A distinct rainbow appeared in the sky over Litchfield early Thursday evening.
Neither of the arc’s ends appeared to descend into the middle of the First District Association campus, but the rainbow still seemed an appropriate metaphor for the activity at the dairy processing plant.
If not a pot of gold, the plant – which is undergoing significant expansion – like a rainbow after a thunderstorm, offers a firm commitment to a bright future of the dairy industry in Litchfield and throughout the country.
“This is a monumental deal for First District,” CEO Bob Huffman said during a brief groundbreaking ceremony. “I can tell you it’s a big deal not only for First District, but the dairy industry and the U.S. dairy industry as a whole, especially the Uppder Midwest.”
The “monumental deal” is the start of construction on an expanded cheese plant, lactose plant and milk intake facility at the Litchfield campus. The improvements and new construction, expected to be completed by spring of 2021, will take the processing plant from an intake capacity of about 5 million pounds of milk per day to 7.5 million pounds.
“I can’t say enough of what this means for what our board and our farmer owners have done and the vision they’ve had for us,” Huffman said. “The last five years (for) our farmer owners it’s been really, really tough for markets and milk. And making decisions like this … just the challenges economically and the overall business and industry, the vision and the belief … this kind of hard decisions through economic hard times, and try and understand how this would all fit together, I really want to express thanks to our board of directors, family farmer owners, the team that put all the time into this.”
There’s been plenty of bad news in the dairy industry in recent years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported earlier this year that licensed dairy farms declined by about 2,700, or 6.8 percent, nationally from the previous year. The rate of decline in Minnesota was even greater, with 230 farms (7.1 percent) going out of business. Despite the slump in number of farms, milk production has actually increased, while the demand for milk has decreased.
It all has meant a minefield of challenges for dairy farmers – and cooperatives like First District the past few years. Still, the local cooperative has remained steadfast in its commitment to expansion.
“We are making a significant investment in our future, and this plant shows how our cooperative and our staff are leaders in the industry,” Josh Barka, a rural Litchfield dairy farmer and chairman of the FDA Board of Directors, said. “We have a long tradition of providing a sustainable market for our producers and our members. We have quality products for our growing customers, and a state of the art plant for our future in the industry. Upgrading the infrastructure and replacing aging equipment is critical to maintaining our cooperative.”
Huffman credited the foresight of previous leadership, including former CEO Clint Fall, as well as staff and previous boards of directors for keeping First District on the cutting edge of technology and equipment.
“We’re a big cooperative … but in the scope of things we’re not a giant by any means,” Huffman said. “But in the scope of things we’re pulling off … we’re basically building a brand new plant. When we’re all done, we’ll basically have gone through the facility from start to finish.”
First District started “when there was a vision by a guy in 1920 that wanted to bring some small creameries together,” Huffman said. Through the next several decades that small cooperative grew to processing 2 million pounds of milk each day, then to 5 million. And in less than two years, with completion of the latest expansion, the plant will be taking in 7.5 million pounds of milk each day and “turning that into one of the highest quality cheese and protein (products) that come out of this country and go to many other countries …
“It’s an amazing stake in the ground, and it’s an amazing statement on behalf of dairy farmers, especially Minnesota dairy farmers, First District dairy farmers, that we’re taking this step and we’re going to be here long term – decades and generations to go,” Huffman said of the work done by FDA’s board of directors. “The time and vision and risk of really stepping outside your shoes and really thinking about the cooperative … is incredible.”
Barka, during his prepared remarks, agreed, saying “our founding directors would be proud to see what working together as a cooperative has accomplished.”
When construction is completed, the First District plant will boast the largest cheese belt in the United States, “feeding the largest cheese lines installed in the U.S.,” Huffman said.
That investment was necessary, he explained, to keep the cooperative competitive. While cheesemaking is an art, FDA needed to scale up to meet the demands of “hard markets.”
While much of the talk involved the work of First District’s farmer members, board of directors and staff, Huffman also saluted CoBank, which helped with financing the expansion, and Strack Construction Co.
Finally, he paid tribute to the strong relationship between First District Association and the city of Litchfield.
“We really value and appreciate the relationship with the city and what the city has done for us and worked with us over the years and we’re going to continue to do that,” Huffman said.
Mayor Keith Johnson returned the compliment, saying that during his nine years in office he has had many conversations with FDA leadership that were part of a “very positive, thorough thought process.”
“I know the town embraces that this facility is here,” Johnson said. “I am very grateful, and I speak for the constituents of our town, that we have First District Association here and I know that with the ramping up of this wonderful addition … you’re going to be here for a long, long time. I can’t tell you how proud I am.”