Gov. Bill Richardson talks with members of the Irish media Friday during Southwest Cheese’s grand opening. The Irish ambassador to the United States also attended the event. (Staff photo: Andy DeLisle)
By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer
This behemoth on the High Plains has evolved from a patch of caramel dirt scratched amid acres of farm land to a gleaming metropolis of cheese and whey production, with 60 miles of stainless steel piping and 742 miles of electrical cable above and below ground.
The Southwest Cheese plant — a 340,000-square-foot facility in southern Curry County — is one of the largest cheese plants in the world.
Ground was broken for the plant in February 2004.
On Friday, Southwest Cheese officially opened, with company officials envisioning only more growth.
“This is a proud day for New Mexico,” Southwest Cheese President Maurice Keane said. “This is a proud day for Clovis.”
Southwest Cheese produces 250 million pounds of cheddar, Colby, Monterey Jack and pepper jack cheese annually. More than 200 people are employed there, with 80 percent of the workforce locally derived, according to Keane.
The plant is a $190 million joint venture of Glanbia Foods and the Greater Southwest Agency. The Agency is a cooperative of four milk producers: Dairy Farmers of America, Select, LoneStar and Zia. A food company, Glanbia has operations around the world, with headquarters in Ireland.
The plant represents innovation and collaboration at its finest, said Gov. Bill Richardson, who traveled to Clovis, along with a host of other dignitaries, for the opening.
“This is historic,” the governor said.
As a result of the Southwest venture, the dairy industry in New Mexico has been transformed, said Southwest Cheese Chairman and Select CEO Mike McCloskey during a press conference Friday.
Before Southwest, milk profits in the region were drained on highways,
according to dairy officials.
Milk producers hauled milk from New Mexico to buyers as far away as Florida. Determined to circumvent hauling costs, Greater Southwest producers searched worldwide for a partner to process their milk, McCloskey said.
With Glanbia, that search ended.
“This partnership has added value to every pound of milk we ship,” said Tom Camerlo, chairman of Dairy Farmers of America, a milk cooperative 21,000 members strong.
With every load of milk dropped off at Southwest Cheese, a local dairy farmer saves about $1,000 to $2,000 in circumvented hauling costs, said Wayne Palla, chairman of Dairy Farmers of America’s Southwest Area Council.
Thirty years ago, New Mexico ranked among the five lowest milk producing states in the country, according to McCloskey. Today, it ranks seventh in the nation for milk production.
Southwest Cheese “ensures the economic success of dairies,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who attended the Friday official opening of the plant, along with Richardson, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Clovis Mayor David Lansford.
“America and Ireland have had a love affair for a long time,” Udall said.
“Thank you,” he said, turning to Keane, “for sharing your economic miracle with eastern New Mexico.”
Also at the Friday opening were members of the Irish press and Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, Noel Fahey. They were invited to attend the opening by Glanbia, according to Fahey.
Glanbia is an important force in the Irish farming industry, according to Fahey. He said the company operates in a prosperous region of Ireland and processes a lion’s share of milk produced in the country.
“They are very impressive,” he said.
Many American companies have investments in Ireland, but people are less aware of Irish investments in America, the ambassador said.
“There is an image of America investing in Ireland,” he said, but less so vice versa.
Glanbia, however, has operated in America for more than 20 years and also runs a large cheese plant in Idaho.
These days, the company’s operations in America are shifting west, Glanbia Group Chief Executive John Moloney said during the press conference.
Such western concentration, Moloney said, allows Glanbia to partner with “efficient, large-scale milk producers.” That, he said, is the trend in milk processing and producing industries.
Glanbia also has operations in Europe, Asia, Nigeria and South America,
according to Keane.
Room for growth
Despite mammoth output, there is still room for growth at the Southwest Cheese plant and in the regional dairy industry, Southwest partners said Friday. It lies in the international market, they said.
“We look forward to taking this plant forward with our partners,” said Moloney, adding the plant on the High Plains could have “a claim on the world stage.”
For now, Southwest Cheese is focusing on meeting its current goals of production, Keane said. But growth at the plant almost definitely looms in the future, he said.
“We have some room for expansion,” Keane said.
He said the company has the capacity to increase production by 20 to 30 percent.
Much of the infrastructure needed to do so already exists at the plant, Keane said. Because the company already owns more than 2,000 acres of land in southern Curry County, “land is not an issue,” he added.
By the numbers
7 — Million pounds of milk accepted at the plant every 24 hours
60 — Miles of stainless steel piping above ground
200 — Estimated employees at the plant
742 — Miles of electrical cable above and below ground
3,000 — Pounds of whey protein powder produced per hour
44,000 — Pounds of cheese processed every hour
500,000 — Gallons of water recovered from milk every day, treated and recycled for irrigation
Source: Southwest Cheese