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A Butter Idea

Agri-Mark’s West Springfield Facility Has Quality Down Pat
Lenny Dion, butter room manager at Agri-Mark’s West Springfield plant, next to one of the largest butter churns in the world.

Lenny Dion, butter room manager at Agri-Mark’s West Springfield plant, next to one of the largest butter churns in the world.

There is a worldwide competition for butter making, and West Spring-field is home to one of its champions.

The honor goes to Agri-Mark and its Western Mass. plant, which produces butter for the dairy co-op owned by dairy farmers throughout New England and New York.

Packaged under the Cabot brand name, Agri-Mark’s butter took ‘Best in the U.S.’ honors in 2003, and this year had an even better showing, placing second in the world, in the salted category. It’s a point of pride for the West Side plant’s 65 employees, especially during times when the dairy industry is struggling.

Unfortunately, this is one of those times. Agri-Mark, which has three other facilities in Cabot and Middlebury, Vt. and Chateaugay, N.Y., and a corporate headquarters in Methuen, Mass., produces cheese and butter for the Cabot and McAdam brands, as well as condensed dairy blends and milk powder for commercial use. While two years ago the co-op recorded its best year ever, with $11.4 million in net income, Agri-Mark’s director of communications Doug DiMento said this year he’s just hoping they’ll break even.

“We’ve been taking deductions from farmers’ milk checks to make ends meet,” he said, “and in our history we’ve only had to do that a couple of times.”

Spread Sheets

The reasons for the crunch are many, but not unfamiliar to those in the dairy industry. With both product and profit riding on variables such as weather conditions, the rising costs of farm labor, energy use, insurance, and USDA regulations, milk prices fluctuate regularly. DiMento said they’re so tenuous that something as random as a heat wave can send the entire industry into a state of disarray.

“In hot weather, cows produce less,” he explained, adding that a good year in one part of the country, such as California, the largest dairy producer in the U.S., can also hurt other regions. “New England already has a smaller dairy area than most. California had some hot weather two years ago, and that helped us. But then they bounced back, and that hurt us.”

These factors are also exacerbated by the fact that all farmers are now receiving the lowest rates on their milk in 25 years, prompting debate in Washington about whether to ease restrictions on raising milk prices at the consumer level. DiMento said all of Agri-Mark’s employees are watching that debate very closely, as the outcome could directly affect the security of their jobs.

“The USDA regulates milk pricing, so we can’t pass on our rising costs,” he said. “But just a one- or two-cent increase on the consumer end could make an enormous difference for us and for our farmers, so we’re waiting and hoping that something will ease the burden soon.”

Milk Money

Agri-Mark farmers produce 2.4 billion pounds of fresh milk a year (every 100 pounds equals about 11.6 gallons), and are capable of handling much more. That makes the Agri-Mark dairy cooperative the largest supplier of farm-fresh milk in New England, marketing more than 300 million gallons of milk each year for more than 1,300 of the region’s farms.

Much of the current infrastructure was added during an extensive renovation in the mid-1990s, which increased the plant’s capacity by 25%. Today, the facility can handle greater rates of production and can store almost double what it will see in a normal year, which is an apt safety net for an industry that sees dramatic changes in production totals from one year to the next. Ten raw milk silos can contain about 4 million pounds of milk (or about 465,000 gallons; pounds are usually used to measure milk quantities in the dairy industry). Meanwhile, milk powder is stored in two silos, each with a 160,000-pound capacity, and the 25,000-square-foot distribution warehouse on site can store all of the products made and packaged at the plant before being delivered to customers directly from West Springfield.

The milk received is processed into butter, milk powder, and condensed blends for ice cream outfits such as Friendly’s and Hood. The West Springfield location is also what’s known as a balancing plant, receiving milk from various sources, within the co-op and outside it, that would otherwise spoil. An adjacent quality-control laboratory also makes the location a necessity in the dairy industry of the Northeast, as New England’s largest testing facility.

Churn for the Better

Inside, the plant is a well-oiled machine that, especially in these trying times, leaves no milk-based product untouched. Much of the milk powder produced on site, up to 50 million pounds through an intense heating process, is shipped internationally to countries such as China and Mexico, in cooperation with other dairy co-ops across the country.

That partnership was formed to stem competition between already struggling dairy farms and processing plants nationwide, explained DiMento, and pricing is done collectively. Any powder that is not shipped to waiting customers, even that swept off the floor, is put to some use, such as bagged products for animal feed.

Perhaps the West Springfield facility’s busiest room, however, is the butter room, which churns out 28 million pounds of the product a year, with the ability to handle 40 million pounds. The churn itself is one of the largest in the country, with a 250,000-pound capacity, and is similar to most of the plant’s equipment and storage containers in its size.

The butter is packaged into pounds, quarters, and continental chips — the small, gold-foil-wrapped single-servings seen in restaurants — in order to serve a wide range of customers in the grocery, commercial, and food service sectors.

Agri-Mark’s other plants focus primarily on cheese production, so the butter room is of particular importance to the co-op and to the local plant’s operation. Lenny Dion, butter room manager, said there is a strong focus on quality and brand loyalty in terms of butter production, especially with a number of prestigious wins in international competitions already recorded.

“We used to produce about 53 million pounds a year, but we downsized to cut costs,” he said, adding that the plant is also trying to phase out its butter production for private-label use. “We’ll still do it, but we’ve made the service more expensive. Our focus is on making butter for the Cabot brand and making that brand the best we can.”

As packaged butter zooms through the room on a series of conveyors, Dion explained that several units are kicked out of line automatically and randomly for quality testing. And after packaging, the product is moved to a freezer room to harden and await shipping, at which point on-site USDA testers again sample the product.

A Pat on the Back

With the cheeses marketed under the Cabot and McAdam names in New England and New York garnering awards for quality at the ‘Olympics of Cheese’ just about every year, Dion doesn’t mind seeing a slight slowing of the pace of butter production to test for quality. As the lone butter churner serving companies known for their time-tested cheese-aging practices, he has a lot to prove.

And this year, Dion’s butter room produced entries into the World Championship that returned high marks — 99.2 in the salted category and 98.65 in the unsalted, to be exact. In an industrial climate that increasingly has Agri-Mark farmers and employees on edge, they are important wins that take the focus off quantity and redirect it toward quality, and that’s exactly where the co-op wants that focus to stay.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

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