When you drive into Kent, Ill., you see a sign that says “Welcome to Kent. People: 79. Dogs: 48.”

It may not still be entirely accurate, although it’s probably not far off. This tiny town in northern Illinois is a classic blink-and-you’ll-miss-it dot on the map, the kind of place that you don’t quite have to take dirt roads to get to, but they’ll cut some time off the drive.

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But there’s something big going on in Kent. Hispanic Cheese Makers (formerly Nuestro Queso) has a factory here that produces almost 9 million pounds of cheese annually. Making that much cheese means using a lot of water—about 55,000 to 60,000 gallons per day, to be precise—and all that water has to go somewhere. What Hispanic Cheese Makers is doing with that water and with its sustainability efforts overall makes it a model for producers looking for ways to be sustainable and good neighbors, and it’s why Hispanic Cheese Makers is being featured as a Fabulous Food Plant.

It starts from the top down, as CEO Mark Braun and the company’s investment group believe in sustainability as a core company mission. But in this case, you can describe the actual sustainability efforts as “top down, across the road and being shared with the local farmers.” And you can thank environmental regulations for getting the ball rolling.

The old way

The plant opened in 2009, when the company bought the 75,000-sq.-ft. factory, which used to be a Saputo plant. The plant has been brought up to SQF Level 3 certification, and there are a number of infrastructure improvements still on the agenda. More on those later.

As previously stated, the company uses a lot of water, and that water has been pumped for years into a wastewater lagoon with a capacity of about 2 million gallons. But when you start to do the math on how much water the company uses and how many days’ worth of water that regulations require it to have capacity for, the numbers look pretty grim pretty quickly. 

“They never had water quality issues or anything like that for compliance; they just did not have enough capacity, and they’d be hauling off water in tanker trucks all winter, because their permit says they can’t spray on frozen ground or snow-covered fields,” says Derek Thompson, P.E., project engineer with Fehr Graham, the engineering firm on the project. 

The regulation requiring 150 days’ worth of storage means that the minimum capacity the company would need would be in the ballpark of 9 million gallons. Throw in room for rainwater, and the number increases; throw in some extra capacity for increased production, and it goes up even more. With those factors in play, the company was looking at roughly 14 million gallons, give or take, of needed capacity.

“We could have probably expanded the system we had before and just kept doing the same thing, or we could have put in a different type of system and just dumped water down into the river system,” says Braun. “But we decided to take a more thoughtful approach.”

That approach ended up providing almost 22 million gallons of capacity. The reasoning was that the company certainly didn’t want to come up short on what it needed, and the cost to build the lagoons larger from the start was much less than it would be to expand capacity later. 

“In no sense is this an ROI project,” says Braun, laughing.

But in a way, it is, even if it’s not necessarily going to pencil out from a dollars and cents standpoint. The community and the factory are surrounded by farmland; one of the reasons that such a small town has a cheese factory is because of its proximity to dairy farms. In addition to that, corn and soybean fields dominate the landscape. 

Hispanic Cheese Makers believes in being a good neighbor, so the wastewater project is only partly driven by regulatory and sustainability concerns. The company offers the wastewater as irrigation water for farmers. Because the water comes out rich in nitrogen and phosphorous, using it for irrigation means the crops need less fertilizer. The company invested in a GPS-driven, automated irrigation boom and is actually paying farmers to use the water for irrigation. 

To recap: The wastewater is handled in a way that doesn’t require treatment with chemicals, doesn’t tax the local water infrastructure, will be used to irrigate farmland and cut down on the use of fertilizer. Plus, a local farmer or two get paid to have irrigation water provided to them. It may not be an ROI project from a financial standpoint, but it’s hard to argue with that set of outcomes. 

Of course, for all of this to happen, the project had to be designed and built properly, and that’s where the engineers come in.

Start to finish

Fehr Graham, with operations in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin, has worked with Hispanic Cheese Makers since the processor’s beginning, so handling the engineering work on the wastewater project was a natural progression in the working relationship. Hispanic Cheese Makers didn’t want the bare minimum, Thompson says.

“Sometimes project designs are restricted to the lowest possible cost or to bare minimums, but this was one where Nuestro Queso wanted all the environmental aspects considered each step of the way, and I think it resulted in a great facility for them and the surrounding area,” he says.

The first step was finding a site for the lagoons, preferably downslope from the factory. Having to pump the water out of the plant to a holding area would add additional up-front expense, as well as the ongoing expense of powering the pumps. It would also require the use of force main sanitary sewers to remove solids from the water. In addition, if something in the pumping process failed, there was the risk of wastewater backing up into the plant.

The answer was literally a stone’s throw away, across the road and down a small slope. The plant already had wastewater infrastructure going under the road to lead to the existing lagoons, so coming to an agreement for the new site meant that the new piping simply had to be branched off of the existing pipe. The slope is enough that the water flows out from the plant and through the pipes into a tank where solids settle out of the water. The water then flows into the first lagoon, before eventually moving into the second smaller lagoon as the first one fills up. The only pumping involved comes at the end of the process, when water is pumped out of the second lagoon to irrigate surrounding fields. Instead of multiple pump stations along the way to get the water to its destination, there is just one at the end of the line to bring the water from the lagoons to the boom irrigator. If there’s a power outage or some sort of equipment failure at that location, it just means that water can’t be pumped out of the lagoon, which is a far better outcome than wastewater backing up into the plant. 

Sustainability culture

The wastewater project is the major focus for Hispanic Cheese Makers’ sustainability efforts right now, but it’s not the only one. The company believes in a sustainability culture, says Braun, and it’s taking several steps to try to instill that culture in every element of operations. 

