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DFA’s Zumbrota plant wraps up construction of ‘best specialty ingredients dryer in the world’

What makes the Zumbrota plant unique from other Dairy Farmers of America facilities is the specialty powders it produces.

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The entrance to the Dairy Farmers of America processing facility in Zumbrota, Minnesota, on Sept. 21, 2022.
Noah Fish / Agweek
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ZUMBROTA, Minn. – An $87 million expansion at the Dairy Farmers of America processing plant outside of Rochester is wrapping up right on schedule.

The Zumbrota plant, which takes in 1.5 million pounds of raw milk every day, produces hard Italian cheese as well as American cheeses, which are used at other DFA plants in the region for food service and other food manufacturers.

Construction to include a new cheese spray dryer and tower, employee wellness area and a wastewater treatment plant concludes this month at the processing facility in Zumbrota, which has 175 employees on staff.

The 86,000-square-foot expansion will allow the plant to produce an additional 7.5 million pounds of cheese and dairy powders per year, according to the cooperative.

Terry Johnson is the plant manager at the DFA plant in Zumbrota and has been there since January 2020. Prior to that, Johnson said he was involved in the food industry for 27 years.

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The plant started renovations to replace its 50-year-old spray dryer in the summer of 2020.

“The groundbreaking was July of 2020, and construction is just now finishing up,” said Johnson on Sept. 21, at an event to mark the end of the project as well as the 50th anniversary of the plant.

Johnson said the construction added a new spray dryer with a wet process that's replacing the existing one, which the plant will decommission shortly, he said.

“We also added a new wastewater treatment plant, so it fully treats our water, and cleans it up,” he said.

The construction also added a new break room for employees along with a new office area in the front of the building, and additional storage area for cheese.

“We've been here since 1972, taking in raw milk,” said Johnson. “We produce hard Italian cheese in 40 pound blocks, and we also do some American cheese in 40 pound blocks.”

The byproduct of that cheese is condensed whey, said Johnson, which the plant evaporates down to 50% solids and ships out to “internal and external customers.”

Bill Taylor, senior director of operations for DFA’s ingredients solutions, oversees four DFA plants in the upper Midwest. He said that the Zumbrota plant is the largest out of those four.

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Taylor said that DFA is the “largest milk marketer and dairy cooperative” in the world.

“As far as total milk marketed, we have about 80 different facilities across the United States, serving customers all over the world,” said Taylor.

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The Dairy Farmers of America processing facility in Zumbrota, Minnesota, on Sept. 21, 2022.
Noah Fish / Agweek

Taylor said a “pretty critical component” of the construction project was to address community concerns from the city of Zumbrota, which has a population over 3,000.

“As we designed and built this plant, we incorporated improvements, particularly around odor control and noise and some other things that would place us in a better position to create minimal disturbance in the community,” said Taylor.

He said that plant staff collaborated with city staff starting in 2020 when the project kicked off.

“We started a practice of having weekly meetings as we entered this project, and those weekly meetings have continued over a period of two years and have developed, I believe, a very strong working relationship with the community,” said Taylor.

Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen was at the event to mark the completion of construction at the Zumbrota plant, and said he was impressed how the project persevered through the pandemic years.

“It's a true testament to Dairy Farmers of America to keep this going, and get it done,” said Petersen. “And to keep feeding everybody and getting products to us all during COVID.”

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What makes the Zumbrota plant unique from other DFA facilities is the specialty powders it produces.

Martin Bates, president of DFA’s ingredient solutions, said those powders are used in a lot of popular snacks consumed worldwide.

“Next time you have a snack and it tastes really great, and it's got a good cheese taste, then there's a good chance it's coming from a plant like this,” said Bates.

Bates said the remodeling of the Zumbrota plant allows it to produce about 40% more of the specialty powders.

“Our commitment was to build the best specialty powder and specialty ingredients dryer in the world, and we believe we've done that,” said Taylor.

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast. He covers a wide range of farmers and agribusinesses throughout Minnesota and surrounding states. He can be reached at nfish@agweek.com

He reports out of Rochester, MN, where he lives with his wife, Kara, and their polite cat, Zena. He grew up in La Crosse, WI, and enjoys the talent from his home state like the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers and Grammy award-winning musicians Justin Vernon and Al Jarreau.
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