Tim Czmowski, Agropur, General manager (photo by Jerry Nelson)

Tim Czmowski, Agropur, General manager (photo by Jerry Nelson)

HULL, Iowa – A northwestern Iowa cheese plant has reached its capacity and has made plans to double its output. These plans include launching an effort to recruit dairy farmers to relocate to the region from other states and even overseas. 

“We hit our 2.5 million pounds of milk per day processing capacity in mid-May, when we went to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week operation,” said Tim Czmowski, General Manager of the Agropur cheese plant located in Hull, Iowa. 

Agropur’s Hull facility currently has 115 people on its payroll.

The Agropur plant in Hull began its life as Green Meadows Dairy. Green Meadows Dairy was built by Rock Valley, Iowa dairy farmer Shep Ysselstein and his wife, Natalie. The plant started producing cheese late in 2008. A year later the Ysselsteins sold the facility to Trega Foods, a subsidiary of Agropur.

Founded in 1938 and based in Longueuil, Quebec, Agropur is Canada’s largest dairy cooperative. Agropur currently operates 28 dairy processing plants throughout Canada, the United States and Argentina. The cooperative has over 3,400 dairy farmer members and more than 5,500 employees.

“Shep and Natalie were very accurate in foreseeing a need for increased processing capacity in the southern portion of the I-29 Corridor,” said Czmowski. “This area has historically shown strong growth in dairy production and the number of dairy farms. The creation of this facility couldn’t have happened without Shep and Natalie and the teamwork of our employees, customers and vendors.”

After a successful plant completion and startup, the Ysselsteins began to search for a partner to help them further expand their cheese manufacturing enterprise. 

“Agropur was interested, but in the end a complete acquisition was seen as the best option,” said Czmowski. “Purchasing the plant from Shep and Natalie fit nicely into Agropur’s goal of becoming the overall leader in the North American dairy industry.”

With the Agropur plant now operating at full capacity, plans have been put in motion to begin construction of Plant 2. It is hoped that this addition, which will be housed within the current facility, will be up and running by 2014. 

“This facility was designed to handle up to five million pounds of milk per day,” said Czmowski. “The majority of our whey equipment has the capacity to operate at that level. There aren’t many cheese making facilities in the United States that handle those kind of volumes.”

The Agropur plant in Hull manufactures 16 different varieties of cheese that are marketed to all 50 states. Agropur has also developed a robust whey business, selling whey protein concentrate and deproteinized whey to buyers located in Asia and all across the United States.

Land O’Lakes has a contract to furnish up to 50 percent of the milk needed for the Agropur plant in Hull. 

“We began buying direct from producers last October, which was very exciting,” said Czmowski. “We’re currently buying milk from producers in Minnesota, South Dakota, and Iowa.”

The doubling of the processing capacity at the Agropur facility will obviously require a lot of additional milk. Czmowski estimates that the milk from 40,000 to 50,000 additional cows will be needed to reach this objective.

To help them attain this goal, Agropur has contracted with Roger Martens to work as their Dairy Development Manager.

Martens is currently employed as a dairy nutritionist for Land O’Lakes Purina Feeds. His additional role with Agropur will be to recruit dairy operators who might want to move to the region.

“I was in California during the first part of May and saw a lot of interest from producers who might want to either move to this area or build a satellite dairy here,” said Martens. 

Martens has been working with agricultural officials from the states of Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota and Nebraska. His focus is to entice dairy operators to build a new dairy in any of those four states, as long as it’s within 100 miles of Hull.

Martens feels that he has already scored his first success.

“It looks like at least one new dairy operation will be moving to this area and breaking ground yet sometime this year,” he said.

Martens is by no means limiting his recruitment activities to the United States; he also hopes to recruit dairy operators from Europe. Indeed, his near-term plans include traveling to Ireland and England to extol the benefits of dairying in the Midwest to dairy farmers in those countries.

“This region is one of the best places in the world to operate a dairy,” said Martens. “We have plentiful feed supplies, abundant water, good markets, a solid infrastructure and lots of wide-open spaces.” 

Asked if Agropur’s ambition of 40,000 to 50,000 more cows in the southern I-29 Corridor is attainable, Martens said, “If Agropur can come up with a good milk pricing program, certainly it’s possible to reach that goal over the next two to three years.”

“We have taken the additional step of holding meetings between Agropur and some of our major dairy lenders,” said Martens. “The success of these large new dairy operations greatly depends on their lenders. The more lenders understand what’s going on in the dairy business, the better.”

“We’ve been working with building contractors and financial institutions to help dairy operators obtain financing and develop successful business models,” said Czmowski. “But we aren’t just looking for new operators to move to this area; we also hope that some of our current dairy farmers will expand to help fulfill our future milk needs.” 

Czmowski feels that Agropur’s planned expansion will strengthen the region’s dairy industry and its overall economy.

“People in this area understand the benefits of animal agriculture,” he said. “Increasing the number of dairy cows in the southern I-29 Corridor will not only yield big returns for the ag sector, but will also benefit large numbers of people throughout the region.”