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Consumer appetite for dairy fuels innovation, expansion

Editor’s note: Plants in Progress is a special segment spotlighting new facilities and growth in the U.S. dairy sector. As the industry works to meet new demand, growth and expansion are inevitable. Here, we provide a glimpse into new cheese and dairy plants going up around the country — from initial groundbreaking to full operation, and everything in between.

By Alyssa Mitchell

MADISON, Wis. — Despite the rise in alternative protein sources in recent years, U.S. consumers’ appetite for dairy products continues to grow, with per-capita consumption of dairy on a milk-equivalent, milkfat basis increasing by a pound from 2017 to 2018, according to USDA data.

To feed the need, U.S. dairy manufacturers continue to invest in innovation and expansion across the country.

From the “Crossroads of America” in Indiana to the Great Lakes of Michigan to the East and West coasts, stakeholders are coming together to invest in the future of dairy.

In fact, USDA recently announced it has awarded three projects a total of more than $1.3 million through 2019 Dairy Business Innovation Initiative Grants. This year, projects from the University of Wisconsin, the University of Tennessee and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets were awarded $454,392 each to support dairy businesses in the development, production, marketing and distribution of dairy products.

Please read on as we provide a snapshot of some of the projects in development across the United States in this latest installment of Plants in Progress ...

• BelGioioso Cheese Inc., Glenville, New York

BelGioioso Cheese earlier this year received final town approvals to go forward with construction of a $25 million cheese plant in the Glenville Business and Technology Park in Glenville, Schenectady County, New York. The plant is expected to create nearly 50 new jobs.

“We broke ground in April and work continues on the construction. We plan on being up and running within the next 12 months,” says Errico Auricchio, president, BelGioioso Cheese.

The Green Bay, Wisconsin-based company plans to manufacture specialty Italian cheeses at the 96,000-square-foot plant.

• Foremost Farms USA, Greenville, Michigan

Foremost Farms late last year completed the first phase of a multiyear endeavor — a 55,000-square-foot milk condensing facility in Greenville, Michigan.

The milk condensing plant has been up and running since November 2018, the company says. Processing 3.2 million pounds of raw milk daily, Greenville produces approximately 21 loads of reverse osmosis (RO) skim and six loads of cream each day to be used in Foremost Farms’ cheese and butter plants, as well as sales to outside customers.

Greenville uses reverse osmosis technology to concentrate skim milk solids after separation, the co-op says. The RO process results in a different percent of total solids from traditional condensed milk, which required Foremost Farms’ cheesemakers and others to work together on skim-solids integration.

“Currently the teams are working to maximize Phase 1 of the new state-of-the-art milk processing facility,” says Sydney Lindner, director of communications, Foremost Farms.

Co-op officials say they hope this investment will spur the development of a large-scale dairy processing campus over the next several years.

• Gem State Dairy Products LLC, Twin Falls, Idaho

Gem State Dairy Products LLC is planning to build an aseptic milk processing facility in Twin Falls, Idaho, in the coming months, providing new opportunities for Idaho’s dairy industry and creating more than 100 milk processing jobs by the end of 2020.

Tom Mikesell, spokesperson for Gem State Dairy Products LLC, says the 200,000-square-foot, vertically integrated bottling facility will be one of the newest and largest aseptic processing facilities in the country.

“The state-of-the-art facility will utilize the most current technology available to the market,” Mikesell says. “That will allow Gem State to provide its customers with high-quality and lower-cost alternatives for milk and dairy-based beverages.”

He adds that Gem State Dairy has made progress on engineering and design since the initial announcement last winter. The plant startup is still tracking the original schedule.

Gem State Dairy estimates that milk processing will begin in the summer of 2020.

• Golfo di Napoli Dairy, Warren, Indiana

Production began this summer at Golfo di Napoli Dairy, a 40,000-square-foot organic cheese plant in Warren, Indiana.

The newly-established venture is owned and operated by a team of fourth-generation cheese producers from Italy. The company invested $16 million over the past year to construct the plant, which utilizes USDA-certified organic milk from Fair Oaks Farms to produce Mozzarella, Burrata, Ricotta, Provolone and other pasta filata cheeses traditional to the Naples region.

“We chose Indiana because we believe that it is the perfect location to produce authentic Neapolitan Mozzarella, serving customers across the Midwest,” says Antonio Somma, president of Golfo di Napoli Dairy.

The plant currently has 25 employees.

