Groups study Dodge County, Nebraska, dairy industry

Farm Forum

FREMONT, Neb. (AP) – A strategic plan being studied by local stakeholders has the potential, if all goes right, to enhance the Dodge County, Neb., agricultural industry and make Nebraska a destination within the national dairy industry.

The Fremont Area Chamber of Commerce and its Agricultural Business and Natural Resources Council has been studying the potential opportunities and benefits of a revitalized and expanded dairy industry in Nebraska.

The Fremont Tribune reports the chamber developed the Dodge County Livestock and Dairy Development Plan, and is in the process of meeting with and providing education to farmers, civic groups and other stakeholders.

Ron Tillery, executive director of the Chamber, said the strategic plan is a planning document that allows his organization to proceed with any potential opportunity in an orderly and systematic way.

“We’re interested in exploring ways to add value to the natural and currently existing ag enterprises in Dodge County,” Tillery said. “Not every area within Nebraska is well positioned to participate in modern dairy practices. But there are certain regions in Nebraska that are virtually perfectly positioned to do that, and we think Fremont may be one of those areas.”

Tillery said the Chamber has worked with the Alliance for the Future of Agriculture in Nebraska (A-FAN), a nonprofit focused on opportunity and growth of Nebraska agriculture. In working with the group, Tillery said, Nebraska, the eastern side in particular, is operating with a milk deficit. Within a 100-mile radius of Fremont there are seven dairy manufacturing operations running on a milk deficit ranging from the equivalent of 30,000 to 50,000 cows.

“The danger is that if they can’t get sufficient milk supplies, the plants might close and they’ll move somewhere else,” Tillery said. “That is not a hypothetical scenario for us. In fact a cheese processing facility that used to be in Dodge closed several years ago for the same reason.”

Tillery said A-FAN has prioritized dairy development and is organizing the I-29 Corridor Initiative, which refers to the dairy operations in eastern Nebraska and northwest Iowa and seeks to increase dairy production within a reasonable transportation radius around the seven dairy facilities.

Nebraska has had declining or flat dairy production for decades, Tillery said. The ag business has been focused on beef cattle, pork and crop production rather than dairy. He said often dairy was a sideline to the family farm that might have 50 or 100 cows.

“At that level, dairy is a backbreaker,” he said. “You could never leave the farm. It was just a very difficult way to make a living.”

Modern dairy operations are larger – often 2,000 to 4,000 cows – more concentrated and are operated more efficiently. They also present a strong economic opportunity for rural areas.

“These larger scale dairies could offer an economic development opportunity to rural areas of counties like Dodge County,” said Tillery. “It essentially is an eye opener, because it not only produces the direct impacts to the operation, which are significant, it also offers opportunities for feed suppliers in the surrounding area to reduce their transportation costs and to have a new market that’s nearby. The manure management is very sophisticated and is also a valued commodity to surrounding farmers.

“A dairy like we’re envisioning could invest as much as $30 million in hard assets, land and animals. That tax base is substantial, that is a new tax

base,” he said. “This kind of development could be the first step in the ladder up to see additional manufacturing plants and that sort of thing.”

But Tillery was careful to say the Chamber isn’t going to jump head first into any initiative without thorough study and discussion with stakeholders.

“We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. We think this has a lot of appeal. We think it’s a good fit, but we’ve got to know absolutely that it’s a good fit and we’re not going to do a top down kind of process here,” he said. “We want to build consensus and work with key stakeholders throughout this process to push this project along. And at any point we see that it’s just not right, then it’s not right.

“We haven’t made the assumption that it’s right for us just because it’s doing well and is right for somebody else,” Tillery added. “We wanted to make sure that we looked at it from the standpoint of Dodge County; the topography, the geology and the regions that we have available in Dodge County that might overlay this kind of opportunity.

“Certainly our proximity to the end markets for the milk are very advantageous. We’re very well positioned for that, better virtually than anybody else in the state.”

Few Nebraska farmers have pursued large-scale dairy operations, while neighboring states have been more aggressive in pursuing dairy development and recruitment. Tillery said one of the bigger opportunities is to capture or recruit expanding or relocating dairies coming out of the West Coast.

He said a lot of dairies in California are relocating for a variety of reasons, and part of the strategic plan is to make those dairies aware that Nebraska is “open for business,” said Tillery.

Kathy Rhea, chairman of the chamber’s Agricultural Business and Natural Resources Council, agreed the opportunity could provide an economic boost to Dodge County, but re-emphasized the fact that the council is focusing first on education and evaluation.

“We are continually educating ourselves and evaluating potential economic development opportunities in agriculture and ag-related business because we feel that agriculture is extremely important to the area,” she said. “We want anything we do in the line of economic development to be a good fit for the area.”