LYNDEN - Darigold showed off its $22 million investment to the community on Friday, April 19, an expense that should significantly improve the efficiency and safety of the milk-processing plant.
The new 143-foot milk powder dryer replaces the equipment damaged by a fire in February 2012. The company plans to work with the local fire department next week on training for the taller building, then begin the start-up procedures. The facility is expected to be operational by May 8.
Once it is running, the new dryer is expected to produce 46 percent more milk powder annually than the previous dryer. It also will provide a significant new opportunity for the company: The plant now will be able to make whole-milk powder, which it had previously been unable to do. It currently produces nonfat varieties of milk powder.
With the new equipment, the Lynden facility will be able to produce up to 4 million pounds of powdered milk a day.
The ability to make whole milk powder is a key business opportunity for the company, particularly for the export market. A majority of its powdered milk is already exported to the Pacific Rim countries and Mexico.
"This (whole milk powder) is something China wants, and it's a market we haven't been able to get into until now," said Steve Rowe, vice president of corporate affairs.
The inside of the dryer tower is a labyrinth of stainless steel equipment, fans and motors that converts mists of condensed milk into powder, starting with blasts of hot air and taking it through a cooling process that is done in a matter of seconds, said Ethan Buckmier, plant manager.
Darigold has added a significant amount of safety upgrades, having learned lessons from last year's fire. This includes an additional water system, reinforced firewalls in key rooms and the stairwells, concrete floors on several different levels and explosion vents, which would relieve pressure to prevent blowing out another portion of the structure.
It's estimated that 40,000 man hours went into installing the new dryer; about 60 people were working on the project on a typical day. With the facility at reduced capacity for the past year, Buckmier said the company used the time to cross-train many of its 65 employees to avoid layoffs.
The Lynden facility is a key component for the local dairy industry, with up to 70 large trucks filled with local and regional milk arriving daily. The farmer-owned company supports more than 100 Whatcom County dairy farms.
"We're very bullish on milk in the Northwest, and I think the community values the open space it (dairy farming) offers," Rowe said. "The world looks to the Northwest for milk. ... We're not going anywhere."