Could a new cheese factory help Centre County’s struggling dairy farms?

Centre County dairy farmers could get some relief if a cheese factory comes to the area.

In response to Pennsylvania’s dairy “crisis,” Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration and the Center for Dairy Excellence commissioned a study to look into what parts of the state would provide the greatest potential benefits from a dairy processing plant. And the State College area, along with Reading, proved to have the “strongest incentives.”

“Two new plants in Pennsylvania for processing “other” cheeses — or non-American types, including Italian and specialty cheeses — could significantly reduce overall supply chain costs, enhance the marginal value of milk for producers, and create more than 1,000 jobs, while also adding $1.5 billion in economic activity to the state,” according to the study.

Pennsylvania ranks sixth nationally in milk production, and the state’s 525,000 cows produce more than 10.8 billion pounds of milk annually, according to the Center for Dairy Excellence. But in 2016, the commonwealth lost 120 dairy farms.

Dairy farmers, locally and across the state, have struggled to stay afloat due to low milk prices and there being a surplus of milk but not enough demand. But bringing new dairy processing facilities to the state could “boost demand” and keep more than 20 percent of Pennsylvania’s milk in the state, instead of being shipped elsewhere for processing, the study found.

Many Pennsylvania dairy farmers ship their products out of state to be processed, which is very costly. The “overwhelming majority” of those products come back to the mid-Atlantic region, Centre County Commissioner Mark Higgins said, so having more in-state processors would cut out the middleman.

“Because we have simply not made ag processing a priority in Pennsylvania for the last couple of decades, whereas Wisconsin has, that’s where the cheese factories are,” Higgins said.

Centre County has many amenities — more than 1,000 farms, University Park Airport, two busy interstates, a highly skilled workforce and the capability to process large amounts of sewage — that are attractive to dairy processors, Higgins said.

However, those companies aren’t currently jumping at the opportunity to expand. Higgins said state and county officials are in the process of courting potential processors, but that could take a year or two and then another year and a half to have a factory up and running.

“This is a priority and we need to keep pushing on it because we have dairy farmers going bankrupt, like next month. And we need to give them hope and we need to be proactive in assisting them,” Higgins said.

While Higgins said he would love a cheese factory or other type of dairy processing plant to come to the area, he said Centre County dairy farmers would still benefit if one were built up to 60 miles away, such as in Mifflin, Perry or Juniata counties.

Centre County government is working with SEDA-Council of Governments, which is the regional economic development group for 11 counties in the state, to encourage dairy processors to expand to the region.

“We’re saying, “Hey, if you need a little bit of local match money to help you, we’ll scrape it together, we’ll find it, we’ll assist you because we want to help our local dairy farms,’ ” he said.

Higgins has another idea to aide the county’s agricultural industry: a business incubator that specializes in ag processing.

It would utilize the local entrepreneurial community to create more jobs and new businesses of varying sizes that will process the agricultural products in the county.

There’s only one ag processing plant in Centre County, the Hanover Foods facility in Centre Hall that primarily processes vegetables.

“We’re growing the stuff here, we’re eating it here, we just don’t process it — the whole middle part is missing,” Higgins said.

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