By Carla Wardin
It’s impossible to miss it. It’s giant, there’s continual traffic in and out, and even if you haven’t driven by it on the highway, everyone’s talking about it.
In November, Glanbia Nutritionals, Dairy Farmers of America, and Select Milk Producers Inc. are opening a cheese plant in St. Johns, Mich. The project, which was announced with much fanfare in August 2018, will process 8 million pounds of milk a day.
Construction is evident at the 375,000-square-foot facility in the St. Johns Industrial Park along U.S. Route 127. The park already is home to many businesses, including Save-A-Lot Distribution Center, Quest Software, Spicer Group, Martin-Brower, and DRB Transport.
The $555 million project is by Glanbia, an Irish food and nutrition company. The facility adjacent belongs to Proliant Dairy Ingredients, an Iowa company that will process whey. The joint venture will be called MWC.
Glanbia has been working with the same standard business model since the 1900s, running the business side of the process, while depending on dairy companies to guarantee the milk arrives each day.
The milk will be processed into cheese, whey and permeate, with little waste.
To make the project possible, the infrastructure needed updating. Consumers Energy expects to complete work by March 30 on the Technical Drive substation, which will power Glanbia, Proliant and a wastewater treatment plant.
Consumers Energy is installing more than 23,800 feet of steel for natural gas, and it has already completed 8,472 feet of steel pipe on Scott Road supplying natural gas to the development. The company expects to have the natural gas system in service by April 1.
The Walker Road rehabilitation project (U.S. Route 127 to Scott Road) is 80% complete. The utilities are installed, and the majority of the road construction is complete. A St. Johns Big Ditch relocation and industrial park detention basin construction projects also were completed.
St. Johns is improving portions of Tolles Road and Technical Drive in the industrial park to accommodate the additional traffic.
CHEESE PLANT: The St. Johns dairy plant construction is 61% complete. It will process 8 million pounds of milk a day.
Dave J. Kudwa, deputy city manager of St. Johns, says, “We’re hopeful the weather will cooperate with us this spring, so we can complete this project as soon as possible. Our goal was to have all of the public infrastructure improvements completed by July 1, and we are on track to meet that date.”
The plant currently is 61% complete. The building is sealed, and workers are installing the machines and running the electrical.
Community members both expect and hope the plant will stimulate growth in the area.
Graham Filler, 93rd District state representative, says, “I think other new businesses and community investment will follow the cheese plant. Being a dairy farmer is a hard go of it, but I believe the cheese plant is going to bring some positive momentum to the dairy farms and ag industry here in mid-Michigan.”
Filler also sees the specific financial benefit the project will bring to farmers in and near mid-Michigan.
“Savings on transportation costs are going to save millions of dollars, and that's money farms can use to reinvest in or further stabilize their business,” he says.
Kam Washburn, chairman of the Clinton County Board of Commissioners, confirmed the business and agricultural community’s excitement about the upcoming plant.
“The economic impact of the new cheese and whey facility located in Clinton County is huge,” he says. “This impact reaches far beyond the direct localized business and job implications. The far-reaching and long-lasting economic consequences for Michigan farmers in general, and more specifically, Michigan’s dairy industry, are enormous,” Washburn says.
When a business looking for hundreds of employees comes into a community, it has implications for many supplemental industries. For example, county residents and real estate agents have noticed a change in housing availability.
“Everything’s tight in Clinton County, and there’s no doubt that’s due to the anticipation of the plant,” says Patti Warnke, real estate agent with Century 21 Looking Glass. "It surely is making people excited about housing, like buying investment and rental properties."
Zillow, the home value site, reported that Clinton County home values have increased 4.9% over the past year, and it predicts they will rise another 5% in the next year. The average number of days on the market for a St. Johns home is 18 days, and there are only 35 houses listed on the RE/MAX multi-listing system in the St. Johns School District.
“Last year, sellers were on average getting 99% of the asking price,” says Albert Manas, RE/MAX real estate agent and St. Johns resident.
ANTICIPATION BUILDS: Michigan dairy farmers are looking forward to having another central location to take their milk.
The Clinton County Economic Alliance toured the construction site in August to check on the progress. Troy Bancroft, CEO of AgroLiquid of St. Johns, was one of the members who attended.
“It is impressive what they’re looking to do,” Bancroft says. “One of the main takeaways I had was that they said every 20 seconds they are going to produce a 40-pound block of cheese. The plant is really giving the area the ability to make use of all the products that come from dairy.”
Dairy farmers in Michigan are looking forward to having another central location in the state to take their milk.
“Processing has been lacking here in Michigan,” says Jennifer Lewis, District 2 director on the Michigan Farm Bureau board. “As a dairy farmer and Michigan Farm Bureau member, I am pleased to see this type of expansion and hope there will be more to come. Anytime we can add value to the products that are produced in Michigan is an added bonus to the tremendous farmers of this state who strive each and every day to provide consumers with exceptional quality foods.”
Planners estimate the project will generate 280 jobs. The companies have been holding job fairs around the mid-Michigan area, and will continue to do so this year. Open positions include jobs in administration, human resources, finance, engineering, mechanical, environmental, logistics and more.
Kate Studley, human resource business partner for MWC/Glanbia, says, “We’re looking for employees with a good attitude and a strong work ethic. If you have those two qualities, we’ll be able to train you for the majority of available positions.”
In February, MWC held a second job fair in St. Johns, and the organizers were pleased with the turnout.
“We had over 800 applicants,” Studley says. “We were more than excited. We had everyone from people who had just graduated, to people with their M.A.s and Ph.D.s.”
Acclimating new employees to the world of dairy is something the human resources department is taking seriously.
“Onboarding takes a week,” Studley says. “We know we’re hiring people who don’t have previous dairy experience, so we go over everything — Dairy 101, quality assurance and meeting the whole team. They have been planning this for three years now, but now we’re in the stage where we’re fine-tuning all the plans and hiring people.”
“We’re glad there’s so much excitement around the project, and we’re looking forward to 2020,” Studley says.
Wardin and her husband own and operate a sixth-generation dairy farm in St. Johns, Mich.