Part 2–The Surprising Outlook in Idaho

By November 17, 2007Report from America

Report from AmericaI just returned from a business trip to Idaho where I had the distinct honor to address the 61st annual meeting of the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho, an audience comprised of probably one third business leaders and two-thirds legislative leaders.

While I was in Boise, I had the good fortune to visit the Amalgamated Sugar Company facility just north of town in Nampa. From afar, you can see this plant and its white cylindrical drying towers which have been landmarks here since World War II. If you looked just superficially at this plant, you’d think not much had changed in the past sixty years. And that of course is where you would be dead wrong. And you would have little understanding of how over 200,000 acres of sugar beets are processed at this facility every years–veritable mountains of big white-fleshed sugar beets.

Inside, technology and innovation are afoot as they are at most successful manufacturing facilities. Plant manager Kent Quinney, like many of the employees, has been there for well over a decade because it pays a very good salary and the work is challenging and rewarding. What struck me in my two and a half hours at the plant that much that used to be back-breaking work is now mechanized by machines and even robots. A case in point is a high-speed packaging line where 50 lb bags of finished sugar are handled. Previously one man could fill two, 50 lb. paper bags in a minute. Now, a new high speed packager fills 28 polybags in the same time. That’s a great picture of productivity if ever there was one.

It’s hard to describe the technology at work in the plant. It’s way over my head and I could never do it justice in the same way Kent Quinney explained it. But they are inventing new ways to get more out of each sugar beet and have identified new byproducts that are popular in Japan and Europe, leading to export markets for this staple crop that is used in thousands of ways in baking, candy-making and food processing. Engineers are needed to keep this big operation underway. Large centrifuges are used in the final stages and it is truly magic to watch the yellowed sugar be literally spun white right before your eyes.

While in Boise, I also visited the Darigold milk processing plant. This facility is super clean as you can imagine and the 200,000 gallons of milk that are brought in each day in stainless steel tanker trucks are eventually sent out the door in plastic milk jugs. They plant also processes soy for beverages and it was that line that was underway when I was there, boxing up three large gallon packages for special sale at Costco.

Every batch of milk that is unloaded is sampled for purity and then a similar sample is sent on to company headquarters, in dry ice, for a retest. This is only the start of meticulous testing of the milk product. It’s done over and over again in this plant as the milk is separated, cleaned, processed, pasteurized and packaged. After a batch of milk is finished, the plant uses multiple chemicals to clean the pipes and stainless steel tanks so that there will be no remnants of the previous milk left in the system.

The Darigold facility is heavily regulated–the Food & Drug Administration, EPA, state EPA, clients who have product made there visit frequently, OSHA, etc. While it is different in this way from the sugar beet facility, they are the same in that they have harnessed high-tech innovations to provide customers with the lowest-priced, highest quality known anywhere. And they have helped build food processing into the largest sector of U.S. manufacturing.

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