Students workers start the process of making ice cream in the Dairy Pilot Plant on campus at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Once completed, the renovated plant will give students a more real-world experience of what to expect in the workforce. 
PHOTO SUBMITTED
Students workers start the process of making ice cream in the Dairy Pilot Plant on campus at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Once completed, the renovated plant will give students a more real-world experience of what to expect in the workforce. PHOTO SUBMITTED
RIVER FALLS, Wis. – The renovation project at the Dairy Pilot Plant at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls is about 95% complete. Michelle Farner, the plant’s manager, said there are really two projects going on.
“We have the building renovation, and then the equipment installation” Farner said.
Farner has been working on this project at the university since 2012.
“It’s a pretty major undertaking,” she said.
The food science program, which had been suspended for a number of years, was reinstated after her start with the university. They are updating to offer a better experience for the students.
The renovation will make use of approximately 6,000 square feet of previously under-utilized space. There was no addition, just making existing space worthwhile. The existing facility was a single room dairy plant which was about 1,500 square feet. That set up had the raw products in the same room as the pasteurized products.
“The inspiration to renovate came from updating some of our current equipment but also doing a room separation for our raw product processing and our finished processing,” Farner said.
The goal of separating these rooms is to give the students a more accurate training experience.
“We want our facility to mimic what the students will see when they go out into the industry world,” Farner said.
The students gain hands-on experience by working in the dairy plant as employees. Sometimes companies looking to innovate will turn to the students for help.
“It doesn’t happen very often but it has happened in the past where companies are looking for ideas so they will offer some type of incentive for students to do that,” Farner said.
Farner has seen an increase in support for the renovation project from companies looking to fill employment gaps.
“Their interest is in gained attraction of potential employees,” she said.
Dairy plants have a significant need for employees.
“The shortage of candidates for dairy processing positions is great. Companies see UW-River Falls as key to fulfilling some of those needs in the industry,” Farner said.
In the ice cream and cheese making process, there are other skills that are learned by default.
“It goes beyond cheese and ice cream making. It encompasses the entire dairy industry,” Farner said.
 Programmable Logic Control (PLC) training and wastewater treatment training are both in high demand in the job field right now.
“They are pretty hot topics in the dairy industry,” Farner said. “There are a lot of challenges in place, and we would just like to do our part.”
The university has been talking with companies about what they would like to see for short courses, curricula and modifications to current training. Their ultimate goal is to see the students become more employable.
The new facility will be for students working in the food science program. The university does work with companies who want to do trials or research; however, it is managed and run by the university.
Farner indicated the project has not been without struggles.
“Anytime you do construction in the state system, it has its own challenges. The dairy side has been unique because it’s a fluid processing facility,” she said.
The project has also been hindered somewhat by COVID-19, making materials hard to come by and therefore disrupting the timeline. There have also been delays in getting equipment.
“We deal with those challenges as they come and do the best that we can,” Farner said
Farner would like to be able to talk to companies about projects they would like to do at the university instead of donations. She would like to be able to teach the students, and see the students go on to gain employment.
“It’s really important for the students to hit the ground running when they leave,” Farner said.
Taking into consideration inevitable setbacks, Farner hopes to see the plant up and running by Spring 2022.