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U.S. expansion brings increased cheese production, innovation

Editor’s note: Plants in Progress is a special segment spotlighting new facilities and expansion 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 and expansions across the country — from initial groundbreaking to full operation, and everything in between.

By Alyssa Mitchell

MADISON, Wis. — Despite the challenges facing the dairy industry throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, cheese and dairy companies continue to invest in expansions, upgrades and new plants across the United States.
U.S. milk production continues to expand, and with it, production of dairy products including cheese, yogurt, ice cream, ingredients and milk innovations to satisfy consumers’ growing appetites for protein.
From a new Fairlife milk plant in Arizona to a cheese and whey operation in Michigan to an ice cream plant and retail store in Virginia, dairy investments are taking root from coast to coast. In the following pages, you’ll read about investments in dairy processing and packaging from California to Texas to Wisconsin.
These companies are not only bringing nutritious and delicious cheese and dairy products to U.S. consumers — they also are creating jobs in their surrounding communities, investing in environmentally-friendly and sustainable operations, and expanding offerings to include more value-added products, new flavors and in some cases, plant-based alternatives. For many, these facilities are more than just a place to produce products — they are a consumer learning center and destination.
Please read on for more in this latest installment of Plants in Progress ...

• Fairlife LLC, Goodyear, Arizona

Fairlife LLC, a wholly owned business of The Coca-Cola Co., last month announced the opening of its newest production facility in Goodyear, Arizona. The new 300,000-square-foot facility features advanced manufacturing technologies and equipment to enable continued growth more efficiently while supporting the increased demand for Fairlife products, company officials say.

“The new state-of-the-art facility allows us to significantly increase our production capabilities in the West region and beyond while also bringing hundreds of jobs to Arizonians,” says Neil Betteridge, senior vice president of global manufacturing, Fairlife LLC.

In addition to the more than 100 roles already filled at the Goodyear facility, Fairlife also has partnered with United Dairymen of Arizona (UDA) to source milk from numerous dairy farmers in the West Valley.

The new plant will use this milk to manufacture nearly all products in the Fairlife portfolio including the different varieties of Fairlife ultrafiltered milk, Core Power, Fairlife YUP! and its newest protein-rich beverage, Fairlife Nutrition Plan.

“With shared values of animal care and great nutrition, our partnership with the UDA has been a seamless and enjoyable part of opening this new plant in beautiful Arizona,” Betteridge says. “We look forward to ramping up production in the coming weeks to bring Fairlife products to more consumers.”

 

Photo by Bob Huffman/First District Association
INCREASED CAPACITY — First District’s new drive-thru milk receiving intake and milk laboratory is coming online this week. The addition is part of a three-part project at the company’s Litchfield, Minnesota, plant, including expansions for cheese, lactose drying and milk receiving.

• First District Association, Litchfield, Minnesota

First District Association is commissioning three new plant expansions for cheese, lactose drying and milk receiving in Litchfield, Minnesota. President and CEO Bob Huffman says the cooperative is on schedule to have all three expansions up and running by early summer.

“We’re in the process of commissioning the plants. Our new drive-thru milk receiving intake and milk laboratory is commissioning this week,” Huffman says.

“In mid-May, our lactose dryer plant will commission, and our large cheese plant will commission in June.”

He notes the project will result in the company’s Litchfield location becoming one of the largest greenfield dairy processing plants in the Upper Midwest.

The expansion will allow First District to process 7.5 million pounds of milk per day in Litchfield. The cooperative now will be able to produce 40-pound cheese blocks in addition to 500-pound barrel cheese, Huffman notes.

“The cooperative turned 100 years old in April. We have between 750-800 cooperative members. Their investment into this new facility will help set us up for the next 100 years,” Huffman says. “We also want to thank our partners including RELCO, Tetra Pak, Advanced Process Technologies and Streck for their assistance in building the facility.”

• Great Lakes Cheese, Abilene, Texas

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently announced that Great Lakes Cheese will establish a new packaging and distribution facility in Abilene, Texas. The project will create more than 500 new jobs and represents almost $185 million in capital investment. A Texas Enterprise Fund (TEF) grant of $3,000,000 has been extended to Great Lakes Cheese.

“We are proud to welcome Great Lakes Cheese to the state of Texas, and we are excited for the impact that this company will have on Abilene’s economic success,” Abbott says. “Great Lakes Cheese joins the ranks of thousands of companies that have chosen to invest in the Lone Star State. Our model of low taxes, reasonable regulations and incredible workforce continue to attract investments that keep Texas the best state for business.”