• Great Lakes Cheese, Hiram, Ohio, and Wausau, Wisconsin

Great Lakes Cheese earlier this year commenced construction on an expansion to its cheese plant in Hiram, Ohio, where the company also is building a new corporate headquarters facility.

The company currently employs more than 650 employees in Ohio and expects to hire an additional 400 over the coming years as a result of these projects.

“Our company has called Ohio home since the beginning. It is only fitting that we make these significant investments in our infrastructure here,” says Dan Zagzebski, president and CEO, Great Lakes Cheese. “Our legacy of excellence is innately tied to this community and our many Ohio employee-owners.”

The new headquarters building will be constructed about 500 feet away from the existing plant in Hiram, expected to be complete in spring 2021, and the existing headquarters location eventually will be remodeled to become a new cafeteria and other amenities for plant employees.

Construction on the Hiram plant expansion has commenced on schedule, with the new expansion planned to be operational in the fourth quarter of 2020, Great Lakes Cheese says. Footers are being placed and steel placement is expected yet this year.

Great Lakes Cheese also has facilities in New York, Tennessee, Utah and Wisconsin. The company recently completed construction of a new 180,000-square-foot cheesemaking facility in Wausau, Wisconsin, as well.

The Wausau facility began commercial production earlier this year, and the company plans to invest in another $40 million worth of equipment.

Great Lakes Cheese also has added 125 new employees at the Wausau site.

• Holmen Cheese LLC, Holmen, Wisconsin

The Planning Commission, Site Plan and Architectural Review (SPAR) Board and Village Board of Holmen, Wisconsin, recently approved plans for Holmen Cheese LLC, a new cheese plant to be located on a 12-acre parcel in the village’s Bluffview Business Park, north of Highway 35.

The company will utilize a newly custom-built state-of the-art 98,000-square-foot facility to produce dairy and plant-based cheese alternatives, cheese blends and processed cheeses for industrial, foodservice and retail markets.

The expectation is that approximately 59 new jobs will be created in the Holmen community once the plant opens, and up to 200 new jobs could be created over the next five years. The initial investment is expected to exceed $30 million in total, with an anticipated operational date of summer 2020.

• Idaho Milk Products, Jerome, Idaho

Idaho Milk Products recently celebrated the completion of a $30 million expansion and new research and development facility with a ribbon-cutting Sept. 20. Speakers included Idaho Milk Products’ CEO Daragh Maccabee; Rick Onaindia and Russell Visser, representing the owner group; City of Jerome, Idaho, Mayor Dave Davis; Jerome City Administrator Mike Williams; and Dr. Chenchaiah Marella, vice president of R&D, Idaho Milk products. Tours of the new R&D facility were available to the general public.

“We are very pleased to reach the end of a multi-faceted $30 million-plus project that has been ongoing for the last year,” Maccabee says. “We have increased our capacity by a third, invested in new equipment and automation, expanded our warehouse, upgraded our people facilities and made a step change commitment to innovation and product development. The various aspects of the project speak to all the things that we try to do better every day — maximizing our efficiency and throughput, striving to create and maintain a world class organization, being relevant to our customers and the markets we operate in, and all with sustainability in mind. All who contributed along the way can be proud of the achievements in the first decade and all of us here today are excited at the potential for the next one.”

With the expansion complete, Idaho Milk Products will be able to process an additional 1 million pounds of milk per day, resulting in a faster turnaround to keep up with customer demands.

• Joint venture, St. Johns,

Michigan — Glanbia Nutritionals, Dairy Farmers of America, Select Milk Producers

Construction is underway on a joint venture cheese plant between Glanbia Nutritionals, Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) and Select Milk Producers Inc. in the City of St. Johns, Michigan.

The large-scale cheese and whey production facility — 50% of which is owned by Glanbia with the other half jointly owned by Select Milk and DFA — is expected to be complete in the fourth quarter of 2020 at a cost of $470 million.

The new facility will process 8 million pounds of milk per day into a range of cheese (300 million pounds per year) and whey products for U.S. and international markets, employing approximately 250 staff when in full production. In addition, the partners confirm that an agreement has been reached with Proliant Dairy Ingredients to process whey permeate. Proliant will invest $85 million in an adjoining facility, creating up to 38 jobs.

• Richlands Creamery LLC, Blackstone, Virginia

Richlands Creamery’s new facility recently opened in Blackstone, Virginia. The new creamery is located at Richlands Dairy Farms, a commercial dairy and agritourism destination in Dinwiddie County, Virginia.

