SANBORN, Iowa — “It was time” was the most succinct way Bruce Brockshus could say the Associated Milk Producers Inc. Plant in Sanborn needed to be updated.
Brockshus sits on the New Ulm, Minnesota-based dairy cooperative’s board of directors and runs a 550-head dairy farm in nearby Ocheyedan in neighboring Osceola County.
“This is currently our smallest cheese plant in the AMPI network and it’s actually the largest milk procurement area,” he said.
AMPI’s Sanborn plant dates back to 1937 when it opened as the O’Brien County Cooperative Creamery.
While the facility has been updated in areas over the decades — a modern truck bay was built nine years ago — the milk processing sections of the plant trace back to 1978 when AMPI entered the picture.
Work began this year on a multimillion-dollar expansion to the Sanborn, plant which will dramatically alter production capabilities and add 13,000-square-feet to the 80-year-old cheese-making facility.
Harold Peters, AMPI Sanborn Division Manager, said once the project is complete his plant will go from processing 1.4 million pounds of milk per day to 3 million, about the equivalent of producing 140,000 pounds of American-style cheddar cheese.
The new plant, projected to be fully functional by mid-2018, will feature eight new state-of-the-art cheese vats, and other parts of the facility will be modernized to accommodate the additions.
Brockshus helped convince his fellow corporate officers there was a need to make improvements and enlarge the Sanborn plant, and he’s glad to see the project come to fruition.
“It’s been obvious for quite awhile that there was a lot of growth in milk here; it just kind of worked out,” Brockshus said. “The plant needed to be updated and we needed more capacity and we were in a financial place where we could do it and we had people that wanted the end product.”
The veteran dairyman noted the explosion in dairy farms along the Interstate 29 Corridor in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota over the last decade plus increased the viability of the Sanborn plant.
Brockshus pointed out that before the recent boom, the Midwest dairy industry was contracting as more producers went out West to California.
The Golden State’s struggles with drought, finding suitable land and feed for cattle, some citizens anti-livestock views and other issues have helped turn the tables, Brockshus said.
“In recent years, the trend is switching and milk is coming back,” he said. “Personally, it’s really fun. It’s a lot more fun to play offense than defense and that’s kind of where we are and we’ve done a lot of good things by contracting and being more efficient and everything, but we’re to the point now where we need more capacity and a lot of the plants are getting old and they needed to be updated anyway. It’s kind of a two-for-one.”
Besides benefiting AMPI directly, Peters noted this project also will help the 128 dairy farms — most located within a 120-mile radius of Sanborn — affiliated with the plant prosper as well.
“They want to grow, but up until this point we kind of had the reins pulled in because we don’t have the plant capacity and the United States doesn’t have the plant capacity for these guys to double what they want to do,” he said.
“With the expansion, we are starting to take the reins off now. … For our AMPI members — and that’s what Bruce was saying — it’s a fun time because we can go out and talk to our producers and say, ‘If you want to add cows, go ahead,’ and no one else in the industry is doing that right now,” Peters continued.
Employing 102 people in a town of a little less than 1,400 people makes AMPI one of Sanborn’s most prominent employers; however, none of those jobs will be lost due to the added automation, Peters said.
Staffers who work in labor-intensive areas of the facility that are becoming automated will be shuffled to areas where manual labor is still largely required.
“We are going to double our capacity and literally not add any people,” is how Peters recalled pitching the expansion to board members.
Sarah Schmidt, AMPI Vice President of Public Affairs, said the other strong sales pitch was the cheese produced in Sanborn. For the last three years, the Sanborn plant has won first place for its cheddar at the annual World Dairy Expo Championship Cheese Contest.
“It wasn’t just one lucky duck winner three years ago, they’ve done it now consecutively the past three years,” she said. “These guys and gals here now how to make really good cheese. It has never been done before, so that’s pretty special.”