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34 FOOD ENGINEERING December 2018

Hispanic Cheese Makers’ wastewater lagoons are a big project,
but a small part of the company’s overall sustainability goal

When you drive into Kent, Ill., THE OLD WAY company uses and how many days’
you see a sign that says “Welcome to The plant opened in 2009, when the worth of water that regulations require
Kent. People: 79. Dogs: 48.” company bought the 75,000-sq.-ft. facto- it to have capacity for, the numbers look
It may not still be entirely accurate, ry, which used to be a Saputo plant. The pretty grim pretty quickly.
although it’s probably not far off. plant has been brought up to SQF Level “They never had water quality issues
This tiny town in northern Illinois is 3 certification, and there are a number or anything like that for compliance;
a classic blink-and-you’ll-miss-it dot of infrastructure improvements still on they just did not have enough capacity,
on the map, the kind of place that you the agenda. More on those later. and they’d be hauling off water in
don’t quite have to take dirt roads to
get to, but they’ll cut some time off
the drive.
But there’s something big going on in
Kent. Hispanic Cheese Makers (formerly
Nuestro Queso) has a factory here that
produces almost 9 million pounds of STEPS TO TRY TO INSTILL THAT CULTURE IN
cheese annually. Making that much
cheese means using a lot of water— EVERY ELEMENT OF OPERATIONS.
about 55,000 to 60,000 gallons per day,
to be precise—and all that water has to
go somewhere. What Hispanic Cheese As previously stated, the company tanker trucks all winter, because their
Makers is doing with that water and uses a lot of water, and that water has permit says they can’t spray on frozen
with its sustainability efforts overall been pumped for years into a waste- ground or snow-covered fields,” says
makes it a model for producers looking water lagoon with a capacity of about Derek Thompson, P.E., project engineer
for ways to be sustainable and good 2 million gallons. But when you start with Fehr Graham, the engineering firm
neighbors, and it’s why Hispanic Cheese to do the math on how much water the on the project.
Makers is being featured as a Fabulous
Food Plant.
It starts from the top down, as
CEO Mark Braun and the company’s
investment group believe in sustain-
ability as a core company mission. But
in this case, you can describe the actual
sustainability efforts as “top down,
across the road and being shared with
the local farmers.” And you can thank
environmental regulations for getting

the ball rolling.

Hispanic Cheese Makers (formerly

Nuestro Queso) has built two new
wastewater lagoons, with a total
capacity of more than 21 million
gallons. The water will be used to
irrigate surrounding farmlands, and
the project is the cornerstone of the
company’s sustainability efforts.

