GARDEN CITY, Kan. (AP) — Attracting a processing plant that would support southwest Kansas dairy farms is a top priority for Gov. Sam Brownback's administration, but dairy industry officials say the region needs to have more cows before the effort will succeed.
More than 70,000 cows are milked daily in western Kansas, where a few dozen large dairies have opened in the last 20 years. Brownback's administration would like to attract something like a cheese factory or a milk processing plant to help the region's economy.
"A cheese factory would be a powerful tool for long-term economic growth in rural Kansas," said Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag. "It is a priority. It would mean good jobs and more revenue for decades."
Some possibilities already exist. Grant County Economic Development Director Leslie Mangels said a foreign investor who is interested in building a dry milk-processing plant in the U.S. sent consultants to Ulysses two weeks ago to discuss the project. Ulysses is competing with Michigan and South Dakota for the 60-employee plant, The Hutchinson News reported (http://bit.ly/tnQknX).
The same investor looked at Kansas in 2004 but the state didn't have enough milk production at the time, Mangels said.
"With the milk supply and the progressive nature of Grant County, we are prime for some kind" of facility, Mangels said, noting that the Kansas Department of Agriculture and Kansas Department of Commerce have been part of the process. "We're ready, we're here, we have the infrastructure."
However, some industry leaders say the region needs to produce more milk to attract a large plant. And it may take a processor to attract more dairies, said Kearny County Community Development Director Ralph Goodnight, who serves on the Western Kansas Rural Economic Development Alliance's dairy team, a rural economic development group that serves 46 western Kansas counties.
"It is very much a chicken and egg thing," Goodnight said. "We need a few more gallons of milk out this way to make it successful for a processor."
The milk that is currently being processed already is under contract. And it's hard to recruit more dairies because of the cost and the risk for banks, Goodnight said.
But Goodnight noted that the state has things to offer — it's centrally located, has adequate water supplies, abundant feed supplies and plenty of room for expansion. Some of Kansas' dairies relocated from other states where urban sprawl affected the industry.
Ted Boersma started his Forget Me Not Farms dairy near Cimarron in Gray County in 2008 after New Mexico's dairy industry become too crowded for expansion. He employs 65 people who milk 8,000 cows a day.
New dairy development has virtually stopped in recent years, Boersma said.
"The dairy climate itself has changed," he said. "We aren't seeing the mobility."
Boersma said the state is doing what it can to entice animal agriculture to the region.
"It's just a matter of if the economics will justify it," he said, but added optimistically, "In the next three to five years, we'll see more cows."
Goodnight said his dairy team is working to recruit more dairies. The group sends representatives to two national dairy and agriculture shows each year.
Steve Irsik, who owns Royal Dairy near Ingalls and is on the Kansas State Board of Agriculture, said the group frequently discusses how to attract a processing plant.
He added that he considered expanding his own operation where roughly 60 employees milk 6,100 cows twice a day, but he decided against it, in part because of uncertainty over immigration laws. Almost all his employees are Hispanic.
"A huge, huge issue is we need a rational immigration plan," Irsik said.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.