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April 16, 2013 7:45 am

Park County dairy looks at building processing plant

Written by CJ Baker

Cows at George Farms grab a meal in this February photo. George Farms hopes to learn from a planned feasibility study whether it would make good business sense to build a plant to process the dairy’s milk on-site. The State Loan and Investment Board recently contributed $25,000 to the study. Cows at George Farms grab a meal in this February photo. George Farms hopes to learn from a planned feasibility study whether it would make good business sense to build a plant to process the dairy’s milk on-site. The State Loan and Investment Board recently contributed $25,000 to the study. Tribune file photo by Carla Wensky

Local residents could one day find some locally-produced milk, ice cream, butter, yogurt or cheese on their grocery store shelves if things go the way a Park County dairy hopes.

George Farms, a 550-cow dairy located between Powell and Cody off U.S. Highway 14-A, is seeking a mix of state and federal money to research whether it’s feasible for the farm to build and operate its own milk processing plant.

“That’s our hope: that we can bring a business that is year-round to the region, and we want to see if it’s possible. We want to make a wise decision and proceed with caution,” said Seth George as he pitched Park County commissioners on the project in November.

“We’re also really excited about it and think there’s some opportunity here,” George added.

Forward Cody CEO James Klessens said any time you can take a raw commodity and take it to the next stage, it’s good for business and the local economy. He noted that when you only have the raw commodity, you can’t control prices or risk.

“Being a farmer, I know what it’s like: You raise the product and you turn it over to the middle man, and everyone else profits,” sympathized Commissioner Tim French.

“It’s all in the value-added piece, not the commodity piece,” said Klessens. He sees the milk plant as potentially having an impact on the regional market and thinks there’s a great chance for success.

Wyoming Business Council staff also see the potential.

“If this study shows that turning a local commodity into ice cream, yogurt, bottled milk, etc., is feasible, it will strengthen a family-owned business, create jobs and a local brand,” said a statement from Northwest Region director Leah Bruscino of Powell. “It seems that the public is clamoring for local products, and it makes sense to look for ways to add value to existing commodities that will meet the local (and beyond) demand.”

The study is a roughly $65,100 project in total. The Wyoming State Loan and Investment Board unanimously awarded $25,000 of state dollars for the work at a Thursday meeting.

Another $33,300 is being sought from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with $6,800 committed by George Farms.

Klessens said it’s a lot of money, but if the Georges simply built the processing plant, “it’s just too much of a risk, and it’s a risk that could be fatal to the farm itself,” he said.

The study would evaluate local markets for demand, forecast the financial prospects, look at quality control and plant design and ultimately see if there’s a viable business plan for a milk processing plant at George Farms.

Part of the study will be determining whether it would be more feasible for the farm to market its own milk products or contract with a major distributor such as Albertsons. Seth George noted that signing a contract with a distributor takes some of the risk out, but removes some of the potential for profit, too.

Based on the scope of what George Farms envisions, a processing plant would employ around 100 people, he said.

There are only 14 dairies in Wyoming, with most in the Star Valley area and just two in the Big Horn Basin, said Arley George, Seth’s father.

“We’re a little isolated up here, and there are no processing plants in existence in the state of Wyoming today, so we see this as a possible opportunity to explore,” he said.

Arley George said his parents (Seth’s grandparents) began dairying at their Cody homestead in 1951 “and we’ve been doing that ever since.”

Today the farm houses 550 dairy cows and a small beef operation.

“We’ve come to a point where we have ... four of our children that are back with us working full-time, and we’re just looking at some other opportunities and exploring what’s out there,” Arley George said.

Park County commissioners unanimously agreed to sponsor George Farms’ request to the State Loan and Investment Board. No county money is going toward the project, but commissioners did give their personal endorsements to George Farms’ idea.

“It’s a really neat project,” said Commissioner Bucky Hall, praising the effort to “keep the kids employed here.”

He also heralded the farm’s prospects for success.

“Everybody’s ‘buy local,’” said Hall, adding, “That’s a pretty good looking market niche, in my opinion.”

Klessens said the initial plan was to complete the study in about 18 months after funding was secured, but he said last week that market situations have created a need to do it more quickly, in perhaps less than half that time.

Once finished, the study would be available to anyone who wants to look at opening a processing plant.

George Farms is located on Lane 17, about 12 miles northeast of Cody and 14 miles southwest of Powell.

5 comments

  • Comment Link April 16, 2013 1:57 pm posted by Mary Poppins

    That will smell great when the wind catches it!! Out with the stinky beef plant and in with the dairy cows...sure hope the cows cam free range a little more than they do now, the ground out there is already soaked with urine and can be smelt for miles...awesome...And dont say im from Cali, cause I was born here...

  • Comment Link April 16, 2013 5:31 pm posted by Faith Wicks

    This is a great idea! Much better than buying milk and other dairy products supplied to stores from goodness knows where, from cows who have been fed who knows what. When I can, I like to buy local eggs and produce too. It's always a good idea to grow the local economy, though admittedly, growth sometimes can be a bit smelly.

  • Comment Link April 16, 2013 5:34 pm posted by Salty Dawg

    Hey Mary Poppins,do you eat tofu and drink almond milk too? Some folks like beef and milk products.

  • Comment Link April 21, 2013 7:31 am posted by Connie Dorsey

    I was born on a farm in Idaho. We moved to Utah several years ago and I sure miss the farm. Last summer we vacationed in Cody and stopped to tour the George farm. They run a top notch business there and really care about and for the animals on the farm. They have their systems down and running flawlessly. Buying local is great. Good luck to you Georges!

  • Comment Link April 26, 2013 6:52 am posted by Verne W House

    Interesting move. Smart to analyze the market as proposed, to ensure that value will be added without risking the whole business. "Buy local" is a market niche that can disintegrate if it doesn't satisfy those who want hormone-free, free range, no antibiotics, etc. Some new dairies now capture their manure to generate their own methane, and control odor. The study should try to learn what it will take to shift consumers to actually buy local. Good luck.

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