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Buffalo Lake meat processor to reopen early next month

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Willmar,Minnesota 56201 http://www.wctrib.com/sites/all/themes/wctrib_theme/images/social_default_image.png
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Buffalo Lake meat processor to reopen early next month
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

BUFFALO LAKE -- "Help wanted" signs are posted at the former Minnesota Beef Industries facility on the edge of Buffalo Lake, where its owners plan to resume production after a 1½-year shutdown.

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William Gilger, principal owner of what is now North Star Beef, said he hopes to resume production at the beef processing plant on Sept. 10. The company is in the process of hiring 180 workers to reopen the plant. Some of the management positions are filled, but Gilger said the company needs workers to fill virtually every job in the plant.

"It's good for everybody,'' said Joyce Nyhus, mayor of Buffalo Lake, of the planned reopening of what had been the largest employer in the community of 768 people.

North Star Beef has come close to reopening the plant on different occasions during the past year, but has been stymied by a variety of issues, many of them related to a discharge permit for its wastes. Gilger and Nyhus said they are optimistic that a permit will be issued soon by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency that will allow the plant to begin sending wastes to the city's wastewater treatment plant.

"It's as close as we've ever been,'' said Nyhus.

The plant's closing in February 2006 put 130 people out of work. The loss of jobs was keenly felt in Buffalo Lake.

It was still recovering from the June 24, 2003, tornado that struck the heart of its commercial and residential area.

What Gilger described as a "perfect storm'' of an altogether different sort brought about the closing of the Minnesota Beef Industries plant last year. Beef prices nosedived as drought-stricken ranchers in Texas culled their herds when many foreign markets were closed to U.S. beef due to fears over bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. Then, the U.S. closed its borders to Canadian cattle over fears of the disease. The action served to reduce supplies of the culled cows that the Buffalo Lake plant was processing exclusively.

Gilger said the new facility will no longer process a single source of cattle as it had in the past. He said the company has already lined up supplies of different classes of cattle, including both culled and fed cows but also fed steers.

The company has a variety of customers for its meats, he said. Like before, the plant will produce meats for both national and international markets. It is also authorized to separately produce kosher and halal meats -- the former processed in accordance with Jewish law and the latter processed in accordance with Islamic law.

At the time of its shutdown, the plant was processing an average of 460 head per day. The company is seeking to bring production up to over 500 a day, according to Gilger.

There are still challenges ahead. Gilger said the company did not file for bankruptcy protection when it closed, and it remains committed to repaying its creditors.

It also renegotiated an agreement with the city of Buffalo Lake for wastewater processing. Under the new agreement, the company will be responsible for any pollution fines that could result if its effluent exceeds standards.

Mayor Nyhus said the challenge now for the city is to find housing so that the plant's new workers can make the Buffalo Lake area and local school district their home. She said a number of people have approached the city to make known the availability of housing units in the area.

The North Star Beef plant is one of the most modern meat processing facilities in the nation. It had undergone a $9 million upgrade just one year before its closing.

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