Photo of UW-River Falls officials and agriculture business leaders celebrating the grand opening Friday of the Wuethrich Family/Grassland Dairy Center of Excellence, a $9 million facility that will provide students and dairy employees high-tech, hands-on training opportunities. UWRF photo.

UW-River Falls officials and agriculture business leaders celebrate the grand opening Friday of the Wuethrich Family/Grassland Dairy Center of Excellence, a $9 million facility that will provide students and dairy employees high-tech, hands-on training opportunities. UWRF photo.

Wuethrich Family/Grassland Dairy Center of Excellence will boost student learning, business opportunities

During a celebratory ribbon cutting and with each tour of the rebuilt Wuethrich Family/Grassland Dairy Center of Excellence at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls on Oct. 20, Michelle Farner felt emotions welling inside her.

Gratitude. Accomplishment. Relief.

Emotions were to be expected after Farner, director of dairy production at UW-River Falls, had poured her heart and soul into revitalizing the dairy pilot plant for the past 11 years. Finally, after many meetings, delays, unanticipated expenses and fundraising efforts, Friday’s grand opening ceremony marked the plant’s official reopening.

Five years after the plant was shut down due to outdated machinery, the remodeled 6,000 square-foot, $9 million plant in the Agricultural Science Building houses rows of shiny new equipment. The equipment will serve as a hub for students and dairy industry employees to engage in high-tech, hands-on learning making dairy products. The dairy plant was renamed for the Wuethrich Family Foundation and Grassland Dairy Products, Inc., of Greenwood, after $1 million in donations helped make the plant a reality.

Surrounded by UWRF officials, politicians, agriculture industry supporters and other well-wishers at the ceremony, Farner said it’s difficult for her to describe how much seeing the facility near completion means to her.

“This is truly a momentous occasion for so many people, especially me,” she said. “It’s positively amazing to finally see the equipment that I have spent so much time researching, working with vendors on, and fundraising for actually be installed and operational.”

During Friday’s ceremony, speakers praised the diligent effort of Farner and others to make the dairy plant a reality. Their unwavering commitment to seeing the project through was necessary to help overcome challenges along the way, speakers said. They also discussed how the dairy plant will be a high-tech training site for students and others in the dairy industry.

“She was the champion of this project,” John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, said of Farner. “Her perseverance and conviction are the only reason we’re standing here today.”

Final adjustments are being made to dairy plant equipment and the plant is expected to begin operating in November, when milk from UWRF-operated Mann Valley Farm will be processed at the plant.

Trevor Wuethrich, president of Grassland Dairy Products, Inc., said the work of UW-River Falls and others to get the revamped plant up and running signifies their commitment to Wisconsin’s dairy industry.

“We don’t consider (the $1 million contribution) a gift at all. We see it as an investment,” he said, noting many of his company’s employees are UWRF graduates.

Mike Orth, dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences (CAFES), described how the remodeled plant will enable dairy industry personnel to be on campus to interact with students and utilize its state-of-the-art equipment.

“This plant will create unique opportunities for faculty, staff and students to interact with industry leaders, which will be beneficial for all and great for the state of Wisconsin,” Orth said.

Dale Gallenberg worked as the CAFES dean during the formation and building of the remodeled dairy plant and was heavily involved with making the facility a reality before retiring last year. The dairy plant will improve students’ education while boosting the state’s dairy sector, he said.

“It’s very gratifying to see this transformative and visionary renovation come to completion,” Gallenberg said. “An updated and expanded facility will significantly increase opportunities for UWRF students to gain valuable knowledge and hands-on experience as well as assist one of Wisconsin’s major industries with top-end, job-ready talent.”

Agriculture businesses were key backers of ensuring that the remodeled dairy plant was completed, even when challenges like the coronavirus pandemic, supply issues and unexpected costs occurred, Farner said. That support is borne out in numbers: nearly two dozen organizations – many of them ag-related businesses – contributed $5.2 million of the project’s $9 million cost, with the state paying the remainder.

Jim Mildbrand, a colleague of Farner’s who grew up in and worked in the dairy industry, felt compelled to be part of the fundraising effort. The benefits of an upgraded plant to students and the dairy industry are many, he said, noting that Wisconsin counts on UWRF to provide training necessary to help the sector thrive.

“This newly renovated dairy plant, with state-of-the-art equipment, will ensure that UW-River Falls continues to be there for the dairy industry of the Midwest,” he said. “I am deeply gratified to see this dream come true.”

So is Farner. Shortly after the grand opening event, she reflected on the first meeting 11 years ago about rebuilding the dairy plant and the challenges and successes since then. She eagerly anticipates the restart of the plant and the resulting student learning opportunities and advancements for the dairy industry.

“This amazing facility will bring full circle what students are learning in the classroom to life,” she said. “Knowing now that will happen feels so good.”

Written by UW-River Falls University Communications and Marketing

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