PENNOCK - Construction of an 8,800-animal-unit dairy operation will begin next spring west of Willmar.

Meadow Star Dairy, which is owned by Riverview LLP based in Morris, was granted a conditional use permit earlier this month by St. Johns Township.

St. Johns is the only township in Kandiyohi County that has its own zoning board and zoning administrator. No county action is needed for the project to proceed.

The operation, which will employ 55 people and depend on area farmers for feed supplies and manure application, will include about 6,000 milking cows. The remaining livestock will be comprised of dry cows and heifers that are about to calf.

“We feel the time is right and we feel it’s a benefit to the local farmers and the community,” said Brad Fehr, a partner with Riverview Dairy. “We’re excited we can do it this year.”

Fehr said the facility will be very similar to the East Dublin Dairy near Murdock that is also owned by Riverview.

If it had not snowed last week, Fehr said roadwork would have started this fall at the site. Plan B is to wait until dirt can be moved in the spring.

The facility is expected to be in operation by next fall.

“We feel that we’re ready and that the project is ready to be done,” Fehr said.

With the new jobs and demand for ancillary agricultural business, the dairy will provide a good economic kick for the local economy, said Steve Renquist, Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission executive director.

“We’re very pleased this has gone forward,” Renquist said. “It will be a very significant facility using corn and forage from about 5,000 acres and supplying manure to about 4,500 acres.”

The Meadow Star Dairy had been in the works for about five years.

Initiated by Hultgren Farms of rural Pennock, with support from Riverview, the developers had obtained a conditional use permit from Kandiyohi County in 2008 and a permit from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 2009. But with a downturn in the dairy industry, the project was put on hold.

“The dairy industry went through a hard period during that time,” said Duane Hultgren, from Hultgren Farms.

It was “about as bad as you can get,” Fehr said.

The county permit was renewed in 2010, but developers failed to win approval of a request to change the county ordinance to allow high-density, on-site labor housing for ag businesses.

The project was again put on hold and the county permit expired.

There is no time limit on the MPCA permit, which is attached to the specific site. Then, around 2012, Hultgren Farms sold the land, with the MPCA permit still intact, to Riverview.

Also during that time, St. Johns Township took action to create its own zoning board.

The final piece came this year when the dairy industry took a sharp turn upward. The positive economy and Riverview’s over-abundance of dairy heifers made the timing right to build a new facility in Kandiyohi County, Fehr said.

“We have cows and we need a home for them,” Fehr said.

Following a public hearing on Nov. 7 in Pennock, the permit for Meadow Star Dairy was unanimously approved by the township.

Meadow Star Dairy did not request on-site labor housing now, other than one single-family residence that will house the manager. But Hultgren said if it’s requested in the future, it will be included in the township’s conditional use permit and not through the county’s housing ordinance.

Although St. Johns Township adopted all of Kandiyohi County’s zoning ordinances, the township is managing and interpreting the ordinances differently than the county, said Hultgren, who is on the township board of supervisors, which serves as the township’s zoning board – also known as the board of adjustment.

Fehr said he expects many of the Meadow Star employees will come from Willmar, which is about five miles away from the dairy site.

No decision has been made yet whether or not to provide employee housing, but Fehr said if it is, they would work with the county and township.

Hultgren said that at the hearing, several people expressed concerns about the effect that water usage at the dairy would have on area wells. He said data from test wells Riverview had installed indicate there will be no negative impact on neighboring private wells.

Because of concern about the wear and tear on township roads, the township has an agreement with Riverview to upgrade the township road that will be used as the primary farm-to-market route.

Hultgren said his family farm does have a financial interest in Meadow Star: The farm intends to supply forage and will use the manure generated by the dairy as field fertilizer.

When asked if his involvement presented a conflict of interest with his township role, Hultgren said if the issue had been raised during the meeting, he would have abstained from the vote. But he said there was “no reason” to abstain.