Ron Waletich and Keith Krueger were recognized for 40 years of employment during Valley Queen’s 94th Founders’ Day celebration on Wednesday, March 1 at the Heritage Center in Milbank. Founders’ Day pays tribute to Alfred Nef and Alfred Gonzebach, who began operating the business in 1929. Jason Mischel, vice president of procurement and sales at Valley Queen, said, “Keith and Ron are only the 14th and 15th employees to reach that milestone. Ron passed the 40-year mark in 2020.” He also noted they are the only two active employees that have surpassed 40 years.
“The committee debated the proper recognition for a 40-year employee,” Mischel confided, “and we came to the conclusion there is no adequate way to recognize and encapsulate the achievement of 40 years of dedication to a single employer. Especially when you put it in the context of the thousands of employees who have come and gone from Valley Queen. With the disclaimer that no award could capture the magnitude of this achievement, we came up with an idea we hope has some lasting recognition.”
Mischel explained that for the next 365 days, the cheese cooler at the Heritage Center will feature two special-label cheeses — Krug’s Choice Pepper Jack and Ron’s Choice Colby Jack. Each label also features an emblem to recognize the men for their 40 years of service.
Doug Wilke, CEO of Valley Queen, spoke to the crowd and reminded them that last year the company had created the Valley Queen Wall of Honor to salute 33 past and present employees for their more than 30 years of employment at the company.
Wilke stated, “It is my privilege this year to acknowledge two more employees that have reached this fantastic accomplishment. Our newest honorees joined Valley Queen in 1992. At that time, the plant ran five days a week and employed 75 people. It’s safe to say that Valley Queen is a very different company than what it was when they first started working here.”
Wilke noted that although growth has always been the cornerstone of Valley Queen’s success, “it’s becoming less common for people to spend 30-plus years with one company, which truly makes this a special day. I’m honored to recognize Paul Peschong and James Madsen.”
Peschong started at Valley Queen in August 1992. “Paul joined the Valley Queen team in the cheese packaging room,” Wilke said. “Paul has held several positions over the last 30 years, including drain table operator, team relief, and make room lead. He is currently an anhydrous milk fat operator.”
“Two months later,” Wilke continued,” in October of 1992, James joined the Valley Queen packaging team and has served in various positions including make room relief and team relief. He is currently a whey evaporator operator. Thank you both for your dedication, commitment, and hard work!”
Mischel also thanked all Valley Queen employees who had retired in the last year and wished them well. Recent retirees include Kirk Baldwin, Alex Adolph, Joe Breske, Jim DeJong, Brent Baker, Glenda Bohn, Todd Koch, Curt Gehrke, Keith Gretenhar, and Judy Gesswein.
Mischel told the crowd he had chatted with several former milk truck drivers in attendance just before the Founders’ Day event had gotten underway. The day was cold and icy with blowing snow and limited visibility, so of course the conversation had turned to the weather. According to Mischel, they all expressed concern for the current milk haulers and championed the effort required to pick up milk in weather like this. “It has been a long winter for the milk haulers.” he said. “We have pulled the trucks off the road for an extended time only once this winter. That’s pretty amazing given how much snow we’ve had.”
“Also, I think we’ve only dumped two loads of milk all winter,” Mischel added. “ That is quite a testament to how much they go through to get the milk picked up. Today, we remember and are thankful for all the employees and business partners who helped us get to where we are today. You’ve all made a significant impact at Valley Queen and in the community.”
Mischel introduced Randy Twistol, vice president of human resources, who began, I’m new to the organization. I’ve been here for about seven months. Today, I’m fortunate to be able to talk about the Employee Excellence Awards.
“The first employee I’d like to recognize is Scott Hall. Twistol related that in January 2022, Scott was returning to Valley Queen with a load of milk when he came upon a single-vehicle accident. The driver was talking on his cell phone with 911 and seemed upset. Twistol said, “Scott noticed the other driver was giving the wrong directions and location of the accident, so he took over, gave the correct location, and stayed with the individual until emergency services arrived.”
“Three days later, Twistol continued, “James Madsen received a call at three o’clock in the morning. A fellow employee needed help. James got out of bed, got to the employee, and towed his vehicle into town. James still made it to work on time.”
