Working on the Future
by James Dudlicek
Historic plant in St. Louis is where Prairie Farms launched its campaign to reclaim its rightful share of kids’ stomachs.
Prairie Farms’ Pevely milk plant in downtown St. Louis is a study in contrasts. On the one hand, the great brick edifice — furrowing its ruddy brow at the city for nine decades — is a reminder of days gone by. The complex, with its tall smokestack, rises almost Wonka-like amid the nearby contemporary facilities of St. Louis University.
But inside, the plant is busily working on the future of the dairy industry, as the birthplace of a recent successful experiment in getting school kids to drink more milk.
Here, at the corner of Grand and Chouteau, reformulated flavored milk is packaged in mod cartons and sent out to thirsty youngsters at St. Louis-area schools, who are showing their appreciation of the enhanced milk service with rising consumption rates.
Pevely runs 3,000 cases — about 200,000 half-pint cartons — a day, six days a week, to serve its school customers during the regular academic year, with continued orders for summer school, explains operations manager Don Good. “When school starts,” he says, “it puts us right to the wall.”
Plant Basics
Staffed by 200 employees, the 350,000-square-foot facility sits on a 16-acre site. With a fluid milk capacity of 32 million pounds, it processes milk, cottage cheese, sour cream, juice and drinks.
Raw ingredients arrive in the four-bay receiving area, which includes one bay for offloading orange juice and liquid sweeteners. The plant receives 14 to 18 trucks per day, delivering milk from Prairie Farms member producers in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri. Raw milk must pass the standard battery of lab tests before it’s unloaded.
Eight fluid lines fill plastic gallons, half gallons in paper and plastic, pints, half pints, quarts and 5-gallon bags. The fluid lines’ container needs are served by two one-gallon, four-head blow molders that create 3,800 jugs per hour; half-gallon bottles come from a sister plant in Olney, Ill. For the new school milk half pints, revamped graphics were applied to the same-size paperboard carton stock, so existing form-fill-seal machinery could be used.
Fill rates range from 80 gallons per minute on the half-gallon plastic line to 170 half pints a minute on the paper line. “Volume varies every day based on what we run,” Good says.
Two cultured fillers handle 8-, 16- and 24-ounce containers of sour cream and 16- and 24-ounce sizes of cottage cheese. Sour cream runs during the day, while cottage cheese is filled on the night shift, Good says.
Finished product awaits its turn for delivery among 850 pallet spaces in a refrigerated warehouse kept at a constant 34 degrees F.
Keeping Up
For a plant that’s been a fixture on the city skyline for almost a century, the company continues to beef up its infrastructure to increase manufacturing efficiencies and accommodate demand for its own products as well as contract packaging orders. In addition to its own branded line of dairy food products, Prairie Farms packages products for major retailers.
Among the more recent new equipment are raw-milk holding silos and pasteurized tanks, which went in about a year ago, Good says. “It’s an upgrade on equipment,” he adds. “The basics remain the same.”
In other areas, Prairie Farms is moving beyond the basics to keep up with advancements in technology. The company recently employed new software that allows distribution personnel to immediately enter data regarding invoices, routes and customers into an electronic format, eliminating the need for back-office data entry personnel.
In this new process, an invoice is printed wirelessly over and left behind with the customer. When deliveries are completed at the end of the day, distribution personnel return their handheld computers to their docking stations within the depot, and information is immediately uploaded into the Prairie Farms host system database, over wireless connections.
Then at night, the handheld software “wakes up” and retrieves the download for the next day’s route, before the driver shows up in the morning. Prairie Farms corporate personnel can monitor deliveries, check invoices and address any potential problems using a standard Web browser via the software provider’s portal middleware and integration server.
Safety and Quality
The issue of safety for food and employee alike continue to be a growing concern across the food industry, and Prairie Farms is no exception.
“Incoming employees go through an orientation on safety rules while on the job,” Good explains. “They’re training on what to do and what not to do, on how to follow proper procedures.” The extensive training program addresses issues such as chemical safety, lock-out/tag-out emergency evacuation, ammonia safety, and processing and safety management.
Further, the company has a safety management team as well as a safety incentive program to foster a culture of safety awareness among employees. “We have monthly safety meetings; we have inspections of the plant for defects,” Good says.
Prairie Farms plants have employee food safety committees that hold regularly scheduled meetings to review employee concerns as part of the company’s in-house quality efforts.
“We have three different external firms that do audits,” says Ed Mullins, senior vice president. “Then we do our own in-house audits, and corporate in-house audits. Then, naturally, there’s the normal health department inspections.”
