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November 28, 2022

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Dairy Pilot Plant renovation prepares for grand reopening this spring

November 11, 2022

Michelle Farner poses in the Dairy Pilot Plant.
Michelle Farner poses in the Dairy Pilot Plant. (Photo by Jack Van Hoof)

The University of Wisconsin-River Falls will make a return to dairy production on campus with the renovation of its Dairy Plant, which is projected to open in spring of 2023. When operational, the Plant will be able to produce around a thousand pounds of cheese curds and around 600 to 800 gallons of ice cream per day.

Michelle Farner, the Dairy Pilot Plant Manager, said “[The Dairy Plant] will be a licensed production facility, so [students] will be able to come in just like if they were to work for Ellsworth Creamery or Eau Galle Cheese. They'll be able to gain that experience on campus.” UW-River Falls is one of two universities in Wisconsin to have a dairy plant.

The renovation will include an expanded facility, modernized equipment, and updated product security. “With the newer equipment, we'll be able to train students and teach students on what they would see when they go into the industry,” Farner said. “They'll be able to hit the ground running when they start employment.”

 The old Dairy Plant was a one-room facility, which meant that it processed raw product alongside finished product. The new Plant will be two rooms; this separation of space will allow for a more secure and safe production environment. The renovation will also introduce new technology, such as automation to some of the production processes.

While students who are in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences can especially benefit from the plant, Farner said that “anyone can participate.” She mentioned how many of the plant managers are business students. “This is like a little entrepreneurship here,” she said. “We have a small business.”

The cost of the renovation is around $8.5 million. The Wisconsin State Building Commission has approved $1.9 million for the project, and the university has pledged $525,000. The renovation has also received support from industry partners, who have pledged $2.1 million in gifts and $900,000 in equipment donations. Farner said that the project is about 52% privately funded. One such partner is Ellsworth Creamery, which has donated $150,000 to the Plant.

The first piece of new equipment was installed in the plant in January, 2020. Farner said that she hopes to have all of new equipment, as well as the electrical and piping systems, installed by January 2023. From there, equipment commissioning will take place in February 2023 and testing, as well as licensing, will take place in March 2023.

As such, the plant is expected to open in mid to late spring 2023. April 2023 is the anticipated month, but Farner said this is a tentative date at best, and the launch could take place in May 2023 or even later.

The Dairy Plant will send its product to Chartwells, UWRF’s contracted food service provider, as well as the Freddy Falcon Dairy Bar that is located in the Agricultural Sciences Building. “The focus is to teach students and the focus has to remain around gaining hands on experience, not volume,” Farner said.

“We were working on equipment that was no longer serviceable and there were a few broken pieces that were going to take a lot of funds to improve,” Farner said. Much of this equipment was around thirty years old. Before the renovation, the plant was able to produce three hundred pounds of cheese curds and two hundred gallons of ice cream per day. The last time it was operational was in 2017.

The renovation means that, not only will production be expanded, but student employment opportunities at the plant will be expanded as well. When the project is completed, the plant, which currently has 20 student employees, will be able to double the number of employees. “If we're going to be in production four to five days a week, that will take a lot of staff,” Farner said. Not only will the plant offer employment opportunities and hands-on experience, but students will be able to use the facility for research projects.

In addition, the plant will offer industry courses and other training courses in a new training room that is part of the renovation. “We're only going to be expanding those [courses] and students [will be] able to partake in those as well,” Farner said. “So that's another opportunity for students that we offer here.”

The Dairy Pilot Plant is located in the Food Science Addition in the Agricultural Sciences building at UW-River Falls.

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