Swiss Valley breaks ground on $20.6 M expansion of Luana plant

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Swiss Valley Farms broke ground on the $20.6 million expansion of its Luana cheese manufacturing facility Sept. 24. Expected to be complete in 2016, the expansion will double natural cheese production and allow the Luana plant to produce new cheese varieties and sizes. Taking part in the groundbreaking were (left to right) Swiss Valley VP/GM of Natural Cheese Don Desjarlais, Luana Mayor Jerry Schroeder, Swiss Valley Board Chairman Pam Bolin, Swiss Valley Luana Plant Manager Rod Kregel, Swiss Valley CEO Don Boelens, Monona Mayor Barb Collins and Clayton County Supervisor Gary Bowden. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

“This is an exciting step forward,” Swiss Valley CEO Don Boelens said as he spoke to those gathered at the ceremony. “This expansion will be a great benefit to our customers, our members and to the Clayton County community.”

Those in attendance at the ceremony scoped out plans for the expansion, which centers around improvement of the cheese manufacturing operating equipment.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Swiss Valley Farms began a new chapter in the history of its Luana cheese manufacturing facility Sept. 24, as a special ceremony marked the groundbreaking of a new $20.6 million expansion.

Announced in Nov. 2014, the expansion centers around improvement of the cheese manufacturing operating equipment, including replacement of the current press vats with a moulding system solution, installation of additional system automation, press tunnels and new buffer tanks. The project also includes a 49,000-square-foot expansion that will allow room for the new equipment and additional warehousing space.

“We’re known for award-winning cheeses, and it was that demand that sparked the expansion,” said Swiss Valley CEO Don Boelens at the groundbreaking. “We can now explore new cheeses.”

Headquartered in Davenport, Swiss Valley is a four-state dairy cooperative owned and controlled by over 500 dairy producers. The Luana plant was acquired by the company in 1967 and continues to be the largest of Swiss Valley’s manufacturing facilities, handling over 7,000 milk trucks per year.

The Luana plant currently manufactures 20 million pounds of cheese each year, including Swiss, Baby Swiss, Gouda, cream cheese, Neufchatel and sweet whey. The expansion is expected to double the natural cheese production capacity and give Swiss Valley the flexibility to produce new cheese varieties and sizes. The production of cream cheese and whey will also be increased.

“Our goal is to increase capacity at this facility, drive efficiency and explore new cheese types that our customers are demanding,” Boelens added. Swiss Valley cheeses are sold both nationally and internationally, including in Korea, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia. “It will give us the flexibility we need to meet ever-changing market demands and the operational upgrades needed to continue to be a viable business.”

The expansion project will benefit from over $1.8 million in incentives, Boelens noted. That includes $465,000 in direct financial assistance, along with tax benefits, from the Iowa Economic Development Authority Board.

Clayton County Supervisor Ron McCartney credited Clayton County Development Group Executive Director Darla Kelchen with coordinating that assistance.

“She was the middle of the spokes of the wheel that helped bring it all together,” he said.

The supervisors also did their part, offering Swiss Valley a 100 percent 10-year tax abatement on the expansion.

“This is big-time economic development,” McCartney said. “We’re thrilled they decided to do the expansion here. It’s a fantastic opportunity for the county.”

The biggest economic impact comes in the form of jobs.

“The increase in technology will not cut jobs,” Boelens explained.

Rather, the expansion is anticipated to create 10 jobs and retain 89 more. The Luana plant currently employs 112 workers.

“It’s a good project and good-paying jobs, which is something this area needs,” McCartney said. “Swiss Valley has a tremendous workforce.”

“Bringing in jobs and helping the economy—that’s what all counties are looking for,” mentioned supervisor Gary Bowden.

Along with the jobs and job stability, the expansion should also help the local housing market, noted Luana mayor Jerry Schroeder.

It will benefit local option sales tax and local contractors, as well, Kelchen added.

“It will hopefully bring more people to go to our schools and use our playgrounds and our pool,” said Monona mayor Barb Collins. “It’s great to see [Swiss Valley] stay and grow.”

McCartney said the expansion is also a boon for local dairy farmers.

“Producers are shipping milk to Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota every day,” he said. “This will solidify the market for local producers. There’s more of an opportunity for them to use it here now.”

“Now that Swiss Valley will double production, we’ll need to get those cows busy,” Kelchen remarked with a smile. 

Around 10 pounds of milk are needed to create one pound of cheese.

This expansion, which is expected to be complete in 2016, is the latest of several renovations done at the Luana plant since its acquisition nearly 50 years ago. In 1971, Swiss Valley re-configured the plant to produce Swiss in 100-pound blocks. In 2001, new Swiss cheese-making equipment was installed. Most recently, in 2010, new silos were installed to allow for increased milk storage capacity. 

The potential for growth is encouraging, said Clayton County Supervisor Larry Gibbs.

“The expansion is retaining jobs and going to be adding more,” he said. “This will be an asset for many years to come.”

“This is an exciting step forward,” Boelens said as he thanked those in attendance for celebrating the “momentous occasion” with Swiss Valley. “This expansion will be a great benefit to our customers, our members and to the Clayton County community.”

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