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Published February 20, 2013, 02:51 PM

Building excitement

Snack cheese company on track with construction of Brookings, S.D., plant.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

BROOKINGS, S.D. — Francine Moudry is the project manager for Bel Brands USA, which is developing a snack cheese plant on the east side of Brookings, S.D.

Bel Brands USA is the American subsidiary of the Paris-based Fromageries Bel. Moudry came to Brookings from a Bel Brands plant in Leitchfield, Ky., where she had worked since 1994 and had been manager since 2007.

Bel Brands today has 17,000 employees worldwide and is one of the largest dairy companies in France. Its brands are Laughing Cow, a process cheese, and Mini Babybel natural snack cheeses made directly from milk. Babybels are wrapped in wax and sold in 3-quarter-ounce sizes.

Bel Brands is the third largest seller of branded cheeses in the world and the No. 1 brand of serving-size snack cheeses in the U.S.

The Brookings plant is 1,100 feet long, about 80 feet wide and will be the size of three football fields under a single roof. A $100 million-plus investment (building plus equipment), the plant is one of the largest new agricultural processing operations ventures in the Dakotas and Minnesota.

The Bel Brands plant will use 500,000 pounds of milk a day — production of about 12,000 dairy cows. That’s only 3 to 5 percent of the milk supply in the region, but that low market percentage is important to Bel Brands because of reliability of supply. Some milk likely will come from Minnesota.

The company has not decided how it will procure its milk — either from cooperatives or directly with farmers. That decision will be made by the end of June 2013.

The plant is scheduled to start up in July 2014, producing about 70,000 pounds of cheese per day with 275 workers, but ramp up to full production in September 2014. The company has not said how much cheese will be produced at full production.

South Dakota trifecta

The company searched in 17 states and had finalists in Michigan and Iowa, but settled on South Dakota. It had passed over dairy giant states like California because growing the herd there is almost impossible because of competition for land and government regulations.

Three key factors separated Brookings from the others: milk supply, the presence of South Dakota State University and its dairy science emphasis, and general economic enthusiasm and welcome.

Brookings had the potential for being “self sufficient in most of the feeding needs, having the land to continue to grow and not being completely locked in,” she says.

“To be honest, there are a lot of people who want to come back to work in South Dakota,” she says. But beyond location, the company wants to be a great place to work. “We want to be a place for you to grow and make your dream come to a reality.”

Finally, South Dakota simply laid out the red carpet.

Bel Brands executives met with the South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard several times, discussing an entire economic effort that linked with the Brookings community nicely. “There are very big companies here, and South Dakota does it (recruitment) very quietly,” Moudry says. “It’s pretty amazing.”

Other big pluses for South Dakota were the lack of a corporate income tax, as well as access to Interstate Highways 29 and 90.

Babybel naturals

The plant will start making only the Mini Babybels, in five or six flavors.

The cheeses are priced at a premium to competitors, but sales have been strong even through the recession. Moudry acknowledges that some consumers have gone to alternatives like block cheese or less-expensive snacks. “But the core of our customers remains the same,” she says.

Moudry says she enjoys Brookings. Her husband is an English instructor at SDSU. They have no children, but are heavily involved with nieces and nephews and enjoy spending time with the neighbor children. In her spare time, she likes to write songs and play her guitar and read biographies of “the great people who have made the world what it is right now.

“What I would like to continue to do in Brookings is to share my experience and my passion about what I’m doing,” Moudry says. “I will continue here to make sure everything goes well, but that is really my goal: to share the passions I have and to make sure that every single person that wants to be part of an adventure can do it.”

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