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Cheese behind the scenes
June 20, 2016

By Anita Harmala

WRIGHT, MEEKER COUNTIES, MN – From dairy farms in the Cokato-Dassel area and beyond, milk is trucked daily to First District Association (FDA) in Litchfield where it is made into cheese and dairy by-products that go worldwide.

“First District Association is a farmer-owned cooperative of 975 farms from a 100-mile radius of Litchfield, with the average herd size being 115 cows,” said Clint Fall, CEO and president of FDA.

In 1921, 11 local creameries joined to form the first dairy cooperative in Minnesota, called Meeker County Creamery Association. By coming together, they were able to cut shipping and other costs and get a better premium on their butter and cream, as it was shipped to Minneapolis on a train.

Later, the name was changed to First District Association, and the coop became a butter and non-fat dry milk plant.

Say ‘cheese’
In the mid 1970’s, the FDA board made the decision to become a cheese making plant. Fall noted, “It was a strategic direction change as cheese had a better return than butter.”

Today, 100 milk hauling trucks are bringing in 5 million pounds of milk daily, almost around the clock, with most of it coming in between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Once the milk arrives at the plant, the milk is tested and then unloaded into one of eight milk silos, which each hold 70,000 gallons of milk.

“Once a silo if full, it is pumped to the raw milk processing plant,” Fall said. “At that point, the milk is pasteurized and the cream is separated from the skim.”

The skim portion goes to another 70,000 gallon silo where the skim is concentrated through ultra-filtration equipment. “We are concentrating the proteins by removing the water,” Fall said. “This process is unique to FDA; by removing the water, we are able to process more milk through our equipment,’ he added.

The concentrated skim milk is then blended back into the cream, and that stream of milk goes to the cheese plant.

At the cheese making plant, the cheesemakers go through a detailed process in which the cheese is pasteurized and made, with the vast majority of it being made into 500 pound corrugated boxes of cheddar cheese.

“The largest amount of this cheese is made into processed cheese slices by companies such as Kraft, Great Lakes, and Land-O-Lakes,” Fall noted. A big amount is also shredded and some is made into aged cheese among other varieties.

Curds and whey
In part of the cheese making process, the whey is separated from the curd. The liquid whey goes through a process where the liquid is evaporated and the water is removed, which makes the protein percentage higher and more concentrated.

“The liquid goes to a spray dryer where it is made into whey protein concentrate,” Fall said.

“The whey protein concentrate is marketed worldwide,” he added. It is used in many different food products including seasonings for nacho cheese on tortilla chips, chocolate confections, cheese sauces, other snack foods, and infant formula, of which Fall noted, FDA is a “significant supplier” in the US.

The liquid left over from the whey protein concentrate is also used. It is heated and spun in a centrifuge machine. This milk by-product has lactose, which is milk sugar and looks like sugar but doesn’t taste like it. Lactose is used in pharmaceuticals as fillers for medicines such as aspirin.

The remaining water is made into pure water through an evaporation process, and this water is used to clean equipment, among other things. Thus there is very little waste, which makes a very efficient cheese making plant.

The time it takes for the milk to be made into cheese once it arrives at the plant is four hours. The cheese is stored in the coolers at FDA from one to 90 days.

“Farming has become very sophisticated and environmentally sustainable,” Fall said. So it’s not surprising that the average amount of milk produced by each farm each day has increased from a 17,000 pound average to approximately 20,000 to 25,000 pounds a day.

FDA is the largest cheese plant in the Midwest, processing 15 billion pounds of milk a year, producing over 45 million pounds of whey powder and over 14 million pounds of cheese annually.

Fall also noted that FDA has plans to grow to 7.5-million pounds of milk being produced each day.

“Cheese consumption in the US has increased 2 to 3 percent annually,” Fall noted.

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