Centre cheese factory still in the works

By SARAH PAEZ

spaez@lockhaven.com

BELLEFONTE — It’s no secret that the dairy industry is very important to central Pennsylvania. According to the Census of Agriculture, 1,192 dairy farms in Centre County sold almost $91.6 million in products in 2012.

The state’s dairy industry ranks sixth in the United States, producing more than 10.9 billion pounds of milk annually.

But much of that milk, points out Centre County Commissioner Mark Higgins, is being shipped out of state for processing. Then it is shipped back to the mid-Atlantic region for consumption.

And the dairy industry is currently undergoing a crisis.

With the rise of Wal-Mart dairy processing plants around the country, coupled with declining milk sales, large dairy distributors are ending their contracts with small family farms.

Dean Foods, which held contracts with many Pennsylvania family-owned farms, terminated 100 contracts between February and May. In Pennsylvania, it ended 26 contracts with dairy farms in Lebanon and Lancaster counties on one day — Feb. 26 — sending many dairy farmers reeling.

But there may be a solution to Pennsylvania dairy farmer woes right here in central Pennsylvania.

According to a study released in January by a former Penn State associate professor, University of Wisconsin professor and Cornell University professor, there are two favorable sites in central Pennsylvania for dairy processing–one in Centre County near State College and the other in Berks County near Reading.

The study estimates that bringing a dairy processing plant, specifically for cheese production, to central Pennsylvania could reduce milk transportation costs to farmers by $5.9 million a year and raise the value of milk by about $28.8 million a year.

Commissioner Higgins mentioned eventual plans to bring a cheese factory to Centre County at a meeting Tuesday morning. He congratulated Bob Jacobs, county planning and community development director, for his work with the Governor’s Action Team to bring a dairy processing plant to Centre County.

The state government has largely supported the dairy industry in the face of its crisis, adding $5 million to the budget for struggling dairy farms in the form of research and development, transition to organic, and processing and marketing grants.

Part of the cheese factory favorability in Centre County, Higgins said, comes from the county’s capacity to process large amounts of sewage in Bellefonte and near State College.

In fact, those two entities have the ability to process hundreds of thousands of gallons of whey–the liquid that remains after milk has been curdled and strained–a day. Higgins said the Governor’s Action Team (GAT) initially did not believe Centre County had the sewage processing ability or the number of permits needed for that amount of waste, but it does.

The plant itself could create around 200 jobs, but the study said investment in plants in both the recommended counties could have a domino effect on Centre and Berks counties, creating at least 1,100 other jobs. That would mean around 400 more local jobs for Centre County.

There would be “a lot of benefits to central Pennsylvania,” Higgins said.

He said he would love for the plant to be in Centre County, but would be happy if it ended up in Clinton or Juniata counties. Once a dairy processing plant is built, it will use local milk — meaning milk within 50 to 60 miles. Therefore, Centre County dairy farmers could still benefit from a plant in another county.

“In the long run, it’s gonna help everybody,” Higgins said.

Though it is a slow process, Higgins said the GAT is continuing to meet with large dairy processors and trying to stoke their interest for a cheese plant in central Pennsylvania, specifically in Centre County. In the next year, he said, the county would most likely begin talks with potential investors.

Also at the Tuesday meeting, county commissioners voted to approve stormwater drainage easements with Bellefonte Borough and homeowner Daniel Anderson for the completion of the Centre Crest parking lot expansion.

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