Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles about the Top 10 local news stories of 2017.

The beef industry has long been a staple in Garden City and southwest Kansas, but the region took a big step in 2017 toward becoming more of a player in the dairy industry, with the opening of the Dairy Farmers of America Meadowlark plant.

The final phase of construction, and the subsequent opening of the much-anticipated $235 million, 321,000-square-foot plant, is The Telegram’s No. 6 local news story of 2017.

Company, city, county and state officials converged on the plant, 330 S. U.S. Highway 83, in November to celebrate its opening with a ribbon cutting. The event took place a little over two years after ground was broken in October 2015, and not quite two months after the plant's first delivery.

"This is really a historic day," Gov. Sam Brownback said during his address at the ribbon cutting ceremony. "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."

The plant, which employs more than 60 full-time workers and operates 24 hours a day, gets about 4 million pounds of milk a day from 12 member farms in southwest Kansas and converts it into about 500,000 pounds of dry milk powder, making it the largest such facility in the world.

"This is probably as much of a textbook economic development project as you could hope for," Finney County Economic Development Corp. President Lona DuVall said in November. "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, also touted the new plant at the November ceremony.

"Today we're here to celebrate a facility that has been long in the making," he 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, spoke earlier in the year about the partnership between DFA, dairy farmers and local officials.

“It’s been a collaborative approach between DFA corporate and local members Garden City and Finney County. It’s been a very good project in that respect. We’ve worked very well together,” he said.

As part of the development agreement between Meadowlark and the city of Garden City, the city paid a lump sum of $2.5 million to buy treated effluent wastewater generated by the plant in its first 20 years of operation, which will offset treated municipal water being used for irrigating city parks and other non-potable uses.

Dairy industry and local officials also have touted the potential widespread economic benefits of the new dairy plant.

“The impact on local farmers will be huge,” McEntee said. “One of the big economic factors behind this project is we have all that milk in the area at the moment, and that’s being transported all over the Southwest, to Portales, N.M., Clovis, N.M., and Dalhart, Texas — miles away. It doesn’t make economic sense to be driving water all over America, so we’re taking the water out of it and sending out the powder.”

DuVall said the plant will save area dairy farmers a significant amount of money in transportation costs, which will help them improve efficiencies and profitability.

“Our intent is that the dairy industry will continue to grow because there’s more opportunity with processing so close to the dairies,” she said. “Locally, obviously, the direct jobs are going to be great. But quite frankly, the indirect jobs related to it will be just as significant, if not more so, in the long term.”

DuVall has said she expects additional service industries could spring up in the region as a result of the new plant, such as those that use milk powder or other dairy products, and that it also could lead to growth in the dairy industry as a whole in southwest Kansas.

U.S. Congressman Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., made a visit to the Meadowlark Dairy plant shortly before the ribbon cutting. He described the plant as a "technologically advanced" and "impressive-modern" facility.

"I wanted to stop in Garden City to see this brand new facility, the jobs it's creating and its connection it's making with dairy farmers here in western Kansas," Yoder said. "This is a long time coming. We've been talking about this dairy facility for a number of years, and I'm glad to finally see it come to fruition."

Contact Brett Riggs at briggs@gctelegram.com.