The North Dakota Dairy Coalition is seeking state funding to research the possibility of a new milk processing plant in the region.

“In order for North Dakota to increase and expand its milk production, its milk processing capacity will also need to increase and diversify,” the coalition said in its application to the Agricultural Products Utilization Commission.

If approved for $82,000 in grant funding, the study would consider the combined power of South Dakota’s success in growing its dairy industry and North Dakota's dairy herd growth potential in recruiting milk-processing capacity.

The proposed plant would be accessible to both North Dakota and South Dakota dairy producers.

Jennifer Holle, whose family has a dairy farm south of Mandan, said the North Dakota Dairy Coalition, of which she is a director, hasn't conducted a feasibility study in about 10 years.

"South Dakota (dairy industry) is growing at such a ridiculous rate that we're actually partnering with them," said Holle, adding that she hopes a strategically placed processing plant could benefit both states.

Holle also said that, while the number of dairies in North Dakota is decreasing, existing operations are growing. The Holles' Northern Lights Dairy milks about 600 cows and their numbers keep climbing. They are shipping directly to Dean Food's Land O' Lakes facility in Bismarck but are worried, if they keep increasing production, where they will be able to send excess milk.

Holle said knowing where potential new processing could locate may affect where any dairy operations moving into North Dakota choose to place their facilities.

The study will identify advantages and disadvantages of the region, where the processor should be located and what type of plant would make the most sense. It will also identify what steps need to be taken to attract such a plant.

Small-town processors

Blaine and Kathy Goetz started Bessy’s Best, processing their own dairy products near Sterling, in 2008.

“The price of milk was so low,” said Kathy Goetz, adding that they were getting only about $8 per hundredweight.

The Goetzes started by cutting things from their operation that they didn’t absolutely need, using home remedies instead of medicines on the cattle.

“We were down to 75 cows, and it was either either get out or …,” Kathy Goetz said, gesturing to the Bessy’s Best processing facility.

Kathy Goetz said their son wanted to dairy farm. He had four kids and they kept it going for him and his family.

The Goetzes got into raising dairy cattle, taking over the operation from Blaine Goetz’s parents, in 1980. When they started, there were about 5,000 dairies in North Dakota, Blaine Goetz said. Now there are less than 100.

“We’d be out of the dairy business (if not for Bessy’s Best),” Blaine Goetz said.

“Bessy’s definitely carries the farm,” Kathy Goetz said.

The Goetzes get the milk from their barn with a truck, hauling it up the driveway to their processing facility, where they dump it into a vat for pasteurization.

“We don’t call it processing; we call it bottling,” Blain Getz said. “The milk is how the cows make it.”

The vat acts as a double boiler, bringing the milk to a specified temperature, Kathy Goetz said. Then it is allowed to cool for half an hour.

She said larger processors don’t hold their milk for cooling but, instead, run it through something like a heat exchange that takes seconds to heat and cool the product.

The Goetzes also homogenize their milk, shaking it so the cream won’t separate out. Some product is pulled aside for cheese.

“We never have just milk,” Kathy Goetz said.

To the Goetzes’ knowledge, they are the only ones making cheese commercially in the state.

There are smaller vats for curds and a tank for yogurt.

“The only thing is we use a different culture,” she said.

Kathy Goetz said they have about 10 kinds of cheeses, along with fresh milk and yogurt, including Greek yogurt sold exclusively at the shop on the farm.

“We like that it’s whole and natural and we give it to the public at a reasonable price,” Blaine Goetz said.

A gallon of milk sells for $3.50 in the farm store.

Bessy’s Best is also available in SuperValu stores, some privately owned stores such as the grocery store in Hazelton and Dan’s Supermarket. Blaine Goetz said customers can also taste it in the foods at Peacock Alley and 40 Steak + Seafood in Bismarck.

Getting their product into grocery stores was difficult, the Goetzes said.

They started processing 60 gallons and are now up to 1,600 every other day. They used to only fill two Bossy carts. Now, their coolers are packed full. Their dairy herd is also back to around 100 cows.

Blaine Goetz said another processing facility in the region may help dairies if the price is good.

“That’s half the thing right there,” Kathy Goetz said, and trucking is so expensive, biting into profits.

The Goetzes said other challenges faced by dairies include labor. It’s a labor intensive business and good help is hard to find. The first time the couple left the farm overnight was for their 25th wedding anniversary. They went to Medora. They’ve been married 40 years now, and they joked that their family hasn’t offered to take care of the farm while they’re gone since.

(Reach Jessica Holdman at 701-250-8261 or jessica.holdman@bismarcktribune.com)

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Business Reporter