Butter is back.

Driven by the movement toward food that contains natural ingredients as well as the foodie and gourmet cooking trends, butter consumption in the United States has reached its highest level in 40 years, dairy-industry leaders say.

Where margarine and other spreads were once hailed as healthier alternatives to butter, the pendulum may have swung back in butter’s favor.

In the middle of the trend is Grassland Dairy Products in Greenwood, Wis., whose plants make about a third of the nation’s butter. Grassland is the largest family-owned butter company in the United States.

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“We’re busy,” said Trevor Wuethrich, a vice president at Grassland and the fourth generation of the Wuethrich family to work at the company, which was founded by John Wuethrich in 1904. “We’re definitely seeing butter consumption go up.”

Busy, too, is Al Bekkum, whose family-owned Nordic Creamery in Westby, Wis., is hard-pressed to meet demand for its butter.

“At the end of the week — every week — our coolers are empty,” Bekkum said. “We just can’t keep up.”

This time of year is butter’s sweet spot. Estimates are that at least 40 percent of butter consumption in the U.S. takes place between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. That increase in demand is driven by holiday baking and Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.

Grassland begins gearing up for the holiday rush each year around Aug. 1, Wuethrich said.

“It puts stress on us from August to the first week in December,” he said. “There aren’t many vacations given during those four months.

“Butter’s perishable,” he added. “We can’t make it in January and put it away in the warehouse” until the holiday season arrives.

Bekkum sees the rush, too. “Especially this time of year, it’s just crazy for us,” he said.

But it’s not just butter cookies at the holidays driving the trend. Butter’s numbers have been moving steadily higher over time.

In the past decade, Americans have increased their butter intake by 24 percent, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

“The last five years, butter has really taken off,” said Peter Vitaliano, chief economist for the National Milk Producers Federation, an Arlington, Va., trade association.

And the growth in butter consumption is expected to continue.

Butter consumption has now reached 5.6 pounds a year per capita, up from its low point of 4.1 pounds in 1997, according to the Milk Producers Federation.

“The basic factors that we kind of see as contributing to particularly this recent surge in butter consumption, we don’t see any real change in that,” Vitaliano

All of this is good news for the state’s dairy industry.

“Wisconsin is one of the major butter suppliers in the country,” said Marianne Smukowski of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We make a lot of butter in this state.”

Having end markets for all the milk produced in the state is important economically.

“The price of milk that every dairy farmer gets paid is pretty much determined, under our current pricing system, by the market prices of four basic products: butter, nonfat dry milk, cheese and dry whey,” Vitaliano said. “The stronger the demand, the higher those prices are going to be in a relative sense. Every producer benefits when butter demand goes up.

“A strong butter market is very good news for all producers.”

Some of the increase in butter consumption is due to a shift in consumer preferences away from processed foods, artificial ingredients and trans fats derived from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last month began the process of banning trans fats from the American food supply.

“They (consumers) want to see something that is wholesome and not a lot of other ingredients in it,” Smukowski said. “They are looking for something that is pure and good to eat.”

“Butter is as natural as you can get,” Wuethrich said. “It’s cream and salt.”

That doesn’t mean you should gobble down a stick of butter for breakfast every morning.

Butter should be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet, dairy experts say.

Still, “People are starting to realize that maybe we better look at what we are actually putting into our bodies,” Bekkum said.

Grassland’s plant in Greenwood is a technologically advanced production facility that includes pneumatically controlled robotics as part of its operations.

Production lines operate 24 hours a day, packaging everything from quarter-pound sticks packed four to a box to butter patties for restaurants.

Grassland also has plants in West Point, Neb., and Hyrum, Utah.

Its base of operations, though, is Greenwood.

“There are 60,000 cows within 30 miles of our plant,” Wuethrich said.

The company processes about 5 million pounds of milk per day.

Butter, though, is still the company’s core product.

“I am blessed to be a fourth-generation butter maker,” Wuethrich said. “When you’re a fifth-grader and they ask you in school what you want to be when you grow up, not many kids are raising their hands and saying ‘butter maker.’ ”