The $2 million project will add 17 new jobs over the next three years.

As part of the project, Richlands Creamery has committed to purchasing 100% of its agricultural inputs from Virginia farmers, says Coley Drinkwater, owner/marketing & sales, Richlands Creamery.

“So far, business is going well and we have had a promising start. We offer 24 flavors of ice cream in addition to whole milk, cream line (minimally pasteurize, non-homogenized) milk, whole chocolate milk and 2%,” Drinkwater says, noting the creamery currently is using about 7% of the milk from the farm and slowly growing its fluid milk wholesale accounts.

“We are in the process of getting a nutritional analysis done in order to wholesale ice cream and hope to have that in place by next summer,” Drinkwater adds. “In addition, our retail farm store is continually growing to include local produce, peanuts, honey and other local goods, and we expect our kitchen to start serving lunch in November.”

• Straus Family Creamery, Rohnert Park, California

As it marks its 25th anniversary this year, Straus Family Creamery recently announced that it will be moving its creamery from West Marin, California, to a new production facility in Rohnert Park, California, next year.

Straus Family Creamery plans to break ground on the project soon, with an anticipated completion date of spring 2020. The new 70,000-square-foot facility will have the capacity to almost double Straus’ current production of 16,000 gallons of milk per day. The company’s 300-cow Straus dairy farm will remain at its current location in Marin County.

Currently, Straus Family Creamery’s product line includes milk and cream in reusable glass bottles, yogurt, butter, sour cream, ice cream and a variety of wholesale and specialty dairy products that are distributed throughout the Western United States.

The company says the relocation will enable it to increase its production volume, leverage advancements in sustainable production processes and enhance employees’ quality of life with a shorter commute time.

“As we celebrate our 25th year in business, I am committed to continuing to honor the values that we instilled back in 1994,” says Albert Straus, founder/CEO and an organic dairy farmer. “I remain dedicated to the organic farming community, our climate-positive innovations and our support for independent family farming and rural communities.”

• Sweet Grass Dairy, Thomasville, Georgia

Sweet Grass Dairy recently broke ground on a new production facility in Thomasville, Georgia.

The new 12,000-square-foot space will feature a state-of-the-art production facility with customized environmental controls to maintain the correct temperature, humidity and airflow in the cheese aging rooms, a packaging area for the company’s mail order program, and an office area with meeting rooms.

The new building also will include a break room for employees to recharge during and after their shifts.

“We are so excited about the ability to increase our production capacity of our handcrafted cheeses. For the last three years, we have been looking forward to telling the story of Southern cheeses and the special grass-based milk that is able to be produced in Georgia,” says Jessica Little, co-owner, Sweet Grass Dairy.

Sweet Grass Dairy has been making handcrafted cheeses since 2000 in its existing 5,000-square-foot facility. While the Southeast represents the company’s largest market share, the cheeses are distributed nationally and have found success in both foodservice and retailers across the nation, Little says.

With six core cheeses in its line up, Sweet Grass Dairy is hoping this new facility will provide an opportunity to improve cheese consistency and quality, Little says.

“Continuous improvement is something we focus on every day as a team,” adds fellow co-owner Jeremy Little. “This new facility provides an incredible opportunity for us to improve all of our products, and most importantly ... work on developing new ones.”

• University of Idaho-Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (CAFE), Moscow, Idaho

The University of Idaho is planning the largest research dairy in the United States, set to break ground in 2021.

The Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (CAFE) will be a demonstration farm and agro-tourism center to accompany the 2,000-cow dairy on the university campus.

“We wanted to locate it in the major milk-producing area of the state,” says Jim Miller, director of development, University of Idaho, noting about 75% of the state’s dairy cows are located in South Central Idaho, as well as many processors.

University of Idaho and Idaho Dairymen’s Association (IDA) are jointly purchasing 540 acres in Minidoka County near Rupert, Idaho, from members of the Whitesides family, who will in turn donate another parcel of land. The university will pay $2.5 million and IDA will pay $2 million toward the purchase.

IDA members first began working with University of Idaho on this project 15 years ago and dedicated funding to the project a decade ago, Miller notes. Since then, Idaho’s dairy industry has grown dramatically to rank third nationally in milk production.

