Commercial operations began this month at Turlock’s new, state-of-the-art powdered milk processing plant, Valley Milk, bringing more jobs to the area and contributing to the struggling Central Valley dairy industry.
Valley Milk was founded by five Central Valley dairy families from Stockton to Chowchilla, who chose to build the milk processing plant in the Turlock Regional Industrial Park because of its central location, quick access to the Port of Oakland and the City’s willingness to work with the company, Valley Milk chairman and founding family member Don Machado said at the plant’s groundbreaking ceremony in April 2016.
Nearly two years after construction on the locally-owned facility began, Valley Milk is now up, running and currently operating in the commissioning stage – the process of assuring that all systems and components of the plant are functioning correctly.
Valley Milk CEO Patti Smith anticipates the plant to be at full production by March 1, and when that time comes the facility will process 2.5 million pounds of milk every day, or 50 tanker loads. Powdered milk made at Valley Milk is sold both internationally and domestically to be used in products like cake mixes and confectionary candy, she said, and also pointed out that the process to make milk powder is quite simple.
“The milk goes through an evaporation and drying process – it’s a process to extract the components. We’re making nonfat dry milk right now as we start up, so we separate the cream,” said Smith.
At full production, the plant’s full product line-up will include cream, non-fat dry milk, low heat skim milk powder, medium heat skim milk powder and whole milk powder.
Valley Milk has 54 employees, from milk receivers and packaging operators to accounting personnel and electricians, and 96 percent were hired locally from towns including Hilmar, Denair, Delhi, Modesto and Ceres. Approximately 40 percent of the plant’s workers are from Turlock.
Given the size of the plant, Smith said that typically, an operation like Valley Milk would require over 100 employees, but technological advances allow the plant to run efficiently with fewer people.
In fact, the plant operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year, even with its small number of workers.
“We have to – cows don’t stop milking, you know,” said Smith. “Everything here is highly-automated. The packaging line is automated, and all of our palletizing is done by a robot.”
Valley Milk receives one truck full of milk for processing every 25 minutes, and gets its product from the five founding families, who together own 16 dairies within roughly 40 miles of the plant. Each family is represented on Valley Milk’s Board of Directors, giving the facility a familiarity with their product that most processing plants don’t have.
“We can go out to a customer and say, ‘We know we can supply this product to you because we know how much milk we get on a daily basis, and we know the quality of it because it’s from sizable dairy farms that are high quality,’” said Smith.
While many Central Valley dairies have moved out of state or significantly downsized their operations, the Valley Milk processing plant is a vertical expansion for the five families. According to Smith, the value of milk throughout the state has decreased recently due to environmental impact, feed cost and agricultural labor issues, but the dairy woes haven’t taken a toll on Valley Milk.
“We’re unique because our founders wanted to vertically integrate to keep their dairies in the state of California, so we don’t have some of the same interdependencies that others do because we’re not out trying to buy milk necessarily – our milk is supplied 100 percent from our founders,” said Smith. “For us, our founders are actually growing.”
In addition to its involved Board of Directors, Valley Milk’s corporate function also sits on the same site as the processing plant, setting the plant apart from others in the area.
“I think it develops a culture – it’s a complete business culture versus a culture just for manufacturing and a separate corporate culture,” said Smith. “It’s a company culture when everybody’s on site.”
Valley Milk joins other recent additions Hilmar Cheese milk processing plant and Blue Diamond almond processing plant in the City’s industrial park. The Turlock Regional Industrial Park includes infrastructure that is friendly to agri-business, from truck circulation to wastewater facilities to proximity to a new energy plant.
Smith believes that the industrial park’s land availability will continue to attract other companies in the future, she said, and anticipates that Valley Milk will eventually have neighbors on either side of the plant.