First District Association might be 100 years old, but there’s no time to rest as the dairy cooperative looks forward to its next century of business.
There was, however, time to celebrate.
Hundreds of employees, dairy farmer members, business partners and community members gathered to mark First District Association’s 100th anniversary Saturday on its Litchfield campus, where they received tours of the recently expanded processing facility, enjoyed lunch and participated in other activities.
And, well, marveled at the transformation of the facility that has grown by leaps and bounds during the past several decades to become a factor on the national and international stage.
“This is a very special moment,” Chief Executive Officer and President Bob Huffman said during a brief program, held in the shadow of FDA’s Plant 1. “We truly are looking forward to make sure the 200-year anniversary is even larger and more special. And we’ll do everything in our power to make sure we continue to follow what our previous (leadership) has helped build here.”
First District Association was founded in 1920 when 11 creameries came together to improve efficiencies and profits for dairy farmers. The move, which came following federal cooperative legislation, was led by John Brandt, a Litchfield area dairy farmer himself, who sought ways to have creameries work together to improve the quality of dairy products like butter.
Thus Minnesota Cooperative Creamery Association — the forerunner of Land O’Lakes — was born, with Meeker County’s band of creameries being the “First District” of the association.
The first buttermilk drying plant was constructed in 1926, with another coming online in 1942. These were the earliest stages of a timeline of progress at the Litchfield facility, with the most recent being a three-phase expansion project that brought the processing capacity from 5.5 million pounds of milk to 7.5 million pounds per day. Included in that massive expansion were addition of an eight-bay milk receiving area, expansion of the lactose plant a construction of a new cheese plant.
State Rep. Dean Urdahl, one of several guest speakers that also included Congresswoman Michelle Fischbach, celebrated the cooperative’s early history.
“We gather today to commemorate 100 years of First District,” Urdahl said, adding that his grandfather, Charles Ness, was among the farmers who participated in the cooperative’s organization. “Its impact on dairy, dairy farmers in the state of Minnesota (and) Litchfield has been immense. I am proud that my family is a part of this. I know that many of you have generational connections through your families.”
Urdahl also read a proclamation from the House of Representatives recognizing First District Association’s “values of integrity, people, excellence and responsibility to both the environment and consumers” and back to its earliest years in 1984 “First District has endured and adapted to over 100 years of changes to the dairy industry.”
Fischbach also offered congratulations and best wishes for the future.
“There’s a lot of challenges every day that we see, you know, with the past year and a half and the food supply, and with the drought and the weather we’ve had this year, and so it’s so great to get out and celebrate a positive thing that’s happening in agriculture,” she said. “I also just want to say as a member of many co-ops, too, that it’s so important that a co-op that has survived and thrived for 100 years and is investing again and moving forward. “
First District Association has grown tremendously, not just in terms of its physical plant, but in its reach throughout the Minnesota dairy industry. As Mayor Keith Johnson noted during his remarks, First District Association brings in milk from 48 of the state’s 87 counties.
“The state of Minnesota, our surrounding states, our nation and our world, I mean First District is bringing their products all over the world,” Johnson said. “And they’re putting little Litchfield on their map.”
And “little Litchfield” has played a role in the success, as well, Huffman acknowledged, with city leaders working with the cooperative — and at times with the state Legislature on funding — to expand wastewater and electric capacities that created enough of those services to handle the cooperative’s continued expansion. In addition, the city collaborated with First District on zoning changes as the cooperative purchased surround residential properties, changing its neighborhood on the south side of town, to make room for expansion.
“I just want to tell everybody that it’s been a pleasure for me to be a part of this operation,” Johnson said of his 11 years as mayor. “I wholeheartedly, 100 percent believe in what they’re doing. And I just want to tell them that I hope that the next 100 years, while I’m laying out in Ripley cemetery, will be a wonderful time for everybody.”
Looking to the future would not be possible, though, without recognizing the foundation laid by those in the past, said Josh Barka, a rural Litchfield dairy farmer and chairman of the FDA board of directors.
“You know, it’s kind of fun to imagine what 100 years ago would have been like, and we owe a lot to that group of farmers with the courage and the vision and the leadership to move things forward,” Barka, said. “Just like them, it is up to us to plan and determine our future of where we want to be.”