The project consists of three parts:

• The core of CAFE is a 2,000-cow commercial scale dairy to be located in Rupert, Idaho. The site also consists of 1,200 additional acres for complementary agronomic research, feed production and nutrient management, Miller says.

• An Outreach and Education Center (OEC) is planned for Jerome, Idaho. Miller says the location provides the potential for the center to become a destination location for tourists and the general public while reinforcing the University of Idaho’s land grant mission.

• Finally, a food processing pilot plant is planned for Twin Falls, Idaho on the College of Southern Idaho campus. The plant will enhance the college’s existing workforce development and educational programs and serve as the location for food processing and safety research, Miller notes.

The project currently is in design and fundraising phases, with an anticipated completion date of 2023 for the OEC, and 2024 for the first cows milked at the dairy.

• University of Wisconsin-Madison Babcock Hall Dairy Plant and Center for Dairy Research, Madison, Wisconsin

Following the approval of final project plans last year by the Wisconsin Building Commission and University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, a major construction project is underway at UW-Madison’s Babcock Hall. The project involves the renovation of the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant on its existing footprint, as well as a new, three-story addition for the Center for Dairy Research (CDR).

The new loading dock and milk receiving bay are nearing completion. The foundation for the new CDR addition is more than half complete and will be finished after the building’s ice builder is replaced.

The Babcock Hall Dairy Plant was closed Sept. 23 and will remain closed for the duration of construction. During this time, Babcock ice cream will be produced by a local dairy dessert manufacturer.

Funding for this project comes from donors, the state of Wisconsin and UW–Madison. Donors, primarily from Wisconsin’s cheese industry, raised more than $18 million to support the project.

Rebecca Blank, UW-Madison chancellor, says the facility will be one of the premier dairy education and research centers in the nation.

However, the project hit a roadblock earlier this year when vendor quotes for equipment and process piping came in more than $10 million over the original estimate.

At that point, at the suggestion of dairy industry partners, the university sought and hired a third party to review the project to determine if it can proceed as currently designed and sequenced.

The review was conducted by Hill International, a company that specializes in risk management. The company’s final report was recently received and is being reviewed. The results of this technical review will help inform project leaders’ decisions about timeline, phasing, scope and budget.

Despite the challenges, all parties have stated their full support for the project and a shared goal of delivering a project that will make the dairy industry proud. A project update meeting with relevant stakeholders including industry recently was held. Participants toured the site and heard an update from campus and state officials.

Meanwhile, earlier this year it was announced that up to 3,000 square feet within the CDR addition will be allocated for a new Beverage Innovation Center thanks to a $750,000 grant that the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. awarded to CDR for beverage equipment and services. Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin is also providing a $250,000 grant to support the project.

• University of Wisconsin-River Falls, River Falls, Wisconsin

The University of Wisconsin-River Falls Dairy Pilot Plant recently marked a milestone in its ongoing renovation project with the completion of a new, high-tech training room, used for the first time Aug. 22.

The total $4 million renovation project is set for completion in late spring 2020. The plant is expected to double in size to 6,000 square feet.

“The dairy processing industry relies on a skilled workforce, and we’re excited to bring enhanced learning opportunities to our members and their employees at UW-River Falls,” says John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA), which has contributed $200,000 to the project.

UW-River Falls offers a Food Science and Technology major, as well as continuing education courses focused on pasteurization, cheesemaking and food safety, Umhoefer notes.

“High-quality, hands-on training is essential to the U.S. dairy industry’s competitive edge in a global marketplace,” he says. “We applaud the leadership team at UW-River Falls for its commitment to the dairy pilot plant renovation project, and WCMA is pleased to partner in continued fundraising efforts.”

• WNY Cheese Enterprise LLC, Pavilion, New York — Dairy Farmers of America, Arla Foods, Craigs Station Creamery

The WNY Cheese Enterprise LLC plant project has been completed and encompasses 29,000 square feet, including an 8,000-square-foot wastewater reclamation facility. The plant is at planned staffing levels, officials say.

The joint partnership is 70% owned by Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), 20% by Arla Foods and 10% by DFA’s eight farmer-owners of Craigs Station Creamery.

The WNY cheese facility produces premium New York Cheddar as well as the Craigs Creamery cheese brand, which launched earlier this year.

Craigs Creamery offers a variety of options, including Swiss, Mild/Medium/Sharp Cheddar and Muenster cheese, which are available in slices, shreds, chunks and snack bars.

The plant has the capacity to produce about 15.5 million pounds of cheese annually.

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