There are the smaller things, such as increasing recycling, relamping the facility based on power company recommendations and installing high-speed doors on cold storage areas. Larger capital investments, such as new boilers, also are on the agenda. A number of investments have already been made in the production area, which uses efficient machinery and a control system that helps ensure that those machines deliver on efficiency promises. 

“It’s part of this holistic strategy of: how are we handling waste, our recycling, how are we acquiring energy, all of that,” says Braun. 

As part of that strategy, the company didn’t just re-evaluate at how it handles water going out of the plant. It’s also taking a hard look at the water coming into the plant and how it is acquired and treated before it can be used. The water in the area is hard, meaning that it has a high mineral content, including chlorides. Right now, the plant has giant water softeners to treat the incoming water but is evaluating better solutions. 

The challenge—as most processors well know—is that in some industries, water is water in a production facility. You bring it in, you use it and reuse it in certain applications, and then you get rid of it. But food production requires not only the right amount of water, but also the right type for different applications, which makes properly managing water exponentially more challenging.

“We need one type of water to run our boiler systems, to run those more efficiently,” says Braun. “We need different kinds of water for drinking water. We need different kinds of water for cleaning. So you know, now we’re adding new storage tanks. We’re adding new capacity; we’re adding measuring flows into each one of these different areas, so we can understand what those uses are and how they’re being treated. We’re spending an enormous amount of money, but we’re putting in our own systems.”

Quality and safety

The company’s sustainability efforts are far-reaching and part of the overall mission to be a careful steward of its environmental impacts. But the company also has to be able to meet its production goals and safety standards, because sustainability doesn’t help keep the doors open if you fail to deliver the promised product.

The company produces cheese under its own name and for a number of private labels. (How many labels? Braun points out that at one point, a company was interested in buying cheese as long as the buyer felt it was as good as another brand. The other brand was actually a Hispanic Cheese Makers product as well.)

It also produces those cheeses in multiple varieties, including shredded, crumbled, rounds, wedges, wheels, squares and cheese sticks (or string cheese), among others. Shredding and grating are done on site, and an in-house lab handles safety and quality-control testing. 

Being an SQF Level 3 plant means that food safety and quality are paramount, and the company has invested in equipment, training and testing to ensure that those goals are met. Everything is given careful consideration to ensure alignment with what the company wants to achieve from safety, quality and environmental standpoints.

“We don’t have any of those toxic ‘food-grade’ oils in a gearbox,” says Braun. “The cleaning supplies or the chemicals, all of that, everything is about compliance, and some of them are even organic.”

New refrigerated milk and whey silos help ensure that the raw milk and separated whey stay at safe temperatures. Milk management is an area that the company devotes a lot of time and resources to, because milk can only sit so long after it’s delivered in tankers. Properly scheduling deliveries and using the milk as soon as possible help ensure that there’s no waste or safety concerns. Milk is sourced from local farms, and the company only uses rBST-free milk from farms that meet its standards for milk quality and treatment of animals.

worker on production lineThe cheese is cooked in large closed-vat systems, with automated salting and ingredient blending systems. The system includes batch tanks, shear pumps and heating and melting systems, as well as production batch cooling.

After the cheese is cooked, it is conveyed through the facility to the proper production areas. Shredding and grinding are automated, while other products, including string cheese, are cut by hand. Long cheese ropes are delivered to a cutting table, where workers slice them into appropriate lengths. The sticks are then wrapped into balls before later being packaged in shrink-wrap. Leftover pieces are reformed into new cheese ropes.

The cheese is blast cooled, and the new high-speed doors cut down on wasted energy from warmer air entering the coolers when doors are opened. 
The company handles packaging and co-packing on site. A number of the products, such as the balls of string cheese, are sealed in shrink-wrap, Cryovac or Multivac packaging. The company can also produce cheese in containers such as bags, cups or buckets.

The bottom lines

All of these efforts—sustainability, quality, safety—cost money, and the company isn’t a huge operation. Its revenue is measured in tens of millions instead of hundreds of millions or billions. But safety and quality can’t be sacrificed, which means that sustainability would be the natural choice to fall by the wayside.

That isn’t to say that sustainability has to be a back-breaking cost, because it doesn’t. But there’s a difference between taking advantage of the low-hanging fruit, such as more efficient lighting or energy-saving equipment, and making a major investment in a project to build massive wastewater lagoons that provide irrigation for local farmers. 

This type of decision often comes down to prioritization, and for Hispanic Cheese Makers, that choice starts at the top. Being a relatively small company means that Braun and the company’s investment group can be involved with decisions at every level, and their commitment to a sustainable operation means that projects can be approved even if they don’t necessarily pencil out the right way. The project is a selling point for potential customers who are interested in whether the cheese is being produced sustainably, but more than that, it’s a point of pride for the company. 

Braun points out that you don’t see a lot of companies of similar size investing so heavily in sustainability products, and the company describes its sustainability value as this: “Our responsibility is to co-create a world where each of us, our communities and our planet can flourish.”

The wastewater lagoons are the company’s big-ticket project right now, and they’re an important part of meeting the sustainability goal that the company publicly puts forward. But they’re part of a larger strategy, and the company’s willingness to embrace what is possible instead of what is simply cost-efficient leads to one project being the catalyst for others, says Braun.

“So the project, it starts out as one thing, right? We tried to solve one thing,” he says. “And then sometimes you take a step back and reassess and redevelop all the things that you’re doing.”  

For more information:

Hispanic Cheese Makers (formerly Nuestro Queso), www.hcmakers.com
Fehr Graham, www.fehr-graham.com