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Creamery marks 100 years

A century in business is always an important milestone. But when you can celebrate your 100th birthday with a successful present and optimistic future, it is an even sweeter occasion.

Such is the case for Bongards' Creameries, which hosted a party at its Perham facility June 27.

In the less than five years since buying the former Perham Land O' Lakes plant, Bongards' overcame a difficult year in 2006, in terms of earnings, to an exceptional year in 2007 and another good year, so far in 2008.

The Bongards' cooperative was established in 1908, in Bongards, Minnesota. Perham became part of its history in 2003, when Bongards' bought and reopened the Perham cheese and whey operation.

More than 1.3 million pounds of cheese are produced in Perham annually. In addition, the plant packages 120,000 pounds of whey per day, and 20,000 pounds of protein powder daily.

"Perham was a good move...and Perham is a very competitive plant," said general manager Keith Grove, who greeted folks at the 100th birthday party in Perham.

Virtually every member of the Bongards' cooperative board of directors, most of them dairy farmers, was on hand for the Perham event.

Optimism is running high, evidently, because more than $1 million in improvements are planned at the Perham plant over the next year, said Grove.

First on the list is the addition of two more receiving stations--which will significantly improve the speed and efficiency with which trucks are unloaded. At a plant that receives about 230,000 gallons of milk per day, shipping and receiving is a major part of the operation.

The plant was built aside the railroad tracks, in a congested industrial area that is lined on one side by residential neighborhoods. So, for Perham, the shipping-receiving improvements will mean better traffic flow and fewer long line-ups of trucks, said Grove.

Perham plant improvements may add a few jobs indirectly, but mostly, the improvements are aimed at increasing milk volume and gaining efficiencies.

Ninety-four people are employed at the Perham plant. There are 270 at headquarters, in Bongards, Minnesota.

"It's a very competitive industry. You have to constantly improve--or you fall behind," said Brent Ziegler, chairman of the Bongards' board.

Future growth areas in the industry include specialized and "performance" cheese products, said Grove. Some of these are cheese products with specific characteristics, such as faster--or slower--melting times.

Ethnic cheese, such as product appealing to the growing Hispanic market, is another area.

Will Bongards be investigating other ethnic markets--such as goat cheese--to serve growing populations of Eastern European and Middle Eastern immigrants?

Probably not--yet.

"I don't think we have enough goat farmers in the region to provide the raw ingredients," laughed Grove.