Beyond its HACCP program enforced for all products it manufactures, the company has an extensive quality-assurance manual that details food safety and quality policies, procedures and specifications.
The quality-assurance manager performs monthly in-house audits, in addition to periodic audits by the corporate quality-assurance staff. The company has long-standing relationships with most of its suppliers, and any new supplier must be approved through its corporate quality-assurance process.
Product quality is constantly monitored on the plant floor. “We sample product as it’s being batched up to make sure it meets proper specs,” Good says. “After it’s pasteurized and put together, we monitor it there, too. Checks are made to make sure it meets our standards for butterfat, solids and other criteria.”
Enhanced security measures also are in place. “Security has been upgraded as far as locks, controlled access, monitored access,” Good says. “Tankers coming in are all sealed. All loads going out with finished product are sealed.”
Taking on Hurdles
Prairie Farms processes a large variety of products, with varied challenges encountered at its facilities across the Midwest. In the dairy industry, one of the most difficult challenges is to produce relatively low-margin products in the most cost-efficient way possible. The company responds to this challenge by having a culture of hands-on management, noting that managers are on the production floor a high percentage of their day to ensure this.
Challenges to production often come at the hands of customers, who make demands that must be carefully considered when being worked in to the plant’s busy manufacturing schedule. However, Mullins notes that plants like Pevely operate in such a way that they’re well equipped to react to late-breaking demands for customer requests like extra product for an imminent sale.
Maintaining that agility requires a topnotch work force, which assistant operations manager Tim Coleman says is another challenge of manufacturing. “Probably the biggest challenge we have in an urban environment is the turnover rate and keeping good employees,” Coleman says.
Why is turnover so much tougher in an urban setting? Likely the wider variety of employment options available and the time-intensive nature of the dairy industry, plant managers say, echoing sentiments expressed by senior management.
“In the dairy business, we work holidays, we work weekends, we work odd hours,” Good says. “I think that’s a big determining factor in keeping employees. That’s where our challenge is.”
But, he says, the past decade has brought a much more stable work force than in previous years, due in part to tougher pre-screening. “We’re building our team,” he says. “We have a much better team right now. They don’t leave.”
Of course, longevity — and more than a century’s worth of it to boot — seems to be what the Pevely Dairy is all about. St. Louis should be proud.  m
Log Cabin to Brick Dairy
A brief history of Prairie Farms’ Pevely Dairy Co.
Prairie Farms Dairy Inc. purchased the Pevely Dairy Co. and its plant in downtown St. Louis in 1989, but the roots of the company go back nearly a century and a half earlier.
In 1841, Casper Kerckhoff arrived in the United States from Germany and built a log house on acreage in Jefferson County, near Pevely, Mo. It was at this location where not only Kerckhoff’s 23 children were born, but where he is said to have had the first registered herd of Jersey dairy cows and cream separator west of the Mississippi River.
After Kerckhoff died in 1899, sons Martin and Jacob retained an interest in one of the farms on the homestead. Martin had started a butter route to St. Louis in the early 1880s, and eventually his customers began buying milk shipped by rail from Pevely, about 30 miles south of St. Louis.
In 1887, Martin Kerckhoff formed the Pevely Dairy Co. in a small building on Seventh Street in St. Louis, and before long he and his son, Daniel, were operating several milk routes out of their dairy. The Kerckhoffs caught their first big break when their company was awarded the concession to provide milk for the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.
Soon the business outgrew its original plant, bringing a move to larger quarters on Park Avenue in St. Louis. A period of steady growth followed, leading to the construction of the current plant at Grand and Chouteau, which opened in 1917, a year after Martin’s death.
Son Daniel grew the business by increasing the number of company-owned home-service routes, which at the time were all horse-drawn wagons. In the early 1940s, the company had more than 350 routes, making Pevely one of the largest and most successful privately owned dairies in the United States. For a time, before delivery trucks were introduced, the company used zebras as well as horses to ply milk routes around the city, for a little extra marketing attention.
Pevely entered the ice cream business in 1927, building a dedicated plant still in use today. The milk plant has been expanded in the years following World War II, in whose final year Daniel Kerckhoff died and management of the company passed to his five sons.
Subsequent years saw increased competition from private labels as supermarkets began to dominate the retail scene, eroding home-delivery businesses throughout the industry. But the Pevely brand remained a fixture among St. Louis consumers, and even today under Prairie Farms ownership, the labels of many products manufactured at the St. Louis plant — in its ninth decade — still carry the Pevely name.  
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