The news bled out late friday like a million gallon milk spill on the bare autumn toned prairie- Giant dairy co-op AMPI will be closing it's 200,000 square foot dairy plant near Dawson, MN. Over a hundred workers will spend the holidays applying for unemployment, and hundreds of dairy farmers will have to truck their milk up to a hundred miles further to surviving (for now) AMPI dairy plants.
A backgrounder is in order here... My concrete "soddie" abode in Florence on the ridge sits on the site of an old dairy. Follow the railroads in all four directions and in most towns, no matter how small, you'll find old brick dairy buildings in various stages of deterioration or renewal. Not surprising- The Buffalo Ridge's shortgrass prairie is ideally suited to dairy farming, and given the easily eroded topsoils on the windswept ridges and steep slopes it's often best to let the prairie be prairie and the cows and cattle graze without expensive fossil fueled intervention in the form of plowing. But with talk of the dustbowl of the twenties and thirties now largely confined to the nursing homes, the current generation of farmers largely prefers to plow the prairie, plant feed crops, then expensively harvest and serve said feed crops to corn sweetener and ethanol plants or the occasional dairy cow or more likely confined livestock. The extremes of this can be seen out at the infamous bankrupt Veblen dairies, where lovely ridgetop grasses grow ungrazed amidst glacial lakes while the cows are machine fed in giant sheds that can probably be seen from space. Probably smell 'em from space too, which may explain Veblen's economic depression as jobless native folks kill time while the dairies recruit their help from the other side of the world. It says something of the obesity of today's dairy operations that single rear axle milk trucks are pretty much only found abandoned in the groves, tandems are rare, and most of the milk hauling here today is done with five to seven axle monster trucks that push the legal weight limits for semis. And on the South Dakota side of the ridge, 8 axle 100,000+ tractor trailer milk rigs are becoming the norm. Heck, those monsters couldn't maneuver to within a hundred yards of most traditional milk houses!
Now if you've been following the brewery, baking, or dairy industries for the better part of a lifetime you've noticed a trend to bigger and maybe better plants. Maybe better, because once a plant grows beyond a hundred thousand square feet it often becomes unmanageable and simply getting stuff from one part of a plant to the other is a major hassle. Heck, I've seen these mega plants have to run a truck from one side of the plant to the other just to move products through the production process. In fact, the Postal Service has some pretty thorough stats on plant productivity (which they've ignored) that prove that their smaller mail processing plants are more productive than their larger ones. None the less, mail going less than ten miles between towns is trucked over a hundred miles past the processing center in Windom to one in Mankato and back, despite the fact that the Windom plant is a more modern and productive facility.
Clearly AMPI's executives, schooled in the "bigger is better" standard practices of american business, are following the same megaplant logic that drove Hostess Brands and Veblen dairies to bankruptcy. Meanwhile, in the real world, low volume craft beers, wineries, and artisan breads and cheeses are all the rage. Heck, local microbrewery Brau Brewing is doing so well they're having to move from their shed in Lucan to a former hardware store in Marshall to keep up with the demand. Savvy small dairy farmers are setting up on farm microdairies and producing cheeses that demand permium prices in the supermarkets.
Meanwhile, AMPI and their big business buddies like Land O' Lakes and DFA have forgotten their humble roots in local cooperatives that served producers and consumers alike and gone on a binge of dairy closings and consolidations. Google AMPI and you'll find they've been blindly following the bankrupt lead of the Veblen Dairies, Hostess Brands, ad nauseum and closing one megaplant after another, while trading plants between their less than a handful of "competitors" on a whim. That's the official excuse for closing the Dawson plant- AMPI had sold part of it's product line to a competitor. Thus that market moves one lost competitor closer to a monopoly and AMPI has a dumb excuse to close the Dawson plant.
Now if the executives of AMPI were real managers, they'd note the trends and ride them... The Dawson plant has produced award winning cheeses, why not amplify that strength with more upmarket products? Maybe take advantage of the railroad that runs right by the plant to reduce increasing transportation costs? "Right size" the plant by renting the part used by the operation they're selling to the new owners while keeping the cheese making operation that feeds it going on the other side of the plant? And improve relationships with the workers and their union, so they'd quit losing so many grievances?
But Noooo... AMPI will in continue their "going out of business sale" by letting yet another plant go cold this winter, to lose it's sanitary certifications and become another giant concrete white elephant on the prairie. As the unemployment runs out next spring, a hundred more "for sale" signs will sadly bloom around tiny Dawson. And as the laid off workers and milk haulers and farmers who can't make a profit after hundred mile milk hauls will move on, the Main Street of Dawson will be emptier and colder in next and future winters...
(crossposted from Buffalo Ridge Blog )