Amy Bickel The Hutchinson News
HUGOTON - There was a time dairy cows were about as common as trees in southwest Kansas.
There weren't many.
But things have changed in 20 years, when the state's first large-scale dairy was built and expansion of the fledgling industry was merely a dream.
It's mid-afternoon at MasCow Dairy near the little town of Moscow in Stevens County, where employees are milking 3,400 cows. A tanker truck of milk kicks up dust on the dirt road, leaving the farm and heading 12 miles to the new Kansas Dairy Ingredients plant just 12 miles away.
In a landscape now dotted with dairies, southwest Kansas has its own little processing plant, churning out product that eventually is made into Kraft Singles and Velveeta Cheese.
"Most generally, those trucks would have gone southeast and sometimes as far as Georgia or Alabama," said dairy operator Jody Wacker, who helps run the dairy with husband Adam. "The big picture of this processing plant is our farm is benefiting. We were shipping milk hundreds and hundreds of miles and now we only have to ship it 12."
The new Kansas Dairy Ingredients plant at Hugoton is just the start of what could be even more expansion in southwest Kansas, where today a few dozen industrial-strength dairies dot the horizon where crops like wheat and corn once grew - operations that stretch across a mile section.
Gov. Sam Brownback has long made it a goal to grow the rural countryside, putting focus on attracting more dairy operators to western Kansas from states like California, where urban growth has crowded some dairies. He also wants to attract plants to develop finished products such as cheese.
Today there are more than 120,000 cows in the state - a 50 percent increase since 1996, according to Kansas State University. Most are concentrated in western Kansas.
With the arrival of Kansas Dairy Ingredients, Hugoton is positioned as a leader in Kansas' rapidly growing dairy industry, which now includes approximately 400 dairy farms, 12 dairy processing plants and 68 milk and dairy distributors, according to the Kansas Department of Commerce.
"Most locals don't realize the impact the dairy industry is having on Kansas," said Judy Parsons, KDI's plant administrator who, on this day, was preparing for an open house. "But you can see it from just the milk tankers on the road."
Make way for milk
Kansas Dairy Ingredients, a $20 million project, opened in April. So far, it has 20 employees, with plans to expand to nearly 60 in upcoming years with the possibility of adding dry milk and cheese production to the facility.
At present, the company receives 12 tankers of milk each day, or 75,000 gallons, Parsons said. The plant concentrates the milk, or removes excess water, as well as lactose and minerals. The final product is shipped to Springfield, Mo., to Kraft Foods, the plant's main customer.
Concentrating the milk allows for more efficient transportation to customers and removes a step in the cheese-making process, she said.
Brownback has long touted the need for a cheese plant in western Kansas to expand the market opportunities of the state's milk. It would also help revitalize the region, where population has been waning for decades as farms get larger and children move away.
But in Hugoton, population 3,800, economic growth is in a renaissance, said Stevens County Economic Development Director Neal Gillespie. The dairy plant is only the latest new business in the Stevens County seat town.
Already the town is bustling with activity as 800 temporary workers build Abengoa's biomass and ethanol plant that is projected to open early next year and employ more than 70.
The upward trend is evident on Main Street, he said. Two new restaurants opened in the past year and, in the past census, Stevens County grew by 261 people.
School Superintendent Mark Crawford said he has seen a growth of 10 new children in the school system every year for the past four years.
"I think there is a lot of excitement in the community with the economic upturn," said Crawford, who added that the district has had 10 new students each the past four years.
It helps, as well, to diversify the tax base, which currently is largely oil and gas production, he said.
"Our property valuations due to gas and oil are declining," he said, noting that the county does have a low tax base with 80 percent of the school district's dollars due to oil and gas.
However, a University of Kansas study five years ago shows the Hugoton well field is 65 percent depleted. District valuations, which are affected by the declining field as well as the lower wellhead price for natural gas, have dropped nearly 50 percent in the past four years.
Four years ago, the district valuation totaled $344 million, Crawford said.
Nevertheless, with growth comes challenges, said Crawford, who is on the economic development board. The biggest might be a shortage of affordable housing. He said the county is applying for grants to solve that.
The city also implemented a neighborhood revitalization program July 1, a tax refund that diminishes over a five-year period.
Gillespie said that investors spoke at the Stevens County Commission's Monday meeting about building a 52-room motel.
"Things just fell into place," Gillespie said of the recent growth. "We have definitely been blessed."
Room for growth
Adam and Jody Wacker are similar to many who have transplanted dairies to western Kansas. Wanting to expand in the dairy business, Kansas provided the best opportunity to do that.
The couple came to Kansas five years ago to partner in the MasCow Dairy. Nearby Tuls Dairy, along with MasCow, ship all its milk to KDI.
She said she thought the reason Kansas hasn't attracted a large-scale cheese plant or processing plant is largely due to the size of operation investors were looking at.
KDI, however, is the perfect size at present, with plenty of opportunity of expansion, she said. Moreover, while water is sometimes an issue in this area of Kansas where the Ogallala is depleting and new water rights are nonexistent, the excess water removed from the milk will eventually be used to irrigate fields.
"It's exciting and it's exciting about the potential this plant has for the area, and it's good for the community," she said.