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Minnesota’s major processors, dairy groups support industry

Editor’s note: In our series, “From Cow to Curd: A Look Across the Nation,” Cheese Market News takes a look at the cheese and dairy industry across the United States. Each month we examine a different state or region, looking at key facts and evaluating areas of growth, challenges and recent innovations. This month we are pleased to introduce our latest state — Minnesota.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — Minnesota is a top-10 dairy state, ranking eighth in milk production and sixth in cheese production, according to USDA data. The state is home to 445,000 milk cows on about 2,400 farms, many concentrated along the Mississippi River and, more recently, further west near the I-29 corridor.

“Milk production and cow numbers are pretty stable. Like other states, we’ve lost our share of farms — 10% last year and 8% the year before that,” says Lucas Sjostrom, executive director of Minnesota Milk Producers Association, a voluntary trade association that represents about half of the milk in Minnesota. “We have a lot of lakes and really good dairy ground.”

Minnesota Milk helps promote interests of the state’s dairy industry in three major categories: policy, education and membership. Recently it has been working to help farmers through the current coronavirus crisis, promoting the proposed Dairy CORE (COronavirus REcovery) Program that would include a lump sum $9-per-hundredweight payment to help cover aid for three months (see “Minnesota Milk Producers Association supports direct aid to farmers, endorses Dairy CORE” in last week’s issue of Cheese Market News).

Minnesota Milk also works with the state’s dairy farmers to encourage risk management and last year helped promote the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Dairy Assistance, Investment and Relief Initiative (DAIRI) program that provided rebates to dairy farmers who enrolled for five years of coverage in USDA’s Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) program. Thanks to the DAIRI program, Minnesota had the highest enrollment in DMC, Sjostrom says.

• Dairy manufacturing

Some major dairy cooperatives are headquartered in Minnesota, including Land O’Lakes in Arden Hills, Associated Milk Producers Inc. (AMPI) in New Ulm, First District Association in Litchfield and Bongards Creameries in Chanhassen. General Mills’ headquarters and some of its ice cream and yogurt manufacturing are based in Golden Valley. Additionally, companies like Agropur, Kraft Heinz, Prairie Farms and Dairy Farmers of America have manufacturing and subsidiaries in the state.

“We have cheese, butter, milk powder and dairy ingredients,” says Tonya Schoenfuss, associate professor of dairy products technology and associate director, Midwest Dairy Foods Research Center, at the University of Minnesota. “We have some really huge Cheddar plants ... if you look at just Cheddar, we are still No. 2 with eight plants, versus Wisconsin at No. 1 with 69 plants.”

Bongards Creameries, which started as a cooperative in Bongards, Minnesota, in 1908, currently has 360 farmer members ranging from 30- to 2,000-cow dairies. It manufactures mainly processed and natural cheeses and whey, distributed mostly to foodservice throughout all 50 states and more than 20 countries. Its cheese plant in Perham, Minnesota, underwent a $93 million investment in recent years to bring its capacity up to 4.1 million pounds of milk a day. The cheese made in this plant goes for processing at its plants in Bongards, Minnesota, and Humboldt, Tennessee. In 2018, Bongards opened a new headquarters in Chanhassen, Minnesota.

“Everyone thinks we’re a small little co-op,” says Scott Tomes, chief revenue officer, Bongards. “We’ve gone from making 108 million pounds to 243 million pounds (of cheese per year) in the last seven years.”

Tomes says he anticipates Bongards will continue to see double-digit growth outside of the current challenges it faces from COVID-19. Recently the co-op’s facilities have gone from operating seven days a week down to four, though so far it’s been able to make enough product for longer-term storage and its members haven’t had to dump milk.

“We have challenges, for sure,” Tomes says. “But not a lot of companies can say they’ve been around for 112 years. I think if farmers are given a fair shake and paid accordingly, they’ll do just fine.”

Minnesota also has a number of specialty, artisan and farmstead cheesemakers. Caves of Faribault, now owned by Prairie Farms, ages its AmaBlue and St. Pete’s Select Blue cheeses in the St. Peter Sandstone caves in Faribault, Minnesota, that date back to the 1850s. Stickney Hill Dairy in Rockville, Minnesota, and Shepherd’s Way Farms in Nerstrand, Minnesota, are known for their award-winning goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses, respectively.

More recently, Redhead Creamery in Brooten, Minnesota, specializing in aged and clothbound Cheddars, launched in 2014 with assistance from the state-funded Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI), which supports value-added agricultural products in Minnesota. Redhead Creamery and other cheesemakers also have been able to use the University of Minnesota’s Grade B dairy plant when starting up their businesses. CannonBelles Cheese, which makes artisan Cheddar, Gouda and Queso Fresco, also is a newer cheesemaker and uses the University of Minnesota’s facilities.

“We have helped multiple food entrepreneurs launch their cheese businesses by providing a facility where they can perfect and produce their product prior to getting their own facility,” Schoenfuss says. “CannonBelles is a current client. Having our facility is allowing them to produce and sell their product as they build their facility in Cannon Falls, Minnesota.”

• Technical support

Schoenfuss notes that there are limited resources for startups outside AURI and the University of Minnesota’s dairy plant, and the university system does not have any dairy product extension agents. There are, however, a number of organizations that specialize in assisting large-scale dairy processors in Minnesota and beyond.

The Midwest Dairy Foods Research Center, which started out as a partnership between University of Minnesota and South Dakota State University, now encompasses multiple universities throughout the Midwest region. Member universities can apply for research funding through the center that comes from the dairy checkoff program, and processing and supplier members of the center can utilize its facilities and expertise and help steer new research proposals. Other branches have more resources for newcomers to cheese and dairy production, while Minnesota tends to do more whey-based projects, Schoenfuss notes.

“A lot of members are regional, but there are people who fly in from all over the place,” she says. “Having this facility saves people a lot of time and money before getting to production. We have our extruder, or can do membrane fractionation and spray drying, so they have a nice powder at the end. It’s plug-and-play.”

In addition to the Midwest Dairy Foods Research Center, Minnesota processors are supported by the North Central Cheese Industry Association (NCCIA) and Upper Midwest Dairy Industry Association (UMDIA). NCCIA organizes programming for the cheese industry through a multi-day annual conference. NCCIA also sponsors scholarships and helps organize pasteurization and sanitation short courses in partnerships with the University of Minnesota, Minnesota Department of Agriculture and suppliers like RELCO and Ecolab. UMDIA provides programming more focused on the dairy specialists for companies and processors in the region and is aligned with the International Association of Food Protection. UMDIA runs cheese and butter judging contests as well as the Minnesota State Fair dairy products contest.

“I think the future looks strong. I just wish we had more support for start-ups,” Schoenfuss says of Minnesota’s dairy industry. “We have a lot of cows and water, and land is not that expensive. We have a large metro area with higher-end grocery stores and co-ops that will carry artisan products. So not too far to go to get to the consumer. We have great farmers markets throughout the metro. We have a great dairy association to help move things forward with the legislature for dairies and plants.”

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