Maola Local Dairies, the signature brand from Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association Inc. (MDVA), covers dairy products touted as being “fresh from farm to fridge” and “100% local.” To make good on those claims, Reston, Va.-based MDVA operates two processing facilities dedicated to this brand — and customers’ brands — that are strategically located to be as close as possible to its member farms. (It also operates two plants dedicated to dairy-based ingredients — see the Processor Profile)

One of those plants can be found in Landover, Md. — less than 10 miles from the nation’s capital city. Constructed in 1968 to serve as Giant Foods’ dairy arm, the plant was purchased by MDVA in 2006, notes Todd Aarons, executive vice president of operations for the cooperative.

In addition to white and chocolate milk in a variety of fat levels, the plant makes buttermilk and eggnog, Aarons says. Products are produced via high-temperature/short-time (HTST) processing.

The 175,000-square-foot facility boasts 103 employees, most of whom are dedicated to production, warehouse and shipping, or engineering and maintenance. Production takes place six days a week across two eight-hour processing shifts; a third shift is dedicated to cleanup and HTST processing. Packaging formats include caseless and conventional gallons, quarts and totes, Aarons says.


Keeping it fresh, local

Dairy Foods asked MDVA to walk us through milk production at the plant.

The beginning of the process puts an emphasis on fresh milk. Paddy Sailesh Narayan, director of operations at the Landover facility, explains that the raw milk arrives at the plant’s bulk milk receiving area 12 hours or less after the cows are milked at each of the 900-plus member farms. The plant receives milk seven days a week.

“Every batch is tested at plant level and can be traced back to the farm level,” he notes.

From receiving, the milk undergoes HTST processing/pasteurizing and packaging — a process that requires eight hours. Following pasteurization, the product undergoes shelf-life testing.

“We are always working to extend shelf life,” Narayan says. “Improvements are implemented to ensure the highest-quality milk reaches the consumer and exceeds our customers’ expectations.”

Finished products then go from order picking and loading to store shelves within eight to 12 hours. The entire process certainly meshes with the Maola “fresh from farm to fridge” promise — as Narayan explains, milk goes “from cows to consumer in less than 48 hours.”

The products appeal to today’s consumers’ desire for local, too. MDVA CEO Jay Bryant relays what he once told a skeptical neighbor:

“We have farms out in Central Maryland — Frederick, Md., for example. We pick that milk up from those farms every day, and we take it to our bottling plant in Landover, Md. Then we put it on the delivery truck and we bring it to the Giant grocery store, which is right here in our town. That milk probably never got more than 40 miles from the farm where the cows produced it.”


Eye on quality

Milk and other products produced at the plant are not only farm fresh and local, but also of the highest possible quality. And cleanliness within the plant is critical to maintaining that quality.

Each day, employees clean and sanitize the facility’s processing equipment, silos and other related equipment. They also verify that those steps were taken, using recordkeeping that includes both a computerized mechanical management system and a manual system verified daily, Narayan notes.

“All tracking of cleaning is internally checked, verified and audited on a daily and frequent basis, in addition to regulatory inspections and audits,” he adds.

To ensure the effectiveness of cleaning efforts, plant production personnel perform swabbing of equipment post-cleaning for verification by the Quality Department, Narayan says. Production may commence only after the equipment passes these quality checks.

Quality products also are ensured via the food safety efforts of the SQF-certified plant.

“We use daily, weekly [and] monthly key performance indicators pertaining to micro, sanitation program and related data,” Narayan points out. “We monitor results on a daily basis so that we can channel all our daily actions/efforts to achieve the desired high internal standards of measures.”

The plant actually goes beyond what is expected here, Aarons adds.

“We strive to achieve the highest-quality products by setting higher-than-acceptable standards for our quality expectations internally,” he says. “We hold ourselves to these higher expectations and always on a daily basis strive to achieve our set goals.”

Employee engagement is critical to these efforts. Narayan says that happens “via active daily accountability and measures according to a creed: ‘Just as personal safety, food quality is always an uncompromised and utmost expectation to be delivered to all MDVA consumers, every time.’”


