Big Sky Cheese Proposes Business in Madison Food Park 


By Lilly Platts

 

Big Sky Cheese, LLC, has submitted a proposal to Cascade County, Montana to build a processing plant on land owned by Madison Food Park, LLC.  Madison Food Park previously submitted a proposal in August 2017 to acquire a special use permit for a food processing facility on the 3,018 acres of farmland they acquired near Great Falls, Montana.  The last known development on the processing plant was a letter from Madison Food Park notifying Cascade County that the plan needed more time. Since then, Madison Food Park has proposed to lease a portion of the land to Big Sky Cheese.

The application submitted by Big Sky Cheese proposes a facility that would employ five to 10 people and use local dairy products to produce craft cheeses.  These products would be distributed through stores and “most likely sold at the deli counter rather than the cheese coolers,” the company webpage states.  “Being an Artisan Cheese comes with a slightly higher price for higher quality.”

Big Sky Cheese has declined to comment on their business plan until Cascade County’s decision is made public.  However, the proposal has brought up larger questions about the viability of a cheese plant in the state.  Montana’s milk industry operates under a complicated framework and, like the rest of the nation, is struggling to survive.  However, a new business would offer additional opportunities to state milk producers.

Currently, the majority of milk in Montana is produced by large dairies and sold to Dairygold or Meadow Gold.  Smaller dairies in the state produce milk for their own variety of products, including cheese, milk, and yogurt, but are not considered players in the larger milk market that Big Sky Cheese would be utilizing.

Mark Curtis, Dairy Accountant for the Montana Milk Control Bureau, reviewed the Big Sky Cheese proposal and estimates the company would use around 1.9 million pounds of milk per month.  Currently, milk produced in the Great Falls area typically goes to Meadow Gold in Billings for processing, and the addition of Big Sky Cheese would create an opportunity for growth.

“It would create more opportunity and allow dairies to expand,” Curtis said.

Montana dairies are paid for milk based on how the milk is used.  Bottled milk, which accounts for all products currently produced by large dairies in the state, is considered Class 1.  Cheese is produced using Class 3 product, and producers are paid less for the milk used to make it.  For June 2019, milk prices are $19.62 per hundredweight for Class 1 milk, and $15.74 per hundredweight for Class 3 milk.

Shane Leep, Leep Dairy near Toston, Montana, produces milk for Dairygold as part of the Northwest Dairy Association.  This group of 500 dairies in the Northwest, 12 of which are in Montana, own Dairygold.  Leep has seen Montana’s dairy industry take the same hits as those across the nation, and a general trend of contraction.  He said the state has been having to import a quantity of milk from out of state to meet the needs of processors.

“The trend in the dairy industry both nationally and in Montana is consolidation of herds, resulting in fewer and larger dairy farms.  From a producer standpoint, having another processor in the state would be a good thing, as more competition for our product could lead to better prices, especially for any surplus milk production that can occur at times,” he explained.

The Board of Milk Control released the Montana Milk Market Regulation Study in June 2018, part of which explores the exact question of whether or not an additional processing facility could survive in the state.  The study found that survivability depends on the size of the facility.

“Montana’s milk supply is either too small or too large depending on the type of product desired.  Producing commodity cheese requires a plant with a very low production cost.  This requires large volumes of milk (minimum of 1 million to 2 million pounds per day).  Montana is not currently in a position to do this,” the study reported.

“Alternatively, smaller facilities produce smaller quantities of product at a higher cost, but this requires a branding strategy to be profitable. Typical plants of this size might start out between 3,000 and 30,000 pounds of milk per day.  This will not have a very large effect on the surplus milk situation in the state.  Cheese may be the easiest product to develop.  For under $1 million, a modest plant could be built to supply specialty cheese to the local market,” the report continued.

Montana supplies 85 percent of Class 1 milk for the in-state market, and nearly all other dairy products, like cheese and yogurt, are brought in from out of state, according to the report.

Little is publicly known about Big Sky Cheese at this point, so the potential effect on Montana’s market is purely speculative at this point.  However, due to the current state of the dairy industry, any potential expansion could be positive for the state’s producers.

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