December 2018 FOOD ENGINEERING 35


Fehr Graham, with operations in Illi-
nois, Iowa and Wisconsin, has worked
with Hispanic Cheese Makers since the
processor’s beginning, so handling the
engineering work on the wastewater
project was a natural progression in the
working relationship. Hispanic Cheese
Makers didn’t want the bare minimum,
Thompson says.
“Sometimes project designs are
restricted to the lowest possible cost
or to bare minimums, but this was one
where Nuestro Queso wanted all the
environmental aspects considered each
step of the way, and I think it resulted
in a great facility for them and the sur-
rounding area,” he says.
The first step was finding a site for the
lagoons, preferably downslope from the
The regulation requiring 150 days’ Hispanic Cheese Makers produces a variety factory. Having to pump the water out
worth of storage means that the mini- of private-label cheeses in different of the plant to a holding area would add
mum capacity the company would need varieties, such as the crumbles seen additional up-front expense, as well as the
would be in the ballpark of 9 million here. The company has invested heavily ongoing expense of powering the pumps.
gallons. Throw in room for rainwater, in quality, safety and sustainability It would also require the use of force main
and the number increases; throw in efforts as part of its core values. sanitary sewers to remove solids from
some extra capacity for increased pro- addition to that, corn and soybean fields the water. In addition, if something in the
duction, and it goes up even more. With dominate the landscape. pumping process failed, there was the risk
those factors in play, the company was Hispanic Cheese Makers believes in of wastewater backing up into the plant.
looking at roughly 14 million gallons, being a good neighbor, so the wastewater The answer was literally a stone’s
give or take, of needed capacity. project is only partly driven by regulato- throw away, across the road and down
“We could have probably expanded ry and sustainability concerns. The com- a small slope. The plant already had
the system we had before and just kept pany offers the wastewater as irrigation wastewater infrastructure going under
doing the same thing, or we could have water for farmers. Because the water the road to lead to the existing lagoons,
put in a different type of system and comes out rich in nitrogen and phospho- so coming to an agreement for the new
just dumped water down into the river rous, using it for irrigation means the site meant that the new piping simply
system,” says Braun. “But we decided to crops need less fertilizer. The company had to be branched off of the existing
take a more thoughtful approach.” invested in a GPS-driven, automated pipe. The slope is enough that the water
That approach ended up providing irrigation boom and is actually paying flows out from the plant and through
almost 22 million gallons of capacity. The farmers to use the water for irrigation. the pipes into a tank where solids settle
reasoning was that the company certain- To recap: The wastewater is handled out of the water. The water then flows
ly didn’t want to come up short on what it in a way that doesn’t require treatment into the first lagoon, before eventu-
needed, and the cost to build the lagoons with chemicals, doesn’t tax the local ally moving into the second smaller
larger from the start was much less than water infrastructure, will be used to ir- lagoon as the first one fills up. The only
it would be to expand capacity later. rigate farmland and cut down on the use pumping involved comes at the end
“In no sense is this an ROI project,” of fertilizer. Plus, a local farmer or two of the process, when water is pumped
says Braun, laughing. get paid to have irrigation water provid- out of the second lagoon to irrigate
But in a way, it is, even if it’s not nec- ed to them. It may not be an ROI project surrounding fields. Instead of multiple
essarily going to pencil out from a dol- from a financial standpoint, but it’s hard pump stations along the way to get the
lars and cents standpoint. The commu- to argue with that set of outcomes. water to its destination, there is just one
nity and the factory are surrounded by Of course, for all of this to happen, at the end of the line to bring the water
farmland; one of the reasons that such the project had to be designed and built from the lagoons to the boom irrigator.
a small town has a cheese factory is be- properly, and that’s where the engineers If there’s a power outage or some sort
cause of its proximity to dairy farms. In come in. of equipment failure at that location, it

36 FOOD ENGINEERING December 2018


just means that water can’t be pumped It’s also taking a hard look at the water measuring flows into each one of these
out of the lagoon, which is a far better coming into the plant and how it is different areas, so we can understand
outcome than wastewater backing up acquired and treated before it can be what those uses are and how they’re
into the plant. used. The water in the area is hard, being treated. We’re spending an
meaning that it has a high mineral con- enormous amount of money, but we’re
SUSTAINABILITY CULTURE tent, including chlorides. Right now, putting in our own systems.”
The wastewater project is the major the plant has giant water softeners to
focus for Hispanic Cheese Makers’ sus- treat the incoming water but is evalu- QUALITY AND SAFETY
tainability efforts right now, but it’s not ating better solutions. The company’s sustainability efforts
the only one. The company believes in a The challenge—as most processors are far-reaching and part of the overall
sustainability culture, says Braun, and it’s well know—is that in some industries, mission to be a careful steward of
taking several steps to try to instill that water is water in a production facility. its environmental impacts. But the
culture in every element of operations. You bring it in, you use it and reuse it in company also has to be able to meet its
production goals and safety standards,
because sustainability doesn’t help
keep the doors open if you fail to deliver
the promised product.
The company produces cheese under
its own name and for a number of
private labels. (How many labels? Braun
points out that at one point, a compa-
ny was interested in buying cheese as
long as the buyer felt it was as good as
another brand. The other brand was
actually a Hispanic Cheese Makers
product as well.)
It also produces those cheeses in
multiple varieties, including shredded,
crumbled, rounds, wedges, wheels,
squares and cheese sticks (or string
cheese), among others. Shredding and
grating are done on site, and an in-
house lab handles safety and quali-
ty-control testing.
Being an SQF Level 3 plant means
There are the smaller things, such as Hispanic Cheese Makers does its that food safety and quality are para-
increasing recycling, relamping the fa- grinding and shredding on site. Ground mount, and the company has invested
cheese can be packaged in bags or
cility based on power company recom- in equipment, training and testing to
other containers such as jars, then
mendations and installing high-speed ensure that those goals are met. Ev-
packaged as private-label products.
doors on cold storage areas. Larger erything is given careful consideration
capital investments, such as new boil- certain applications, and then you get to ensure alignment with what the
ers, also are on the agenda. A number rid of it. But food production requires company wants to achieve from safety,
of investments have already been made not only the right amount of water, but quality and environmental standpoints.
in the production area, which uses effi- also the right type for different applica- “We don’t have any of those toxic
cient machinery and a control system tions, which makes properly managing ‘food-grade’ oils in a gearbox,” says
that helps ensure that those machines water exponentially more challenging. Braun. “The cleaning supplies or the
deliver on efficiency promises. “We need one type of water to run chemicals, all of that, everything is
“It’s part of this holistic strategy of: our boiler systems, to run those more about compliance, and some of them
how are we handling waste, our recy- efficiently,” says Braun. “We need are even organic.”
cling, how are we acquiring energy, all different kinds of water for drinking New refrigerated milk and whey
of that,” says Braun. water. We need different kinds of silos help ensure that the raw milk and
As part of that strategy, the com- water for cleaning. So you know, now separated whey stay at safe tempera-
pany didn’t just re-evaluate at how it we’re adding new storage tanks. We’re tures. Milk management is an area that
handles water going out of the plant. adding new capacity; we’re adding the company devotes a lot of time and