Great Lakes Cheese CEO Dan Zagzebski notes Great Lakes Cheese is a family business built on the values of hard work, honesty and integrity.

“These values continue to support our long-term growth in the dairy industry and help us identify the employee-owners, customers, suppliers and communities that align with our culture,” Zagzebski says.

“We feel fortunate to have found that fit with Abilene and are proud to welcome Texans into our Great Lakes Cheese family.”

Abilene Mayor Anthony Williams says this is the biggest opportunity recruited to the city of Abilene in the last 30 years and a perfect example of what strategic economic development should be.

“This successful partnership with Great Lakes Cheese will benefit Abilene and the state of Texas by generating opportunities for decades to come,” Williams says.

Photo courtesy of Holmen Cheese
A HOME FOR HOLMEN CHEESE— Production began in October at the new $30 million, 100,000-square-foot Holmen Cheese plant in Holmen, Wisconsin. The plant is producing dairy and plant-based cheese alternatives, cheese blends and processed cheeses for industrial, foodservice and retail markets.

• Holmen Cheese, Holmen, Wisconsin

Production began in October at the new $30 million, 100,000-square-foot Holmen Cheese plant in Holmen, Wisconsin.

“We have spent the last six months ramping up production and building our teams,” says CEO Jeff Fowler. “We currently have about 70 employees, and we are running five production lines on multiple shifts, including an industrial block line, an industrial loaf line, an IWS (individually wrapped slice) line, a shredding operation and a plant-based exclusive line. We have also just started up our drying line this last week.”

The plant is producing dairy and plant-based cheese alternatives, cheese blends and processed cheeses for industrial, foodservice and retail markets.

Fowler says the company regularly continues to add new customers and already is in the planning stages to further expand its capabilities.

• LaClare Family Creamery, Pipe, Wisconsin

LaClare Family Creamery is launching a seasonal Greenhouse & Garden Center as part of expanded family-friendly attractions the farm is debuting this spring.

Photo courtesy of Nola Krueger
GREENHOUSE & GARDEN CENTER— The seasonal Greenhouse & Garden Center at LaClare Family Creamery will feature more than 100 varieties of plants. “No one knows plants better than farmers,” says Marji Lechner, LaClare’s supply chain manager. “So this was just a natural extension of what we already do.”

Visitors will see the changes immediately when they arrive as LaClare’s trademark goats greet them from atop a relocated century-old wood silo overlooking the world-famous cheesemaking facility.

“We’ve created a destination that appeals to everyone in the family — mom, dad and the kids,” says Jessi Schoofs, retail manager, LaClare Family Creamery. “Whether sampling our cheese, shopping for the home garden or getting an up-close look at our animals, we wanted to create a quality on-the-farm experience that will leave everyone talking.”

The new Greenhouse & Garden Center will feature an expansive selection of annuals with a variety of petunias, begonias, bedding plants, tomatoes, herbs, succulents and more. In addition, the center will offer common perennials, such as black eyed Susans and hostas.

“At the core of LaClare is a heritage of farming … and no one knows plants better than farmers,” says Marji Lechner, LaClare’s supply chain manager. “We felt this was a very natural extension of what we do.”

In addition to the goat tower — built from the timber of a 110-year-old Watertown, Wisconsin, silo — visitors also may get an up-close look at other common farm animals in a new viewing barn.

With expanded outdoor and indoor dining and buying options, guests will have more opportunities to sample LaClare’s award-winning goat and cow’s milk cheeses.

“We’ve always believed in ‘try before you buy,’” Schoofs says. “We call it ‘The Cheese Experience.’”

The new features come in the wake of a major 2019 expansion, which doubled LaClare’s cheesemaking space as well as launched a one-of-a-kind visitors center that allows guests to take a self-guided tour, learn about LaClare’s (and Wisconsin’s) agricultural heritage and watch world-class cheesemakers in action from special viewing windows.

Photo courtesy of Glanbia Nutritionals
CHEESE, PLEASE — MWC, St. Johns, Michigan, a large-scale cheese and whey production facility and a joint venture of Glanbia Nutritionals, Dairy Farmers of America and Select Milk Producers, is in the commissioning phase and is expected to be fully operational by this summer. At full capacity, the plant is designed to process 8 million pounds of milk per day into cheese and value-added whey protein powders.

• MWC, St. Johns, Michigan

MWC, a $470 million state-of-the-art cheese and whey plant in St. Johns, Michigan, began receiving milk in October from local farmers to begin the commissioning phase of the project.

Commissioning operations at MWC are underway, with the initial 1 million pounds of milk per day set to increase to the designed capacity of 8 million pounds per day.

