Water conservation efforts and the construction of a new LEED Platinum headquarters building in California top the list of reasons why Hilmar Cheese Co. received a U.S. Dairy Sustainability Award from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. Hilmar received the award in the category of Outstanding Dairy Processing & Manufacturing Sustainability in May. The Innovation Center based the selection on a triple-bottom line of economic, environmental and community impact success.

“We made these choices not to win any award, but I think it reflects our commitment to the environment and to the communities where we operate,” said Hilmar CEO David Ahlem. The privately held cheesemaker has plants in Hilmar, Calif., and Dalhart, Texas.

“It’s certainly created an opportunity for us to showcase what Hilmar Cheese has been doing in the area of sustainability, as well as others in the dairy industry,” he said.

The company recovers nearly all of the water from its incoming milk — 87% of which is water — while making about 2 million pounds of cheese daily. The water is then treated at the plant and used as many as three times for crop irrigation, landscaping and other functions.

The multiyear drought and accompanying state regulations in California have intensified the focus on water conservation, but that’s been a part of Hilmar’s culture and processes for a while, Ahlem said.

“From a regulatory standpoint, we’ve been asked to do some things that are just unprecedented out here in California, which has pushed us to become more innovative,” he said. But water conservation “has been a focus here since Day 1.”

“We look at a lot of these projects, and some of them have a payback, but most of them have just been about doing the right thing. Our owners and employees live and operate in the community. We’ve always had a long-term focus,” Ahlem added. “Milk is 87% water. It’s such a great opportunity to capture, reclaim and reuse this water.”

The U.S. Green Building company gave its LEED Platinum certification to the headquarters and innovation center in Hilmar. The building contains such features as charging stations for electric vehicles, solar panels that provide 25% of overall building energy, a design that maximizes the use of natural lighting, and a heating, ventilating and air-conditioning system that draws from water reclamation ponds to create a closed-loop water cooling process.

“It wasn’t an easy standard by any means,” Ahlem said. “There’s a lot of things that went into this facility.”

The Innovation Center award also hinged partly on the educational programs the company provides to school groups and others in its visitors’ center, he said.

“We’re educating them about dairy’s role in sustainable food production and the food cycle,” Ahlem said. “They go through and learn about a dairy farm, and the good work we’re doing with sustainability in a dairy processing facility. And they learn where their food comes from.”

That, in turn, ties into a larger goal.

 “It’s very important for us to tell our story,” he said. “We’re telling the story about the good things the dairy industry is doing, and educating a new generation of consumers.”