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Cheese Production: Growing With N.M. Dairy Industry

May 10, 1995

ROSWELL, N.M. (AP) _ To cheesemakers, New Mexico, the state known as the Land of Enchantment, is really the land of milk and honey.

Well, milk at least.

New Mexico’s plentiful milk supply has drawn cheese manufacturers to places like Roswell, Lovington and Las Cruces. Other manufacturers are thinking of setting up shop in Artesia.

A cheddar plant has opened in Lovington, and a Roswell cheese plant is about to become the largest mozzarella maker in the world.

Some of the cheesemakers are transplants from the nation’s dairy heartland, the Midwest. Among them are four brothers _ Dan, Doug, John and Joe Tobkin _ who moved to Lovington last year from Veblen, S.D.

``In South Dakota, we couldn’t ever get enough milk,″ Doug Tobkin said during a tour of the brothers’ new plant. ``Here, where we can get the milk, we’re more volume-oriented. ... We’ve got the milk coming in and the cheese going out.″

The Tobkin plants ships cheese out in drums by the truckload. It initially used 400,000 pounds of milk per day. It’s expanding now to 750,000 pounds and will reach 1.2 million pounds by year’s end, Tobkin said.

The rule of thumb is 100 pounds of milk produces 10 pounds of cheese. So 1.2 million pounds of milk means 120,000 pounds of bulk cheese a day.

Cheesemakers find milk plentiful in New Mexico because dairy farmers are also moving west, lured by the temperate climate. In states like South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, winters are so cold cows must be kept indoors, while dairy operations in New Mexico and California can keep their cattle outdoors year-round.

California is currently the top dairy state in the nation, but New Mexico is the fastest-growing dairy producer. In 1987, the state’s milk production was 979 million pounds; in 1994 it was 2.6 billion pounds, according to figures provided by the Chamber of Commerce in Artesia. There are 8.6 pounds to the gallon.

Last year, there were 150,000 dairy cows in New Mexico, up from 61,000 in 1987. Meanwhile, Minnesota agriculture officials say their state has lost an average of three dairy farmers a day since 1985.

``A lot of these older farmers are ready to retire, and there’s nobody to take over their operations,″ said Dan Reuwee, spokesman for the Mid-America Dairymen cooperative in Springfield, Mo.

Mid-America Dairymen, which operates a milk processing plant in Portales, N.M., convinced the Tobkins they could produce more cheese out West.

``This is such an ideal climate to make milk,″ Tobkin said. ``Up there the average herd is probably 40 or 50 cows. Down here it’s probably thousands.″

In Roswell, Leprino Foods also is expanding its plant, which produces cheddar and mozzarella.

The plant will start increasing its intake of milk by the end of May, and ``when we’re done it will be able to handle 4 million pounds of milk a day,″ spokesman Larry Jensen said. It currently handles 1.8 million.

Leprino’s plant in Lemoore, Calif., near Fresno, is already the world’s largest mozzarella maker, but the Roswell plant’s expansion will make it about 33 percent larger than that, Jensen said.

The company, which operates eight plants, took over the 5-year-old Roswell plant last year. Its other operations are in Tracy and Newman, Calif.; Fort Morgan, Colo.; Allendale and Remus, Mich.; and Waverly, N.Y.

Mozzarella represents about 35 percent of all the cheese made in United States, ``a very close second″ to cheddar, Jensen said.

``It’s a cheese that’s used primarily in cooking, and probably 70 percent of the mozzarella made in the United States is used on pizza,″ Jensen said.

In Las Cruces, F&A Dairy Products Inc. of Dresser, Wis., has opened another cheese factory.

And Monica McInerney, executive director of the Artesia Chamber of Commerce, said she just returned from a economic development foray in Wisconsin with the city manager and the contractor who built the Tobkins’ cheese plant.

``We probably have three hot prospects from that,″ she said.

She talked to seven cheese producers and has meetings scheduled next month in Artesia with two who are interested in opening plants there.

``Probably the hardest thing about enticing Wisconsin folks to southeastern New Mexico is that part of the family is going to have to move away. ... But they were enchanted with the amount of milk just one dairy provides down here.″

End adv for Sunday, May 14

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