Kansas Profile – Now That’s Rural: Joann Knight, Hilmar Cheese
Nov. 9, 2022
By Ron Wilson, director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University
“Who Moved My Cheese?”
That was the title of a business book that was especially popular a few years ago, as a parable of how to deal with change. Today we’ll learn about a remarkable change that is coming to southwest Kansas, and it is literally about cheese. A new state-of-the-art cheese and whey protein processing plant is being constructed in Dodge City.
Joann Knight is executive director of the Dodge City/Ford County Development Corporation with headquarters in Dodge City. She’s a native of the region and a graduate of Dodge City Community College and the University of Oklahoma Economic Development Institute.
“Back in 1992, we started talking about recruiting dairies from California where they were being crowded out by population expansion,” Knight said.
Recruiting dairies became a successful strategy for the western Kansas Rural Economic Development Alliance in following decades. As milk production grew in western Kansas, leaders wanted to add value and create more jobs.
In 2021, Hilmar Cheese Company of Hilmar, Calif. announced that the company would build a state-of-the-art milk processing facility in Dodge City. “We’re excited,” Knight said.
“This will be a $630 million project and create 260 jobs. The average salary is projected to be $63,000.”
The plant will operate 365 days a year and have the capacity to handle 260 tanker trucks of milk per day, the equivalent of the production of 110,000 cows. “They’ll be bringing in milk from across the region,” Knight said.
Hilmar Cheese Company was founded in 1984 by 12 dairy farm families in central California. In 2007, the company opened a production facility in Dalhart, Texas. The company is now one of the world’s largest producers of high quality, American-style cheese and whey products.
“Hilmar is an incredibly environmentally sensitive company,” Knight said. One of the factors that attracted Hilmar to Dodge City is the city’s innovative waste water treatment system, which has won numerous awards.
“Milk is mostly water,” Knight said. “Once the cheese solids and whey are removed, that water will be recycled and reused. It can be re-irrigated and used in the biogas production system. They’ll actually be injecting water back into the aquifer.”
David Ahlem is president and CEO of Hilmar Cheese Company. “Dodge City gives us many opportunities, including a local and skilled labor force, a supportive and expanding agricultural region, and an excellent transportation network that allows us to easily reach our expanding markets,” he said at the time of the announcement in 2021.
The company specializes in the production of cheddar and American-style cheeses used by private label and national brand companies worldwide. It currently produces such cheeses as cheddar, monterey jack, pepper jack, colby, colby jack and mozzarella.
Whey is processed into whey protein products that are used as ingredients in many foods including nutritional beverages and bars; and lactose, which is marketed internationally as an ingredient in confections and infant formula. Hilmar exports products to 50 countries.
Increased demand for milk will benefit area dairies such as High Plains Ponderosa Dairy near the rural southwest Kansas community of Plains, population 1,037 people. Now, that’s rural.
“Dairy production is so advanced these days,” Knight said. “They’re using robotic milkers and computer operators. They monitor 600 data points on each cow and can test the milk on the spot with their state of the art system.”
“The economic impact will be compounded substantially by the additional dairies, transportation and services that will be required. This could double the dairy industry in southwest Kansas.”
“Who Moved My Cheese?” A few years ago, that was a popular business book about change, and now we are excited to see this change in the southwest region of the state.
We commend Joann Knight and the people of Hilmar Dairy for making a difference with this investment in value-added agriculture processing. I’m glad to see that the production of this cheese has moved to rural Kansas.
Audio and text files of Kansas Profiles are available at http://www.kansasprofile.com. For more information about the Huck Boyd Institute, interested persons can visit http://www.huckboydinstitute.org.