LYNDEN - The fire that damaged the Darigold milk plant in February 2012 has a silver lining for the local dairy community, as the new equipment will mean more production and export opportunities.
The fire damaged one of the two dryers that turn milk into powder at the facility, forcing the plant to run at about 60 percent capacity. After the fire the company decided to embark on a $22 million project to replace the damaged dryer with new technology to improve efficiency.
Once completed in late April or early May, the new dryer will produce about 46 percent more powder annually than the dryer it is replacing, said Michelle Carter, a spokeswoman for the company, in an email.
The near completion of this project is considered good news by the local dairy industry. The damaged dryer initially forced Whatcom County dairy farmers to decrease milk production during the spring months. As the new dryer comes online, the milk cap is expected to be lifted, said Larry DeHaan, a dairy farmer in Lynden for more than 30 years.
"It's also a huge psychological boost to Lynden that Darigold is willing to spend (up to $22 million) to upgrade this facility," DeHaan said. "It gives us dairy farmers hope to continue in this industry."
One reason for the optimism from DeHaan is the new dryer will allow the plant to make whole-milk powder, which the facility had previously been unable to do. It currently produces only nonfat varieties of milk powder.
"Making whole milk powder is a huge deal for us, because it opens up a new market," DeHaan said. "There's a strong demand for this product, especially in Asia."
Carter said the Lynden plant exports a very large percentage of its products. One of its main export markets is Asia.
"Updating the dryer technology during this reconstruction will allow us to continue to be competitive in all our markets," Carter said.
The new dryer is coming at a time when Whatcom County dairy farmers are hoping to recover from a tough winter, DeHaan said. A combination of high feed costs and low milk prices cut into profit margins. The futures market predicts some improvement in 2013. That, combined with potentially more milk being sent to Darigold's Lynden plant, gives DeHaan and others hope that they can increase production.
Last December, the 112 Whatcom County dairy farms produced 84.1 million pounds of milk, making Whatcom the second-largest county in milk production, behind Yakima, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The December total was down significantly from May, when 117 farms produced 91 million pounds of milk.
"We were at a depression-level back in December, so this helps," DeHaan said. "It means more possibilities."