Food Engineering

Greenfield in the Tumbleweeds

April 5, 2004
Wells' Dairy's Utah plant is a model of simplicity and efficiency.

Paul Broadhead, plant manager at Wells' Dairy's new plant, jokes that the facility's most outstanding feature is the view of the high-desert mountains from the employee break room. Indeed, the St. George, Utah, setting is a dramatic departure from the farm fields of Iowa, where all other company manufacturing facilities are located. Sure there is a massive, sophisticated variable retention time (VRT) freezer at the center of the plant, and operations can be monitored via mini-cams from a desktop computer in Broadhead's office, or even from Wells' central, in Le Mars, Iowa. But from the drive-through receiving bay to the three load-out doors at the loading dock, what a visitor sees at St. George is pretty much a shiny new version of a standard ice cream plant.

"There aren't a lot of bells and whistles," Broadhead says as he makes his way around the plant.

There is some factual basis to Broadhead's comment about the plant location. St. George wasn't chosen for the scenery and the mild climate, but a west-of-the-Rockies location was key to Wells' efforts to strengthen its presence in the western states. The new location cuts distribution times and distances by more than 50% to most west-coast markets.

"We are expanding westward," says Doug Wells, president of Wells' supply group. "To be a top national brand in the next few years, we know, based on population trends, that we need to have the capability to reach all the way to the coast with our retail grocery products and continue to grow our current western markets like Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. St. George has a great transportation infrastructure and is geographically located to minimize transportation costs and maximize access to western markets. It's located within eight hours of nearly every major west coast city. That means a much higher level of service to our customers in the west."

A second-floor control room overlooks the cavernous variable retention freezer and the operator monitors the operations via computer screens while communicating with the production and palletizing rooms.

Starting up

Wells' began construction on the plant in June of 2002 on a 50-acre site in the newly developed Fort Pierce Industrial Park. The 160,000 sq. ft. plant was completed in June of last year.

We did the startup in phases," Broadhead said. "Ecolab engineered our CIP systems, so we worked with them on testing the system.

"We tested it with water first, to make sure everything was flowing correctly. You've got to know that you can clean it before you can start to make ice cream."

Phase two was to test with ice cream.

"We brought in mix and tested the freezers first and then went to the fillers," Broadhead said. By the end of July the plant's two lines were running ice cream for distribution.

The plant is laid out in a linear fashion, with raw milk intake at one end and load out docks at the opposite end.

Wells’ Dairy built from the ground up in a brand new industrial park in Southwest Utah. The desert location brings production closer to existing and potential Blue Bunny customers throughout the west.
The receiving bay is fully enclosed to protect it from the dust that is often carried by the desert winds. Two tanker trucks can be pumped out simultaneously. There are eight, 6,000-gal raw tanks for milk and cream, and three fiberglass sugar tanks. Milk is procured primarily from Utah dairy farms.

Batch controls work off a database of recipes and calculate raw ingredient differentials to formulate batches. Liquid ingredients are automatically mixed in one of the three batch tanks. Dry ingredients are added manually.

"It does all the calculations based on what we have in our tanks," Broadhead says. "A bell tells the batch operator when to mix the batch."

High speed mixers are used to blend the batch before pasteurization. The base is pasteurized to 180

Liquid ingredients are blended automatically in the plant’s batch tanks.

Good things come in big packages

There are currently two lines running at the Utah plant, and both are set up for medium to large package sizes. During Dairy Foods' visit in November, the plant was running half-gallon squares and 5-quart pails. The equipment can also accommodate round half-gallon containers. Two three-barrel freezer systems, a WCB and a Hoyer, are used for the two lines. Two Anderson fillers and one Burghoff are used depending on the packaging sizes. Standard WCB fruit feeders are used for fruit and inclusions. The plant is designed to run 18 million gals a year.

After filling, the packages go through a check-weigher and metal detector and are then bundled and wrapped with a Hagemann wrapper. The half-gallons are put in bundles of four, the 5-quarts in pairs.

A conveyor takes the bundles up one floor and into the VRT. The 60-ft high freezer, manufactured by Intec USA has a total capacity equal to about 150 pallets of ice cream. Currently, Wells' is running it at about half-capacity. A second-floor control room overlooks the cavernous freezer and the operator monitors the operations via computer screens, while communicating with the production and palletizing rooms.

The freezer runs at about -39

The 60-ft high variable retention time freezer has a total capacity equal to about 150 pallets of ice cream. Currently, Wells’ is running it at about half-capacity.

At home in St. George

When Wells' Dairy began its site search for a western plant, it had a number of criteria the site would need. A good labor force was important, as were reliable affordable utilities, and of course proximity to major interstate corridors. St. George offered all of these. The resort community, which is also home of Dixie State College, is located in Utah's southwest corner. St. George has access to Interstate 15 which arcs across the southwest states connecting Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, and intersecting with the I-70 and I-80 east-west corridors. From Salt Lake City, other interstates fan out to the northwestern states.

Of the 49 employees at the St. George plant, a dozen transferred from other Wells' facilities. Wells' officials say those employees hired locally have proven to be well-educated with a good work ethic.

The local economic development organization was thrilled to have Wells' locate as the first tenant in the new industrial park. St. George provides water, and Wells' constructed its own waste water treatment lagoon on the plant site.

The climate is mild enough for year-round golf, and the flora and fauna is distinctly desert.

"It takes a while to get used to the hot weather in the summer, and the scorpions, rattlesnakes and tarantulas," Broadhead says. He keeps a terrarium with some of these fearsome critters in his office.

Now they have some company in the form of a Blue Bunny from Iowa.