July 12, 2021 at 12:47 p.m.

First District goes live with new processing plants

Expansion to accommodate 7.5 million pounds of milk per day
Jared Terning, First District Association cheese plant manager, describes the automated barrel fill line June 30 at the plant in Litchfield, Minnesota. The plant is a part of the cooperative’s expansion to accommodate 7.5 million pounds of milk per day. PHOTO BY JENNIFER COYNE
Jared Terning, First District Association cheese plant manager, describes the automated barrel fill line June 30 at the plant in Litchfield, Minnesota. The plant is a part of the cooperative’s expansion to accommodate 7.5 million pounds of milk per day. PHOTO BY JENNIFER COYNE

By Jennifer Coyne- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

    LITCHFIELD, Minn. – A long-awaited expansion is complete for First District Association.
    At the end of June, the cooperative went live with its last of three new plants at the Litchfield location allowing it to receive 7.5 million pounds of raw milk each day and process 40-pound blocks of cheese in addition to its established 500-pound barrels.

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    “We haven’t looked back since it came on board; it’s been good,” said Bob Huffman, CEO of First District Association. “Seeing the board and our members put together this vision and strategy for growth is really exciting, especially as we’re in our 100-year anniversary.”
    The project entailed three plants, including an eight-bay receiving and intake area, a lactose drying facility and a state-of-the-art cheese plant.
    The fully-automated plants allow milk to be processed in its entirety – from the cooperative’s traditional cheese-making and whey and lactose powder line.
    “This plant has a way to take the milk and make cheese, and also has found ways to get the full value out of all the protein,” Huffman said. “Here, 100% of every drop of milk has a place to go. We reuse all of the water that is taken off the milk to be used to wash equipment and for our boiler steam.”
    While there are several benefits to expanding processing capacity and capabilities, there are three pivotal points that position the cooperative in the global dairy marketplace, today and into the future.
    Previously, the plant processed 5.5 million pounds of raw milk daily. By increasing capacity by another 2 million pounds, the cooperative and its members are able to increase volume in  the global market by incorporating the production of 40-pound blocks.
    “We can move milk to use however we need it,” Huffman said.
    The flexibility of producing different products should create a more stable market for farmer members.
    “The Class III markets and pricing between blocks and barrels has always been at a disadvantage to First District and any cooperative that produces cheese barrels,” Huffman said. “Having this diversity to manage our position will bring as much value back to members in their milk, and that’s key. Diversity is a big gain for us.”
    Yet, exploring another avenue of the international marketplace came with its own challenges. Prior to executing the expansion, the cooperative worked tirelessly to ensure its new production line would meet international standards of food production.
      With all that in mind, the building is constructed to meet the highest level of food safety standards, technology and sustainability, Huffman said.
    “The infrastructure … it’s a state-of-the-art facility,” he said. “The technology and quality equipment we’re using is top of the line.”
    Construction began in September 2019 after final approval was given in July 2019. The receiving area came online in mid-April, the lactose drying plant in mid-May and the cheese plant at the end of June.   
     “To be frank, I was very humbled by the fact that COVID-19 did not set us back. We did not miss a beat, a milestone,” Huffman said. “We had a great team, internally and externally, and we are absolutely grateful for them and how it’s went.”
    While the facility and equipment used for milk processing are approved internationally and are some of the largest pieces of equipment in cheese manufacturing, they were built and installed by Minnesota-owned and operated businesses.
    “This is a proud moment for us,” Huffman said. “This is built mostly in Minnesota in our dairyland for us.”
    Planning such an undertaking of an expansion was a vision developed many years prior. A decade ago, the cooperative underwent another expansion that brought their processing capacity from 3.8 million pounds of raw milk per day to 5.5 million pounds and increased storage space.
    When that project was put in place, it was also developed in a way that would accommodate today’s expansion, including working with the city to create a wastewater plan and have utilities available to operate at such a large scale.
    “It’s not too often a plan over time and a vision come together like it has with this situation,” Huffman said. “All that was done in our last large expansion 10 years ago was set up for this 7.5 million pounds design. That vision was developed by the board of directors and my predecessor, Clint Fall.”
    While the plant has not yet reached its operating capacity, the cooperative plans to do so with internal growth. Once that limit is attained, the plant will operate in comparable size to some of the nation’s largest processing facilities.
    The ability to operate at such a large capacity will secure farmer members’ markets as the industry evolves.
    “As consolidation in the dairy manufacturing industry has happened in the United States, plants in today’s times are becoming the size we just built,” Huffman said.
    The three pieces of this expansion project – all built on the cooperative’s existing property – guarantees a sharp focus on producing top quality dairy foods for the marketplace all while supporting the community of Litchfield. While the project incorporates the industry’s latest technology and automated capabilities, the cooperative was able to create upward of 30 jobs.  
    As the vision for First District Association and its members was created a century ago, this latest milestone further establishes the cooperative in the ever-changing dairy industry.  
    “First District has been a cooperative through the century that has gone through steps of growth to secure markets 50 to 100 years from now,” Huffman said. “We owe a sincere thank you to our members, milk haulers, partners, employees and team, all who invested in this project. It’s a neat time for us.”


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