Two 65-foot-long tractor trailer trucks maneuvering the tight turn from Hammond Street into Bangor’s Hildreth North Business Park in early April had folks buzzing at nearby Chase’s Family Restaurant.
Each truck carried a silo that could hold 30,000 gallons of milk.
Their destination: the former Grant’s Dairy, where Pineland Farms Dairy Co. plans to have milk flowing again by July.
“The trucks tied up traffic with the silos, which each are 45 feet long, so that’s more than 65 feet including the trailer,” said Mark Whitney, president of Pineland Farms Dairy on a recent tour of the dairy.
A third silo is due for delivery in May or early June.
Shortly thereafter, Pineland Farms Dairy will be making cheese and another milk product line in the hallmark Bangor dairy, which had been empty for more than five years. Most of the machinery is in the plant and being set up, Whitney said.
Pineland already has 16 employees, primarily in administration, and may hire up to 50 people after it finishes refurbishing the facility.
The address, 1 Milk St., evokes a Norman Rockwell-like painting of bucolic cows, early morning milkings and trips to the local dairy for processing and bottling. Many farmers sold their milk to the various dairies at that location for decades.
“It was nice to ship your milk right into Bangor and have it bottled and put on the shelves in the Bangor stores,” Dick Perkins, a dairy farmer in Charleston, told the Bangor Daily News in late 2012.
The location housed Grant’s before it was bought by Garelick Dairy in 1994. Garelick owner Dean Foods Co. shuttered it in January 2013.
Libra Foundation, a nonprofit foundation in Portland that owns Pineland Farms, bought the 70,000-square-foot dairy in 2017. Part of the reason was it wanted to consolidate its cheese operations in Mars Hill and New Gloucester, and have room for expansion, Whitney said.
Previously cheese had been made in New Gloucester and then shipped in 40-pound blocks to Mars Hill, where it was aged, cut, wrapped, sold and shipped to customers. As of April 1, the Mars Hill operation was shuttered and moved entirely to Bangor.
Pineland also wanted to add new products. It’s now expanding to include milk blend, which is used as an ingredient in a variety of products. It includes milk, butter and other flavors tailored to specific uses like soup, ice cream or frozen mashed potatoes. Restaurants and food makers would be typical customers. The new business has big growth potential, Whitney said.
Milk blend is sold in 300-gallon totes that weigh about 2,500 pounds each.
The Bangor location lets Pineland source milk from farmers in a 50-mile radius, according to Whitney. That also gives the farmers a closer processing plant rather than paying more to haul their milk to a larger city like Portland or Boston.
“The renovation and reopening of the Bangor facility is great news for the state and our [Dairy Farmers of America] family farms in this area, as it will help provide increased processing capacity as well as help create efficiencies in the local milk shed,” said Brad Keating, chief operating officer for the DFA.
The expansion “will help keep more milk in the state for consumers to enjoy,” Keating said.
The DFA is a national dairy collaborative that helps farmers sell their milk to customers like Pineland Farms. DFA, which has 50 members in Maine, or 30 percent of the state’s dairy producers, also owns Oakhurst Dairy in Portland.
Libra created the new for-profit company, Pineland Farms Dairy, on April 28 of last year. Whitney, who was in charge of cheese operations at New Gloucester, was moved up to Bangor to bring the new operation online and run it.
It wasn’t an enviable task. When Whitney first saw the building in December 2016, the doors were open, water pipes had burst and were leaking and most of the electrical wiring was missing. The smell of mold — not the good kind associated with cheese-making — permeated the building. The concrete floors were cracked. Few areas in the building had lighting.
While Libra estimated expected the initial investment to reopen the dairy at $6 million a year ago, that’s gone up to $10 million, Whitney said, primarily because he found more work needed to be done on the building.
Pineland Farms Dairy made over the building in the past year. Only an old steam boiler from the former dairy remained, and it still is heating parts of the operation.
The structural damage is repaired and electricity floods a large series of panels that control the machines making the product. The two milk silos that arrived by truck already are attached to the building, ready to spill milk through a sophisticated maze of pipes going to the cheese and milk-blend operations. With the third silo due to arrive within a month, Whitney predicts more traffic near Chase’s, which he frequents for lunch.
Rows of 40-pound blocks of cheese shipped up from the New Gloucester plant are stacked on shelving and aging in a large, refrigerated room. Some already are being shipped to large clients, including Hannaford. Another large room houses the equipment to cut and package cheese.
By the end of July, the final cheese operations from New Gloucester should be moved to Bangor, Whitney said. At that time the milk blend operation also is expected to start.
Employees of the former Mars Hill cheese operation were all hired by Post Holdings, which now owns the former Pineland frozen potato operation that abutted the cheese packaging plant. Bob Evans, which bought the potato operation from Pineland Farms in early 2017, sold it to Post in February of this year.
It still isn’t clear, Whitney said, whether any of the cheese workers from New Gloucester will move to Bangor. However, they are expected to help train new packers and cheesemakers at the dairy.
Whitney expects to hire another 10 people in packaging and up to eight in production for the cheese operation by July. He’s unsure of the number needed for the milk blend operation. He expects the total number of employees to reach at least 40 by the end of the year.
Because the equipment lines still are being assembled, Whitney said he doesn’t have estimates for production capacity or revenue estimates.
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