Twistol cited another example: Steve Dvorak came upon a milk truck that had hit a deer and gone into the ditch. Although the truck belonged to another milk company, Steve stayed with the driver until emergency services arrived.
Brian Lacek was the fourth and final employee Twistol commended. According to Twistol, Brian had come upon an overturned milk truck in the ditch and he stopped to call 911. It also wasn’t a Valley Queen truck. Brian discovered the driver trapped inside the vehicle and stayed with him until emergency services arrived.
Nathan Bass, vice president of operations, addressed the group and explained Valley Queen’s IDEA program as “a way of incentivizing and encouraging our team members to submit ideas to improve their area of work. We have four areas – safety, quality, productivity, and sustainability. Sustainability was added this year.”
“In 2022, we had 181 innovative ideas submitted and 24 were implemented,” he said. “At the end of the year, the committee takes all the ideas that have been implemented and votes on the top ones. Each winner receives a certificate and $1,250.”
Jon Gerhold was the winner in the productivity category. According to Bass, Jon’s supervisor credited Jon with noticing that the last vat of the day was typically not a full vat. He took it upon himself to make a programming change to ensure that the last vat of the day was full.
Mayolo Estrada Montero was the winner in the quality category. Mayolo’s idea was to put metal tabs on the metal inserts for the base pans at the points where the base pans were constantly cracking.
Bass recounted that Mayola’s supervisor, Taylor Jones, said, “Mayolo’s idea was one of the most impactful ideas I’ve seen in the time I’ve been here. Base pans were cracking and causing a lot of issues such as lost cheese and quality issues with the press and jams. The idea to weld in metal tabs has been a huge win for us – more consistent blocks and not having people bent over scraping cheese.”
Marty Wittrock submitted the winning idea for safety. Marty envisioned adding an emergency stop on the label side of the auto bander. After repeated issues of a box getting jammed in the auto bander and causing more issues with equipment, Marty suggested having an E-stop directly accessible on the label side. Bass said, “The change prevents the need to rush down one set of stairs, up another, and over to the pre-bander E-stop. It also allows us to react much quicker in the case of a safety emergency, such as someone getting caught in the press or banding.”
Abbey Trapp, a special education teacher in the Milbank School District, received an award from Valley Queen on behalf of the Special Olympics. Lance Johnson, senior project manager, presented Trapp with the award and said that “although the Valley Queen Charitable Foundation is well known for its work throughout the community, this is the first time we have designated a partner of the year.” Valley Queen selected the Special Olympics of South Dakota whose motto is: Let me win. If I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt. “We were very fortunate last year to host the Northeast Area Regional Games,” Johnson said. “We had over 30 people from Valley Queen participate.” Johnson applauded Trapp for her efforts and added, “Abbey is instrumental in everything that goes on in the Special Olympics in Milbank.”
In accepting the award, Trapp said, “It wouldn’t be possible to host the games here in Milbank without the help of Valley Queen. I’ve been the head coach for 14 years now and it is the best experience you can ever have. She also introduced Peggy Greiner, special services secretary and Trapp’s co-coordinator of the regional games.
Trapp reminded everyone to attend the Special Olympics Northeast Regional Games on Friday, May 5, either as a volunteer or as a spectator. “You have no idea what it means to the athletes for us to watch them and cheer them on,” she said.
Brian Sandvig, CFO at Valley Queen, announced Amanda Thronson as the winner of this year’s Valley Queen Community Impact Award. Sandvig affirmed, “We have employees who constantly give to their community. So the purpose of this award is to recognize individuals who are bettering the community. The winner receives the ability to donate $2,500 to the charity of their choice. In addition, they are offered the option of paid time off or a cash award.”
Upon the conclusion of the Founders’ Day ceremony, guests were given a commemorative box of the new special-label cheese. A luncheon followed to show additional appreciation for the honorees.
Photos: top-Jason Mischel and Ron Waletich. *Doug Wilke, Paul Peschong and James Madsen. *Mischel and Wilke chatting with guests. *Randy Twistol and James Madsen. *Nathan Bass, Jon Gerhold and Mayolo Estrada Montero. *Lance Johnson. *Abbey Trapp and Peggy Greiner. *Brian Sandvig and Amanda Thronson.