WCMA Notes: Another Successful Investment in Dairy's Future

Posted By: John Umhoefer WCMA News,

Name one thing more important for advancing the next generation of dairy leaders than dairy-related degrees and programs at our nation’s universities and tech schools.

I’ll wait.

Nothing is more important. Investment across the nation in dairy-related education – degrees in business, engineering, food science, production, quality control and more– is vital to dairy’s future.  And underpinning those degrees, bringing it all back to dairy processing, is investment in production facilities on campuses.

“I was majoring in production agriculture at UW River Falls until I took a dairy manufacturing course with Dr. P.C. Vasavada,” Mike Sipple, Agropur’s VP Manufacturing said this week. “The day we made cheese in the campus dairy plant was my eureka moment. I discovered my passion. I added a food science minor and that was the start of my career in dairy processing.”

The pilot plant that inspired Mike Sipple, and others in the dairy industry, has been completely rebuilt, doubling in size, and expected to open in the spring of 2023. The all-new, 6,500-square-foot dairy facility at UW River Falls is the latest, greatest addition to dairy’s investment in the future.

More than 99 percent of funds have been raised to complete the project. More on that final 1 percent of fundraising below.

A smaller-enrollment university at 5,200 students, UW River Falls punches above its weight for producing dairy leaders. The campus boasts a food science and technology program with a dairy foods management track and a large ag engineering program with a food and process systems track and food and bioprocessing technology track. In addition, many majors include dairy production classes and students across campus can work for pay and internships in the dairy processing plant.

As UW River Falls launches its new era in modern dairy processing, the university’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Science (CAFES) is beginning a unique international partnership with Aeres University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. This fall, these schools have accepted their first students for an International Food Operations Management bachelor’s degree.  It’s a dual degree program with a full year of classes abroad and hands-on experience in the new dairy processing plant.

Dale Gallenberg, Dean of CAFES, told the WCMA Board of Directors in September that in his 16 years of leadership, among the many programs and building projects executed, “the renovation of the dairy pilot plant has been one of the most fundamentally important, and potentially transformative, projects on our entire campus.”

Support from UW River Falls Chancellor Maria Gallo has also kept the building project on track. “The completed dairy pilot plant will be an amazing teaching, training, and research facility with great impact,” Chancellor Gallo said this week. “And the generous support from industry partners shows the value of the dairy pilot plant, our people and our students.”

Ten years will have passed since UW River Falls embarked on this renovation project, and dairy plant manager Michelle Farner has been steadfast at the helm of project planning, fundraising and design while teaching students and operating the pilot plant. Like the Center for Dairy Research in Madison, renovation of the 40-year-old dairy pilot plant at UW River Falls proved a challenge for the Wisconsin state bureaucracy. But COVID-19 also delayed work and has driven up costs.

In the last 12 months, numerous partners stepped up to close the final gap of about $2 million needed to complete the project. The University of Wisconsin System and River Falls campus moved $550,000 to this budget, and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation approved a $250,000 grant. The Dairy Business Innovation Initiative, the USDA-based grant program for dairy innovation, will support the project with $200,000.

But, it’s industry dollars, including $250,000 from Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, that have kept this project alive. Industry donations and equipment gifts encompass nearly half of total funding for this $8 million renovation.

Most recently, a very large gift (anonymous for now) led industry efforts to finish fundraising. Land O’ Lakes Inc. offered a generous $100,000 donation and in recent weeks Winona Foods, Valley Queen Cheese Factory and Kelley Supply joined the ranks of donors.  Ellsworth Creamery recently offered a third donation, and now a mere $60,000 is needed reach the fundraising finish line.

This is the last chance to add your company or your name to the donor wall on campus. But even beyond this small amount needed, the UWRF Foundation has pledged that additional dollars donated will be segregated to a fund to allow the dairy plant to start up with purchase of ingredients, cleaning chemicals, milk, packaging materials and staff and student wages. This dairy plant, like those in the private sector, is financed by its production and sales.

The dairy industry will strengthen its connection to the future when this new plant sets its first vat next spring. Then it’s time for the next project.