Cheese plant changes dairy landscape

A semi-truck has the green light Thursday to enter the Southwest Cheese Plant southwest of Clovis. (Freedom Newspapers: Eric Kluth)

By Marlena Hartz: Freedom Newspapers

In a matter of months, the cheese plant lauded as an economic boon for Clovis and Portales will devour seven million pounds of milk per day.

The demand has already changed the dairy industry in the area, but elsewhere the economic benefits are a bit more difficult to discern.

“Dairy farms are moving into the area to fulfill the need,” said Agnes Schafer, a spokesperson for a supplier of milk to the plant, Dairy Farmers of America, Inc.

DFA officials estimate about two dozen dairies have set up shop in Clovis and Portales since the plant was founded, creating a ring of dairies within a 50-mile radius of the cheese company.

The boom has pushed the region toward saturation.

“We are at a point now in Roosevelt and Curry County were we’ve just about reached the saturation point. We can handle maybe one or two more (dairies) and that will be it,” said Walter Bradley, director of government and industry relations for the Southwest Area of DFA.

In response, the West Texas region, Bradley said, has morphed into a magnet for dairymen who want to cash in on the benefits of the Southwest Cheese locale.

The burden of hauling milk to faraway customers in Arizona and California can be sloughed off by dairymen who operate near to the plant, thereby, adding thousands of dollars in profits to their pockets every month.

“The milk is hauled straight to the cheese plant, so hauling costs for all producers has dropped,” Bradley said.

He estimates any member of the four cooperatives which supply milk to the plant — DFA, Lone Star, Select, and Zia — save about $1,255 per month in transportation costs.

Bradley said herd sizes, which average about 2,000, are also mushrooming to match milk consumption at the 300,000 square-foot plant, which churns out cheddar, pepper jack, colby, and colby-jack cheese, in addition to whey.

The economic upshot is no surprise to dairy farmers and businessmen in the area.

Dairy Farmers of America, Inc. is not just a milk supplier to the plant.

The corporation owns a portion of it, with ownership split evenly between fellow milk supplier Select Milk Producers. The remainder of the plant belongs to Glanbia, a food production company with roots in Ireland.

Local officials leapt on the opportunity to host the sprawling $200 million plant, luring Glanbia to the High Plains area with tax incentives.

The company does not pay property taxes. The deal, however, could expire, said Southwest Cheese Chief Executive Maurice Keane, depending on future negotiations between the plant and the city of Clovis. The plant does pay school taxes.

Yet, the bargain begs the question: Are the taxpayers of Clovis reaping the benefits of the sprawling plant?

According to Clovis City Commissioner Kevin Duncan, the answer is yes.

“It’s a trickle-down effect,” he said.

“It’s opened up lots of jobs and other companies, like trucking companies, have come in because of it,” he said.

The plant currently employs about 210 people and is looking to hire about 20 more, Keane said. Entry-level wages, he said, start at $10 an hour, and skilled workers are paid substantially more. Either way, the salary is enticing compared to others in the area, Duncan said.

New dairies also bring new jobs to the economically parched Texas Panhandle, advocates say.

There are currently about 64 dairies in Curry and Roosevelt County, according to Bradley. The farms rake in about $23 million a month, he said. Eighty-five percent of that revenue never leaves the boundaries of the counties of Roosevelt and Curry, he said.

It is funneled into the hands of the 1,600 people the dairies employ, Bradley said, and it buys locally produced vehicles, machines, and animal feed.

“Obviously,” said Keane, whose company has sponsored a variety of cultural and social events since it arrived in the area, “we have stimulated growth.”

Keane said money generated by the plant circles around the community four times, stimulating seen and unseen ripples in the economy.