!