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Kansas welcomes the (big) dairy business

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T.J. Curtis, who oversees the day-to-day operations at Forget-Me-Not Farms, stands outside the dairy's milking facilities in Cimarron, Kan. (Justine Greve for Harvest Public Media)
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Justine Greve is an intern with Kansas Public Radio in Lawrence, Kan.

For dairy farmer T. J. Curtis, Kansas is the land of milk and honey — with an emphasis on the milk. 

Curtis oversees the day-to-day operations at Forget-Me-Not Farms outside Cimarron, Kan., a family -owned dairy that was based in New Mexico for many years — until competition for land, feed and water resources intensified.

In 2008, the family packed up 7,000 cows and brought them to Kansas.

“We like Kansas because it's sparse and there's a lot of feed,” Curtis said. “And the climate was favorable to our style of dairy.”

That’s the idea, according to state officials who are making it known that Kansas needs more cowbell. For the past couple years, the state departments of Commerce and Agriculture have been touting the state at dairy conventions, press conferences, and on their websites.  Employees speak with consultants across the country promoting Kansas as a dairy state.  The Department of Agriculture even created dairyinkansas.com, a site specifically designed to recruit farmers looking for a place to do business.

Pat George, the state’s Secretary of Commerce, said that building up the state's dairy industry is a logical solution to concerns about suffering in rural communities. Seventy-seven of the 105 Kansas counties have fewer people than they did 10 years ago.  In the western half of the state, only seven counties grew.  With an aging population and jobs moving elsewhere, projections for the future aren't hopeful. 

But where there’s room, there’s opportunity.

“The cattle are right there, we have wide open spaces, we're used to working with animals,” George said. 

All 50 States produce milk, though the major milk-producing states are in the west and north. In June 2012, the top producing states were:
 
     1. California
     2. Wisconsin
     3. Idaho
     4. New York
     5. Pennsylvania 
     6. Texas
     7. Minnesota
     8. Michigan
     9. New Mexico
     10. Washington
     11. Ohio
     12. Arizona
     13. Iowa
     14. Indiana
     15. Colorado
     16. Kansas
 
Kansas was among the top 10 in milk produced per cow.
(Photo by Justine Greve for Harvest Public Media)

The statehouse is also on board.  The Legislature recently lowered taxes for small businesses.  And the Rural Opportunity Zone program offers incentives for individuals moving to western Kansas.  On top of that, George said, the state also has sensible dairy regulations. 

“I don't want to say they don't have common sense in California, but it's a different kind of common sense in Kansas,” he said.  “We don't need regulations.  We're good at doing what we've done for a couple hundred years.” 

Of course, the dairy scene in Kansas looks much different than it did a hundred years ago — or even 25.  George Blush, dairy program manager for the Department of Agriculture, has been working with the division since 1985.  He said there are far fewer dairies now than when he started.  But in that time, total milk production in Kansas has nearly doubled. 

The trend toward larger dairies is evident in the western third of Kansas, where most of the growth is taking place.  The region has 24 large dairy farms, which account for70 percent of the milk produced in Kansas.  Like Forget-Me-Not Farms, many of these new dairies relocated or expanded from out of state. 

But the area has also had more local upstarts, Blush said: “Southwest Kansas people who have realizedthat dairy is a profitable agricultural operation.” 

The state's efforts seem to be paying off.  Now that the state has a concentration of dairy farms, it's becoming more attractive to other businesses within the dairy industry.

Case in point: Kansas Dairy Ingredients, set to open next year in Hugoton, in the southwest corner of the state.The plant will be churning up and churning out dairy-related products and eventually cheese products. 

The milk going into the factory will come from surrounding dairies, and the concentration of dairy farms was one factor that attracted the company to Kansas, said Tim Gomez, the company's chief operating officer. 

“The location is excellent in terms to where the dairy farmers we're working with, so we're able to reduce the transportation costs getting the milk from the farm to the plant,” Gomez said.  “It made good sense for not only us, but for Hugoton as well as the farmers in that area of Kansas.”

Kansas Dairy Ingredients will be working closely with Kraft, one of the world's largest food corporations. 

In another deal, yogurt giant Dannon recently announced a partnership withMcCarty Dairies in Rexford, Kan.  Soon, McCarty will supply all the milk for Dannon's Fort Worth, Texas plant. 

George said this is great news for Kansas. 

“Here are two industries that they are establishing.  Both of them will have somewhere 40 to 60 jobs and then they'll expand upon that, so those are two huge things for western Kansas,” he said.

Kansas is good at dairy, he said, and he wants to milk that for all it's worth. 

“We're much more focused on what we do well here in Kansas now,” George said.  “We realize: probably not going to be Silicon Valley III.  In Western Kansas, this fits nicely with what they do, and they can do it well, and our natural resources fit well with this production.”

To bring people into Kansas, it looks like the first step may be bringing in more cows.