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Litchfield: First District looks to an increasingly global future

The First District plant in Litchfield processes 6 million pounds of milk every day, and from that, 3.9 million pounds are processed into cheese. The cooperative also extracts whey protein and lactose from the milk, which can then be used in products ranging from chocolate to infant formula. Tribune photo by Ashley White1 / 2
Clint Fall, president and CEO of First District Association in Litchfield, stands before the plant. Each day, First District processes 3.9 million pounds of cheese, and it markets its products to nearly every major food company in the country. First District is positioning itself to be a major cooperative in the dairy industry, Fall said. Tribune photo by Ashley White2 / 2

First District Association in Litchfield has come a long way in its 91-year history. But that's not to say it comes from humble beginnings.

When the cooperative was formed in 1921, it quickly grew to encompass 13 smaller creameries in the Meeker County region. As a new, larger cooperative, the then-named Meeker County Creamery Association decided its products should be sold under a brand name. The cooperative held a contest to determine a name for the brand, and a Twin Cities woman won the challenge.

Her name suggestion? Land O'Lakes.

"We were the first plant that made butter under the Land O'Lakes brand," said Clint Fall, president and CEO of First District Association. "It was produced at First District and started here."

In fact, the cooperative's name was later changed to First District Association to reflect this part of its history. The name comes from being district one of Land O'Lakes, Fall said.

Today, First District Association no longer makes Land O'Lakes products, but it does produce milk and cheese products that find their way into foods across the country and even, Fall said, across the globe.

"Our customers include just about every major food company in the country," Fall said. "We don't market a lot offshore ourselves, but our customers do. Our product could be just about anywhere in the world. The dairy industry has become very global, especially in the last five years."

The Litchfield-based grassroots dairy cooperative now includes nine other creameries throughout Minnesota, including those in Urbank, Nelson, Leaf Valley, Gilman, Elmdale, Dassel, Springfield, Foreston and Sunrise. Each farm in these cooperatives is recognized as one voting unit member in First District. Currently, the cooperative has about 1,100 voting members.

Each day, First District produces approximately 6 million pounds of milk and, from that, 3.9 million pounds are processed into cheese. The cheese is put into 500-pound cardboard barrels that go into a vacuum chamber, allowing the cheese to compress itself and pull the cheese curds together. Then, the cheese is sealed and put into a cooler, where it begins the aging process.

Much like wine, cheese gets better with age, Fall said. Different customers want the cheese at different parts of the aging process. As a result, some customers receive the cheese within 24 hours; others wait three or four months for a more aged cheese. Most typically, the cheese is aged for about three weeks, Fall said.

"I usually compare cheese to wine: You can get it fresh or aged out," Fall said. "When it's aged, it develops unique characteristics and flavors. When you've been around cheese for as long as we have, you learn to appreciate a nice piece of cheese."

First District produces many different types of cheese, including Monterey Jack, nontraditional Swiss and Colby. Its primary cheese, however, is cheddar. In addition, the cooperative also extracts whey protein and lactose from milk, which can then be used in a variety of products, from chocolate to infant formula to over-the-counter medications.

Fall said west central Minnesota is an "excellent place" for First District to be located because of its geography and natural resources.

"All the resources necessary to support livestock and agriculture are in this region," Fall said. "Also, the upper Midwest in general is a good location, because we're closer to the East Coast than California or Idaho. Fuel costs play an important role."

First District is always working to position itself as a major cooperative in the dairy industry, Fall said. By the end of this year, First District plans to increase its cheese production to 5 million pounds a day, with an ultimate goal of 7 million pounds per day.

"We're taking a large challenge and positioning the company to be around for many years," Fall said. "We've continued to find ways to meet the needs of our customers with a vision of today and also being a high-quality producer in the vision of the future. Our products are of a high quality, and they're consistent. We can compete with dairy producers in other parts of the country and even the world."

In addition to its global status, First District also benefits the dairy farmers at home in west central Minnesota, Fall said.

"We'll lose our dairy industry if we don't have modern dairy plants that the farmers can process their products through," Fall said.

"If we want to keep a vibrant rural community throughout the state, we need to have means for families to make a living. Dairy farming is just one of those means. It's an industry that's been around in Minnesota for many years, and we want to do our best to support it."

Ashley White

Ashley White is the community content coordinator for the West Central Tribune. Follow her on Twitter @Ashley_WCT.

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