Farm Horizons, February 2007
Bongards' Creameries broadening its horizons
Bongards’ Creameries has remained a single entity since 1908. There is a lot of area pride in that fact.
However, as the metropolitan area moves west, taking over farmland, Bongards has made two major territorial changes to keep it competitive in today’s marketplace.
The purchase of its Perham processing plant in 2003 was a giant move for Bongards. Perham is 180 miles away from its plant near Norwood Young America (NYA), and the first time Bongards has produced cheese outside of its home-based plant.
The second major change Bongards has made is in the method and the area that is now the new source of its two million pounds of milk a day.
The plant in Perham was originally owned by Land O’Lakes and had newer, state-of-the-art equipment. When it decided to close the facility, Bongards immediately became interested because its plant in NYA had aging equipment that was hampering its whey and natural cheese capabilities.
“We looked at the cost of rebuilding here or reinvesting here versus what we could buy the Perham facility for. We had a lot of old equipment and all of the equipment in Perham was new. We also considered the milk volume because the city is moving west. Milk volumes are getting smaller here and we had to be concerned about investing 100 million dollars in processing equipment,” General Manager Keith Grove said.
Grove has only been with Bongards a little more than a year, but worked at Land O’Lakes for 27 years, giving him dairy experience in a variety of roles.
Because Bongards now owns a plant in Perham and most of Bongards’ milk is in the NYA area, it was necessary to come up with an efficient and least expensive way to get milk from one area to the other.
What they decided to do was ship Bongards’ milk to other producers that have cheese plants in the NYA area and have these same producers, that have milk up north, ship their milk to Bongards’ Perham plant.
“We are trading milk, is what we are doing. Something that the industry, overall, needs to do to keep non-contributing costs out of the system,” Grove said. “What we are trying to do is just ship milk to the closest clients. With the rising cost of fuel and everything, the transportation was just a huge expense.”
Grove added, “It has been going on for awhile, but it has really increased over this last year. We opened up a lot more to this type of thing and our competitors are doing the same thing. We all see benefits from it.”
The primary participants trading milk with Bongards are First District of Litchfield and Associated Milk Producers (AMPI) in New Ulm and Paynesville. Even Land O’Lakes is participating, according to Grove.
All milk is screened for antibiotics before it is unloaded. Bongards has a state-certified lab where all manufactured products are analyzed by its highly-skilled lab technicians.
The instrument can run 250 samples per hour. The machine is calibrated weekly with known commercial standards. A report card is sent to the farmers weekly showing fat, protein, and somatic cell and bacteria counts.
Today, Bongards’ Creameries has about 600 farmers that are either direct members, trade members or member cooperatives. It employs 300 people, about 120 employees at the NYA plant and approximately 180 at the plant in Perham.
As general manager, Grove is responsible for production, sales and marketing, and a financial team that reports to him. He, in turn, reports to the board of directors, comprised of farmers that own Bongards.
“Bongards has gone through some tough transition years and has not paid out much, but we are looking for better times ahead,” Grove said.
The Perham plant is now Bongards’ primary manufacturer of natural cheese and whey. Most of the natural cheese is brought to the NYA plant, where it is processed through two main production lines.
Bongards’ process cheese plant
The natural cheese made in Perham arrives at NYA in 500-pound barrels, where it is divided into two main lines processed American slices or loaves. Each line processes 200,000 pounds of cheese a day, a total of 400,000 pounds altogether, according to Brent Jewett, production manager of the process cheese plant.
Both products are cooked up to 165 degrees. The cheese is blended by age for different formulations. Most blends are 80 percent young cheese 15 days old with 20 percent cheese aged 60 to 90 days.
The sliced cheese is cut into five-pound packages of slices. It then goes to an overwrap machine to be wrapped and heat-sealed. Most of the cheese is inserted into a case in packages, with four or six packages per case. Once the cheese is inserted into a case, it is sealed and ink jet coded to customer specifications.
The other main process line is loaf cheese that is sliced in delis. A pouch is inserted into a tray. The lined trays then travel to the filling machine, where the cheese is deposited.
Once filled, the film is sealed and a lid is applied, the packages are conveyed to a case packer, sealed, and ink jet coded to customer specifications. These cases of hot cheese are transferred into a blast cooler for rapid cooling. If the cooling is inadequate, quality problems can occur.
Karen Nagel, Bongards’ office manager, has worked at Bongards since 1965. She is currently working on Bongards’ history for Bongards’ 100th anniversary next year.
It all began in 1908 with just a small group of farmers who got together and had to take turns hauling ice to keep the milk cold. Only butter was made, and most of that butter was shipped out East. From there, it grew into natural cheese, then whey, and then processed cheese, according to Nagel.
She remembers the plant when it was still making butter, and milk cans were part of the milk delivery system.
By the early ‘70s, Bongards began processing cheese, and about that time, milk cans were all traded in for the more sanitary handling bulk tanks, Nagel said.
Butter was discontinued when Bongards’ butter churner needed to be replaced and it was more cost effective to get butter from another source than to make it. That was in about the early ‘80s, according to Nagel.
“When I started, there were about 300 people employed here, in just this plant in NYA. Today we have the same number of employees, but in two locations.”
Nagel is very aware of the trend in getting less milk locally because of area farmers selling out. She thinks that is the hardest part of the changes that she has seen.
“Over the years, it is sad to see the family farms selling out and we are losing that connection in our local area,” Nagel said.
But Nagel was very positive about Bongards’ future when she added, “The plant has grown and the business has grown. The processed cheese is being sold all over the United States.”