February 25, 2014-- Dairy industry leaders and leadership at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls (UWRF) have kicked off fundraising efforts to make needed updates to the university's Dairy Pilot Plant.
UWRF is one of few campuses in the nation that delivers a 360-degree experiential-learning opportunity for undergraduate students to work in a dairy plant production environment and participate in new product development, from testing to marketing, from production to final retail, in addition to being able to access the key academic components in the classroom.
"Wisconsin's dairy industry is in the need of cheesemakers, buttermakers, process operators, quality assurance and food microbiologists," said Tayt Wuethrich, vice president/owner of Grassland Dairy Products, Inc., as he expressed his support for the renovation of UWRF's Dairy Pilot Plant. "UW-River Falls competes with many other schools of higher learning from across the U.S. so upgrading the pilot plant sends a statement that we are here to retain and train our next generation of dairy leaders in Wisconsin."
Launched in June 2013, the fundraising effort has already reached $1 million in gifts and commitments, one third of its goal to raise $3 million in private contributions to update and upgrade equipment in the Dairy Pilot Plant. UWRF will also seek to secure an additional $500,000 in institutional and state funding for facility renovation and modernization.
"This transformational renovation of the Dairy Pilot Plant is a high priority project for the university," said UWRF Chancellor Dean Van Galen. "The renovation will modernize our facilities, expand our capacity to support business and industry and enable us to provide high-quality hands-on experiences to a new generation of leaders in Wisconsin's signature industry."
The Dairy Pilot Plant first opened in 1982 and has been producing popular retail products such as cheese and ice cream for students, staff and the local community ever since. Today, more than 20 flavored cheeses and 30 different flavors of ice cream are made by UWRF students with milk from the dairy herd on the UWRF Mann Valley Farm.
Modernization efforts will ensure the campus's 30-year-old Dairy Pilot Plant will continue to be considered relevant to the region's growing dairy processing industry, and will help meet demands for talented production floor-ready graduates.
As a testament to the project's vital role in the dairy processing industry, major donations have been received from the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA), Grassland Dairy Inc. (of Greenwood), Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery (of Ellsworth), Welcome Dairy (of Colby), Loos Machine (of Colby), Mullins Cheese (of Mosinee) and Foremost Farms USA (of Baraboo). These organizations are the first seven of 20 possible members on the Dairy Plant Advisory Committee, which will afford benefits such as priority recruitment access to UWRF graduates; the opportunity to advise on plant renovation designs and program development; and access to the facility for research, short courses and workshops.
"This is a very important project for UWRF and the Wisconsin dairy industry," said Dave Fuhrmann, president of Foremost Farms USA, Wisconsin's largest dairy cooperative. "The demand for trained dairy processing and product development personnel will continue to grow in the future. Foremost Farms will look to UWRF for qualified candidates for the positions we'll have open in the future. We are confident the investment that is made today will provide the expertise our business needs."
The plant is an integral component of academic programming in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences (CAFES), and the college is reinforcing its emphasis on teaching in-demand disciplines, which include food technology, processing, and plant management skills. A new faculty member will soon be hired in Food and Process Engineering and a new minor created in Food Processing Technology. A renovated Dairy Pilot Plant will be integral to the success of these academic emphases.
"CAFES wants to ensure we have a modern, well-equipped plant with processing capacity relevant to the industry which will give our students direct, hands-on experience and provide for expanded outreach training and programming," said CAFES Dean Dale Gallenberg.
The dairy pilot plant also serves a vital role in outreach and applied research, as indicated by Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association Executive Director John Umhoefer.
"Four of the five basic courses required for the Wisconsin Cheesemaker's license are taught at UWRF, along with opportunities for cheesemaker apprenticeships and short courses for industry personnel and students to earn their pasteurizer license," Umhoefer said. "The Dairy Pilot Plant at River Falls has also new dairy businesses test new products and processes."
"This renovation project will ensure the university's relevancy in the dairy industry with regards to education and training, while introducing state of the art processing, food safety and bio-security features," said Dairy Pilot Plant Manager Michelle Farner. The renovation is scheduled to start in summer 2015 with much of the work completed in time for the start of fall semester. Full occupancy of the new space is anticipated by January 2016. The renovation fundraising effort is part of UWRF's larger $20 million Rising to Distinction comprehensive campaign which has raised more than $14 million to date.
Specific outcomes of the renovation project will include an overall modernization of the equipment and processes and an increase in space dedicated to the Dairy Pilot Plant, bringing the facility from 1600 square feet to 6000 square feet. This will allow for the separation of raw product handling and whey processing and the creation of independently functioning spaces for cheese and ice cream production. Space will be added for raw milk processing and separation, along with increased HTST capacity, additional cheese vats, and a cheese aging room. An improved ice cream manufacturing space will feature temperature control, updated processing equipment, and separate raw and pasteurized processing areas. A classroom/training area overlooking the cheese processing space will also be added.
"UWRF students have the unique opportunity to work in the Dairy Pilot Plant and gain experience that makes them immediately valuable in the industry upon graduating. This important renovation project will help ensure that students continue to get relevant academic preparation and hands-on training in dairy product processing," said Jim Mildbrand, secretary-treasurer of the Central Wisconsin Cheesemakers' and Buttermakers' Association (CWCBA) and a member of the steering committee providing oversight for the fundraising project.
In demonstrating their commitment, the CWCBA approved a $25,000 gift for the project on Feb. 18.
For more information on the dairy plant renovation, visit go.uwrf.edu/dairyplant or contact Dean Gallenberg at 715-425-3784.
Photo: Jenessa Freidhof, a junior majoring in agricultural business, stirs cheese into curds in the Dairy Pilot Plant at UW-River Falls.