When fully operational, the 375,000-square-foot facility built on a 120 acre lot will employ 260 local people and process more than 2.9 billion pounds of milk from local farmers into more than 300 million pounds of superior quality block cheese and 20 million pounds of value-added whey protein powders each year.

A joint venture between Glanbia Nutritionals, Dairy Farmers of America and Select Milk Producers Inc., MWC is one of the most technically advanced dairy processing facilities in the United States, designed and built over a two-year period to meet exacting food manufacturing standards.

“We expect the facility to be fully commissioned by this summer,” says Eric Borchardt, director, corporate marketing, Glanbia Nutritionals.

Photo by Alise Sjostrom/Redhead Creamery
ADAPTING AND UPDATING — Redhead Creamery, Brooten, Minnesota, is utilizing a $20,000 grant from the Dairy Business Innovation Alliance as part of a larger set of projects to make several physical improvements to its facilities, increase social media advertising and enhance workflow for staff. Upgrades include a new storage shed, an outside cooler for handling outgoing cheeses and receiving incoming cheeses, and a new aging room.

• Redhead Creamery LLC, Brooten, Minnesota

After receiving a $20,000 grant from the Dairy Business Innovation Alliance (DBIA), Redhead Creamery, Brooten, Minnesota, is working to update its facilities as it continues to adapt to shifting market dynamics during COVID-19.

“With the onset of COVID-19, Redhead Creamery quickly adapted and created a new delivery system with a refrigerated van that delivered products from Redhead Creamery as well as nine other cheesemakers throughout Minnesota and neighboring North and South Dakota. To make the routes most efficient, Redhead also picked up other Minnesota cheeses along the route,” says Lucas Sjostrom, co-owner, Redhead Creamery. “This pivot and quick expansion in Minnesota cheese sales from our own and other creameries required staff dealing with logistical hurdles and tight work spaces as Redhead Creamery met demand with the new delivery service and heavy 2021 summer farmers market usage.”

To adapt, Redhead Creamery used DBIA grant funds as part of a larger set of projects to make several physical improvements, increase social media advertising and enhance workflow for staff. The physical improvements include a new storage shed, an outside cooler for handling outgoing cheeses and receiving incoming cheeses, a retaining wall and a new aging room through modification of an existing room dedicated to the creamery’s 2021 Good Food Award winner North Fork Whiskey Washed Munster, Sjostrom notes.

“The added social media presence spanned the fall and holiday season following these physical improvements,” he says.

The North Fork Whiskey Washed Munster aging room was completed last summer, followed by the retaining wall, parking pad, exterior cooler and new storage shed in the fall.

Looking ahead, the creamery is evaluating fluid milk sales through delivery, energy savings through a chiller installation, continued improvements to processes, and growing its regional presence as well as that of other Minnesota cheesemakers, Sjostrom says.

Photo courtesy of Rumiano Cheese Co.
MEETING DEMAND — Rumiano Cheese Co. is constructing a new 46,766-square-foot cheese processing and packaging plant in Willows, California. The new state-of-the-art facility, which should be completed by this summer, will enable the company to expand its current headquarters’ operations in Willows and double its current packaging volume by the end of 2025 as retail demand continues to accelerate.

• Rumiano Cheese Co., Willows, California

Rumiano Cheese Co. late last year began construction on a new 46,766-square-foot cheese processing and packaging plant in Willows, California.

Rumiano Cheese says this new state-of-the-art facility will enable the company to expand its current headquarters’ operations in Willows, California, and double its current packaging volume by the end of 2025 as retail demand continues to accelerate. The company says it will be able to increase its processing and distribution capacity, and it will introduce additional product lines and capabilities for new retail package types including shreds and snacks. The expansion also bolsters Rumiano’s ability to scale its cutting and packaging business for other West Coast cheesemakers and its “Board at Home” program, which supports California’s artisanal community.

Located at 101 Harvest Drive, a short distance from the existing plant at 1629 County Road E, the new site will occupy 4 acres of a new 38-acre commercial industrial park being developed by the City of Willows. The facility is expected to be operational by this summer.

“The city’s assistance with this industrial development site made it possible for us to remain here in Willows where we’ve been successfully operating for 101 years,” says John Rumiano, vice president and third-generation co-owner, Rumiano Cheese Co. “We are eager to deepen our long-standing contribution to this wonderful community, and we remain committed to our dedicated employees, many of whom have been with us for 30-40 years.”

