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Zumbrota seeks meeting with dairy plant management

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ZUMBROTA — Zumbrota officials are expecting to meet this week with new management at the city's dairy plant, which was recently renamed after an industry acquisition.

Rich Bauer, Zumbrota's longtime mayor, said Saturday that Dairy Farmers of America informed the city last February that the Zumbrota plant would likely become part of DairiConcepts, a subsidiary of DFA. That news became official in November, according to a DFA press release. But city officials have yet to meet the facility's new management.

DFA spokeswoman Monica Massey said previously that the change in ownership would not affect local employees. Instead, DairiConcepts has been seeking room to expand, and Zumbrota offers that opportunity.

It could be a tricky conversation for both sides.

The DFA plant in Zumbrota has been fined more than $100,000 by the city since 2014 over a smelly wastewater discharge. The dispute between the city and DFA eventually landed in the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Repeated wastewater violations prompted the city to increase its fee and fine schedule for the third time since 2009, which led to the legal challenge by DFA.

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Bauer said Saturday that the local dairy plant, which processes about 8 million pounds of milk each week, has continued to be fined in recent months, though the new fines pale in comparison to the $90,000 fine that was issued in the summer of 2014 ; exact totals were not available.

"It has been better," Bauer said of the city's relationship with the dairy plant. "However, there are still fines that are happening periodically. They are doing a much better job of staying within their limits, but we'd prefer to have them stay within their limits all the time. It's certainly not perfect yet."

Zumbrota City Administrator Neil Jensen and Public Works Director Mike Olson are among those expected to meet with DairiConcepts' new manager this week, though it's not immediately clear who replaced former DFA manager Lucy Schwartz.

DairiConcepts was formed in 2000 as a joint venture between DFA and Fonterra Co-operative Group Limited, but it became wholly owned by DFA on Dec. 31, 2015. According to DFA's press release, "DairiConcepts is a manufacturer of cheese, dairy ingredients and dairy flavor systems with eight facilities across the United States. It works with customers both in the United States and around the world as a value-added supplier, committed to creating appropriate lower-cost, quality dairy ingredient solutions. Its dedicated team of professionals focuses on product formulation, testing and packaging, and has proven success in these areas."

The company has expanded globally to serve markets in North America, South America, Europe and Asia, while aspiring "to become the number one supplier of ingredient solutions in select markets by consistently delivering high-quality products and services."

Under DFA direction, the Zumbrota facility employed more than 100 people while contributing more than $100 million annually to the local economy, according to a recent economic study.

It's unclear how many jobs were impacted by the ownership transition, or what the potential expansion of the existing dairy plant would mean for the city. However, a number of job openings have been posted within the last month; it's unknown if those are new jobs or vacancies created after the change in management.

"We just want to keep that communication open so everybody knows everyone else," Bauer said of the renamed dairy plant.

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