SDSU agriculture graduates impacted Bel Brands USA expansion to Brookings

BROOKINGS, S.D. (AP) — The formal opening on Friday of the Bel Brands USA plant in Brookings is part of a decades-long effort to make South Dakota a major player in not just milk production but also dairy products, the state secretary of agriculture said.

Bel Brands said its 250 employees will produce 1.5 million Mini Babybel cheese wheels a day when the $140 million operation is at capacity next year. The Paris-based company, also known for The Laughing Cow cheese wedge, said the plant will help meet growing U.S. demand for Mini Babybels, sales for which have nearly tripled since 2009.

Frederic Nalis, CEO of Bel Americas and president and CEO of Bel Brands USA, on Wednesday explained the major reasons for the plant’s location in eastern South Dakota: access to well-priced milk and an ongoing effort to attract more dairies, a business-friendly environment in Brookings and the presence of agriculture degree graduates from South Dakota State University.

“Several members of our management team are SDSU alumni who have returned to the area to join our workforce,” Nalis said.

South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture Lucas Lentsch said the university is one of only two in country with degrees in both dairy production and processing.

The effort to attract more dairies started years ago when the state saw numbers declining, he said. The number of dairy cows in the state peaked at around 250,000 in the 1960s and bottomed out at 80,000 before increasing to 92,000 in 2012 and 97,000 now, Lentsch said. Facilities for another 20,000 head have been permitted or are under construction, he said.

“We reversed the trend, and we are now growing back the dairy herd in South Dakota,” Lentsch said. “The economic impact of a dairy cow is leaps and bounds ahead of everything else.”

Rather than just producing a raw product, such as meat, dairy cows produce milk that’s turned into other products that collectively add an average of $14,000 to the economy per cow, he said.

Political leaders and company representatives are among those who plan to attend Friday’s ribbon cutting.