Garden City is going global with the Dairy Farmers of America Meadowlark dairy plant, and to celebrate that development, an opening celebration and ribbon cutting were hosted Thursday at the plant.

The event drew city and county officials, legislators, Gov. Sam Brownback and a host of others who have been instrumental in bringing the 270,000-square-foot, $235 million plant to town at 330 S. U.S. Highway 83.

In spring of 2011, Finney County Economic Development Corp. President Lona DuVall cold-called DFA executives while on a trip to Kansas City. A conversation at DFA headquarters almost six years ago today has translated into a plant anticipated to have a global impact. With things up and moving after ground was broken on the plant in October 2015, the first load of milk was delivered in late September to the facility that has brought 66 new jobs to the Garden City area in its capacity as a producer of whole, skim and nonfat dairy milk powder, as well as cream. The plant gets approximately 4 million pounds of milk a day from 12 member farms in southwest Kansas. It is the largest powder milk facility in the world.

“This is probably as much of a textbook economic development project as you could hope for,” DuVall said. “Over the years, as we’ve worked to recruit more dairies to the community, the purpose in that all along was to someday be able to house a dairy plant, a processing plant where these farmers who truly create the best milk anywhere in the world can really get the highest value for what they’re doing here and for the product that they’re growing.”

Dan Senestraro, chairman of the southwest area DFA council and owner of Eastside Dairy in Johnson City, opened up for a host of speakers including Brownback, Garden City Mayor Melvin Dale and a series of DFA executives and point men for the project.

“Today we’re here to celebrate a facility that has been long in the making,” Senestraro said. “This plant is a unique partnership between DFA and a group of farmer members that allows us dairy farmers and dairy producers to directly invest in a state-of-the-art processing facility. I’m honored that my cooperative and fellow dairy producers can be involved in a world-class facility of this nature, and we are here to celebrate that today.”

Alan McEntee, Garden City plant program manager, was accredited as one of the aforementioned point men, if not the “point man,” as noted by DFA President and CEO Rick Smith. McEntee said the plant will receive 84 truckloads of milk a day from 80,000 cows and produce 550,000 pounds of whole milk powder daily to be shipped in 17 loads across the country and the world.

“This is really a historic day,” Brownback said during his address. “It was probably 40 years ago when the first big beef processing plant came into this region… and it transformed the entire region. It transformed the beef industry, which was growing, which is dynamic in this area… And this is going to make the dairy industry in our state and this region blossom even more.”

Brownback recalled a time 30 years ago during his service as Kansas’ secretary of agriculture when financiers advised him that Kansas was ripe for a larger dairy industry footprint. He was advised that with more dairies in the state, eventually a processing plant would come. Three decades later, the Meadowlark DFA plant is the capstone of that self-fulfilled prophecy.

Brownback took the opportunity to plug his advocacy for preservation of the Ogallala Aquifer, citing sustainable efforts by local farmers, such as Dwane Roth of Holcomb, to implement best practices that limit water usage while maximizing water efficiency and preserving agricultural yields.

The Meadowlark plant, too, has been billed by its architects as being a “water-neutral facility.” According to DFA, the plant will realize water neutrality by recycling its water to hydrate parks and augment landscaping throughout Garden City.

Brownback said he’s been traveling to the Garden City area since 1974, when he had a “big afro” and served as state president of the Future Farmers of America.

“I kept coming back in different positions at different times to see things happen because you guys make things happen,” he said. “And I’ve taken that can-do attitude that we don’t have to depend on a lot of other people to get things done. We can do it ourselves, and we can make it happen ourselves.”

Smith said Garden City’s plant will be crucial to making one big thing happen on a worldwide scale: ending global malnutrition. According to Smith, DFA is partnering with Global Dairy Platform and the Gates Foundation to target 17 dairy-oriented global goals, the first two of which are combating and ending world malnutrition and hunger.

“It will be milk from this community and the powder that’s made here that is going to be our contribution to this effort to end world hunger,” Smith said.

DuVall said she and other community leaders didn’t really know “just how powerful the project would end up being.”

“But as they said today, the fact that our farmers get to contribute to truly feeding the world and the world’s hunger, I think that speaks volumes to the scale of this project and just how important it is,” she said.

Contact Mark Minton at mminton@gctelegram.com.