Construction of the new facility is supported by a $1.8 million economic development grant from the City of Willows along with private funding. Rumiano will retain all 150 current employees and is actively recruiting additional employees to support the new growth plans. Rumiano currently employs more than 200 people between its production plant in Crescent City, California, where its cheese is made, and its facility in Willows, where all products are processed and packaged for distribution.

The company says it will move most of its packaging operations to the new facility, and the existing Willows plant will be renovated for cheese aging and storage as well as a range of small-batch value-added processing. A new research and development space will be created for ongoing innovation in new products and packaging.

• Smiley’s Ice Cream, Rockingham County, Virginia

Smiley’s Ice Cream, a producer of premium, homemade-style ice cream based in Mt. Crawford, Virginia, is building a new ice cream manufacturing facility and retail store in Rockingham County, Virginia. The company has invested more than $1.15 million in the project and will create eight new jobs, according to Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. As part of this expansion, the company will source an additional 18,000 gallons of Virginia-produced dairy and an additional 2,500 pounds of Virginia-grown fruits over the next three years.

Established in 2001, Smiley’s Ice Cream uses local ingredients, including milk and cream sourced exclusively from neighboring Mt. Crawford Creamery, to churn up more than 80 specialty flavors that are offered 16 flavors at a time. The company sources fruits from Shenandoah Valley farmers and makes many of their mixed-in ingredients in-house, including fresh-baked brownies, hand roasted pecans and homemade caramel.

Founder Derek Smiley has grown his operation from serving at the Harrisonburg Farmers Market using old-fashioned, wooden ice cream buckets into a successful specialty ice cream and catering business serving the region. Building on this success, Smiley’s opened its first brick-and-mortar facility next to Mt. Crawford Creamery in 2017.

Located less than a quarter mile west in the Town of Bridgewater, the new facility will allow Smiley’s to more than double production, increase storage and offer patrons additional parking and expanded seating areas, both indoors and out.

Photo courtesy of Taste and See Creamery
VAT PASTEURIZER — Taste and See Creamery used a $20,000 grant it received from the Dairy Business Innovation Alliance to put a down payment on this vat pasteurizer, which will be utilized in the company’s new creamery being built on its grass-fed dairy farm in Boyceville, Wisconsin.

• Taste and See Creamery, Boyceville, Wisconsin

Taste and See Creamery recently received a $20,000 DBIA grant that the creamery is using to purchase a vat pasteurizer for the new creamery being built on its grass-fed dairy farm in Boyceville, Wisconsin.

The company broke ground on the project last fall and is in the final stages of completion, says Casey Sutliff, cheesemaker and owner, Taste and See Creamery. She plans to make Cheddar, Colby, Pepper Jack and Gouda. She also will have a store on the small farm she owns with her husband, Kyle Sutliff, and plans to sell cheese to area retailers as well as at farmers markets in nearby Menomonie and Baldwin, Wisconsin.

“The vat is installed and we are just finishing up some odds and ends and waiting for the final pieces of equipment that are supposed to arrive later this week,” Sutliff says. “We hope to have the facility licensed and producing cheese by mid-May.”

The company also plans to host tour groups upon project completion.

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

Last year, the State of Wisconsin Building Commission (SBC) approved a $25.7 million increase in the project budget for the University of Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research (CDR) and the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant addition.

The project will construct a three-story addition and remodel portions of Babcock Hall to house CDR. It will demolish 2,770 square feet of space within Babcock Hall, demolish the 3,200-square-foot Science House, construct an approximately 48,569-square-foot addition to the west of the existing building and renovate about 28,905 square feet in the existing building.

The renovation and addition will provide a state-of-the-art production, teaching and research facility for both CDR and the food science department’s dairy plant.

Phase one of the project — constructing the three-story CDR addition — is nearing the “substantial completion” stage, where the space can be occupied and used for its intended function, officials say. The first floor of the addition will be ready for occupancy by the Center for Dairy Research as soon as July. Occupancy of the second floor and installation of important equipment is scheduled to be completed during the fall. At this point, the addition will be operational, but some work will continue to complete commissioning.

Contractor C.D. Smith is expected to begin phase two of the project in July. This includes renovations to the existing Babcock Hall dairy plant and the second-floor space planned for the CDR offices. While construction continues on the office space, CDR staff are working out of the old Meat Lab building a few blocks west of Babcock Hall. Babcock cheese and ice cream continue to be manufactured by third-party vendors during the plant closure. Because of COVID restrictions, the Babcock Dairy Store is open only for curbside pickup.

The complete remodel of the dairy plant, which includes the addition of a new raw room on the south end, new flooring and equipment, and remodeled office space for CDR is scheduled to be complete in June 2022.

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