By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

Organic Valley: Rebuilding in McMinnville isn’t a certainty

Company looking at other options after April fire that destroyed processing plant

Scott Fields, manager of McMinnville’s Organic Valley milk processing plant that burned down in April, gets emails and calls almost every day from people who worked at the site before the fire.

They want to return to work, he said. They tell him they value the jobs and believe in the company’s organic mission, and they are eager to return to making butter and powdered milk.

When, and if, the McMinnville plant will be rebuilt remains undecided. Organic Valley, a cooperative company based in Wisconsin, still is considering those questions.

Steve Pierson, president of the nationwide co-op, owns Sar-Ben Farms organic dairy just south of Newberg, one of 27 Oregon dairies that sent milk to the McMinnville plant. He is the first person outside Wisconsin to be elected its leader.

Oregon has the second-largest pool of milk in the Organic Valley system, he said, and it’s “very high quality milk.”

It’s clear that Organic Valley needs a processing facility on the West Coast, like it had when the one in McMinnville was processing 4 million pounds of milk a week, Pierson said.

But before Organic Valley decides to rebuild, it must consider all its options, he said.

“McMinnville is definitely an option,” he said. “But it’s not the only option. We’re committed to having to look at all the options.”

When Organic Valley bought the old Farmers Co-op Creamery facility in 2016, it “invested a lot in McMinnville,” Pierson said. That included huge new, well-insulated storage tanks.

A week after the April fire, the temperature of the fluid milk inside those tanks registered 42 degrees. While the milk couldn’t be used, the tanks showed themselves to be high quality — a sound investment, he said.

Following the fire, about 80 percent of the McMinnville plant’s 47 workers received severance packages, manager Scott Fields said.

Organic Valley helped the displaced workers register for unemployment and, in some cases, find other jobs.

A few continued working, helping with to clean up the site. Fortunately, Fields said, the blaze had no lasting environmental impact to Organic Valley’s site, Fields said. “There’s no long-term damage.”

In addition, Fields said, the Organic Valley team has made sure farms that had been sending milk to McMinnville had an alternative for their product.

In Sar-Ben’s case, Pierson said he’s been sending milk “all over,” including Darigold and processors in Idaho and California. He doesn’t know whether it’s being churned into butter, as it would have been in McMinnville, or made into other products.

Since the fire, he said, “it’s become very apparent how tenuous processing is in the Northwest.” Not many places can do what Organic Valley’s McMinnville plant was doing, he said; organic dairy farmers really depend on having a nearby processor.

“We’ve doubled our commitment to having a facility in the Northwest,” the Organic Valley president said.

Comments

Rotwang

I'm sure that a new facility in Idaho is one of their options. They are rebuilding from scratch, and have the opportunity to look at a possible better tax situation elsewhere.

tagup

Did you read the last paragraph.?

Russ

I'm sure the overriding criteria for a location is being close to sources and customers.