2/13/2012 10:26:00 AM Bel Brands selects Brookings for new cheese plant Plant will need milk from 15,000 cows
By Jerry Nelson
BROOKINGS, S.D. - Bel Brands USA will begin construction this summer on a new cheese processing plant that will be located on a 48-acre site in the northeastern corner of Brookings. News regarding this development was kept under tight wraps until an announcement event was held Jan. 31 at the Swiftel Center. The event was attended by South Dakota governor, Dennis Daugaard; Bel Brands USA president and CEO, Lance Chambers; along with state and local officials. "Brookings is excited that Bel Brands has selected our community to construct a state-of-the-art production facility", said Brookings mayor, Tim Reed. "Bel Brands is an innovative international company and an excellent fit within our Brookings area economic growth strategy. This project will complement our efforts to build upon regional advantages, such as the SDSU Dairy Science program, while adding value and creating new economic opportunities for regional agricultural producers." Governor Daugaard echoed this sentiment. "This is a tremendous development for the city, the state, and our state's dairy industry," he said. Bel Brands' new manufacturing facility will encompass some 170,000 square feet and will come with a price tag of approximately $100 million. The new plant, which is slated to commence operations in 2014, will produce The Laughing Cow cheese wedges, Mini Babybels and a variety of cheese spreads. According to Bel Brands, Mini Babybel is America's No. 1 branded snacking cheese. Other brands produced by Bel Brands include Boursin, Merkts, Kaukauna and other natural and gourmet cheese spreads. Bel Brands USA, a subsidiary of Paris-based Fromageries Bel, currently operates two other plants in the U.S., located in Leitchfield, Ky., and Little Chute, Wis. The new plant at Brookings will be constructed in two phases. The first phase will produce about 22 million pounds of cheese annually and will consume about 600,000 pounds of milk per day. The second phase, which will essentially double the plant's capacity, is envisioned to be built in 2016-2017, depending on market conditions. The new Bel Brands plant will eventually employ 400 and will have an annual payroll of $12 million. It has been calculated that the plant will have a $500 million induced and indirect economic impact on the region. Once it attains full capacity, the new Bel Brands cheese factory will consume the milk production of 15,000 dairy cows. "We need to expand our capacity to meet our needs around the United States," Chambers said. "Sales of our Mini Babybel has grown by 25 percent per year each of the past two years. We are currently importing more than 50 percent of our Mini Babybel business in order to meet our needs." Bel Brands USA has more than doubled in size over the past four years. Sales of their Mini Babybel currently totals 17 million pounds in the United States. Bel Brands' goal is to attain a sales volume of 22 million pounds by next year. Convincing Bel Brands to locate their new cheese plant in Brookings was a long and difficult process. "This is the first economic opportunity I got involved with as governor," Governor Daugaard said. "I was contacted by Bel Brands' site selection company shortly after I took office in November 2010. It was then that we learned they were interested in the possibility of locating a new plant in southeastern South Dakota." The site selection company hired by Bel Brands looked at a total of 29 sites in eight states. This field was eventually whittled down to four sites located in Iowa, Idaho, Michigan and South Dakota. After Brookings was notified that it was among the four finalists, Governor Daugaard, accompanied by state and local officials, traveled to Bel Brands USA's headquarters in Chicago. "We made the case to them that Brookings was the best place to locate," Governor Daugaard said. South Dakota State University and its new dairy research and training facility were a big part of that case. Bel Brands executives came to Brookings in May of 2011 and were given a tour of SDSU's new dairy plant, which was still under construction at that time. "We were very impressed with everything Brookings has to offer, including a good supply of cow's milk," Chambers said. "We look forward to partnering with SDSU as we move forward." Brookings County is the state's top dairy county, with more than 30,000 dairy cows. Being a good neighbor is a top priority at Bel Brands. Indeed, for the past three years, Bel Brands has been selected as one of the 101 best companies in Chicago. "Corporate and social responsibility is near and dear to our hearts," Chambers said. "As such, we have earmarked $20,000 for the city of Brookings and will work with the mayor and the city council to put it to the best use. Bel Brands is excited to be part of this community." South Dakota's dairy herd currently numbers 91,000 head. Adding new processing capacity that will require the milk from 15,000 head will have a substantial impact on the state's dairy industry. "We hope to fulfill the needs of our new plant by enticing dairy farmers to move here from other areas and by encouraging expansion among the state's dairy farmers," Chambers said. "The state will continue its efforts to bring in new dairy farmers and encourage existing dairy operators to expand," Governor Daugaard said. "Our state's dairy farmers currently have 18,000 cows in permitted capacity that isn't being utilized," said South Dakota Ag Secretary, Walt Bones. "This announcement by Bel Brands sends a strong signal to dairy farmers and lenders that the state's dairy industry is here to stay." "I am thrilled to welcome Bel Brands to South Dakota," said Governor Daugaard, who grew up on a small dairy farm near Dell Rapids. "The dairy industry has always been very important for our state. "The impact of this plant goes beyond the 400 jobs and the $500 million in economic impact, beyond the impact on our state's dairy producers. It tells the world that South Dakota is open for business, and that's no bull."