38 FOOD ENGINEERING December 2018


resources to, because milk can only sit The cheese is blast cooled, and ability would be the natural choice to
so long after it’s delivered in tankers. the new high-speed doors cut down fall by the wayside.
Properly scheduling deliveries and using on wasted energy from warmer air That isn’t to say that sustainability
the milk as soon as possible help ensure entering the coolers when doors are has to be a back-breaking cost, because
that there’s no waste or safety concerns. opened. it doesn’t. But there’s a difference
Milk is sourced from local farms, and the The company handles packaging between taking advantage of the
company only uses rBST-free milk from and co-packing on site. A number of low-hanging fruit, such as more effi-
cient lighting or energy-saving equip-
ment, and making a major investment
in a project to build massive wastewa-
ter lagoons that provide irrigation for
local farmers.
This type of decision often comes
down to prioritization, and for Hispanic
Cheese Makers, that choice starts at the
top. Being a relatively small company
means that Braun and the company’s
investment group can be involved
with decisions at every level, and their
commitment to a sustainable operation
means that projects can be approved
even if they don’t necessarily pencil out
the right way. The project is a selling
point for potential customers who are
interested in whether the cheese is being
produced sustainably, but more than
that, it’s a point of pride for the company.
Braun points out that you don’t
see a lot of companies of similar size
investing so heavily in sustainability
products, and the company describes
its sustainability value as this: “Our
responsibility is to co-create a world
farms that meet its standards for milk In Hispanic Cheese Makers’ SQF Level where each of us, our communities and
quality and treatment of animals. 3-certified plant, worker safety, food our planet can flourish.”
The cheese is cooked in large safety and quality are paramount. All The wastewater lagoons are the
closed-vat systems, with automat- three are addressed at every step of company’s big-ticket project right
the production process to ensure that
ed salting and ingredient blending now, and they’re an important part of
the company’s product is made in a
systems. The system includes batch meeting the sustainability goal that
safe, high-quality way.
tanks, shear pumps and heating and the company publicly puts forward. But
melting systems, as well as produc- the products, such as the balls of string they’re part of a larger strategy, and the
tion batch cooling. cheese, are sealed in shrink-wrap, Cryo- company’s willingness to embrace what
After the cheese is cooked, it is vac or Multivac packaging. The compa- is possible instead of what is simply
conveyed through the facility to the ny can also produce cheese in contain- cost-efficient leads to one project being
proper production areas. Shredding and ers such as bags, cups or buckets. the catalyst for others, says Braun.
grinding are automated, while other “So the project, it starts out as one
products, including string cheese, are THE BOTTOM LINES thing, right? We tried to solve one thing,”
cut by hand. Long cheese ropes are de- All of these efforts—sustainability, he says. “And then sometimes you take a
livered to a cutting table, where work- quality, safety—cost money, and the step back and reassess and redevelop all
ers slice them into appropriate lengths. company isn’t a huge operation. Its the things that you’re doing.”
The sticks are then wrapped into balls revenue is measured in tens of millions For more information:
before later being packaged in shrink- instead of hundreds of millions or Hispanic Cheese Makers (formerly Nuestro Queso),
wrap. Leftover pieces are reformed into billions. But safety and quality can’t be
Fehr Graham,
new cheese ropes. sacrificed, which means that sustain-

40 FOOD ENGINEERING December 2018

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