Safety as a value

Speaking of personal safety, the plant is no slouch there, either. In fact, employee safety is a value for MDVA and the facility, in addition to its being an “objective with relevant expectations,” Aarons points out.

“When safety becomes a value, it’s not a chore any longer,” he says. “It’s part of our culture.”

Employee safety is so important that it accounts for the first agenda item in all of the Operations Division’s calls and meetings, Aarons says.

“Our team’s wellbeing is always foremost, and the expectation [for] each and every individual team member is to at all times to conduct themselves and hold each other to a safe behavior and environment without compromise,” he says.

The plant reports daily on safety metrics so it can identify any trends quickly, Aarons notes. In addition, every employee is “encouraged and empowered” to come forward if they notice any safety issues.

“They have the ability to take actions to stop anything that doesn’t feel right,” he adds. “Employees shouldn’t be scared — that’s how important safety is to us.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic first reared its ugly head back in March, employee safety moved even more “front and center,” Aarons notes. MDVA put into place additional measures — including temperature checks, daily health checks and daily operational reviews and more — intended to protect essential employees and ensure their safety.

“Updates are reported at least twice a day to ensure we are up to date with the latest science and research with the pandemic and our employees are safe coming into work daily,” he says.


Efficiency minded

Since it purchased the Landover facility a decade and a half ago, production has increased, and capacity has grown with it. To keep up, MDVA has made a number of investments to the plant in recent years. In 2016, for example, the cooperative expanded the cooler space and expanded its blow-molding capacity, Aarons says.

More recently, MDVA added a second pasteurizer that doubled the capacity of the plant, Narayan says, boosting the cooperative’s competitiveness in the marketplace and ensuring a home for its members’ milk. However, the plant has invested in more than additional capacity.

“We are always looking for ways to increase our efficiencies and streamline processes,” Narayan stresses.

Automation, for example, has played a key role in boosting productivity throughout the plant.

“[An] automated process is more effective and efficient and less prone to mistakes/variations, which drive losses and inefficiencies,” Narayan explains. “Going from manual processes to automated processes provides consistencies, which is key for product quality.”

On the sustainability side, MDVA installed sensors and energy-efficient lighting throughout the plant, Narayan notes. It also powers down its equipment safely when not in use “to avoid consumption of unnecessary/idle energy,” he says.

In addition, the facility’s key performance indicators were designed to include an effective measure of operations-related waste. Daily monitoring of the plant’s performance helps “guide/highlight opportunities to reduce waste by maintaining tolerant/acceptable standards” for products, Narayan adds.

“For example, we measure the weight of our plastic jugs and control the amount of plastic/resin that needs to be in a jug within a standard range,” he says.

The plant also has made investments to minimize wastewater and to “double trip” from member farms to the plant to maximize efficiencies and reduce the plant’s carbon footprint, Narayan says.

Looking ahead, additional investments — not only in the Landover facility, but also in MDVA’s other three plants — will play a critical role in the cooperative’s quest for growth, Aarons suggests.

“Maryland & Virginia’s member-owners are committed to investing in their operations to ensure the cooperative business remains viable and positioned for future growth and opportunity,” he says. “Our capital retain program ensures we can invest in improvements and increase capacity going forward.”


Culture of pride

As it looks to the future, MDVA’s Landover facility appears to be on track for continued success and growth. And the plant’s unique culture should only enhance its chances.

The facility’s employees work for MDVA’s farmer-owners, so they “have developed a culture of pride,” Narayan points out.

The plant team also has developed the ability — and flexibility — to respond to the needs of customers and be the supplier of choice, Narayan adds.

“We are not rigid. We know we need to be able to pivot and anticipate changes in the marketplace,” he says.

Moreover, the facility’s employees are a diverse and seasoned group. And the plant has a mentorship program in place whereby the veteran employees mentor the “next level of talent,” Narayan explains.

“We are growing and developing our own dairy talent,” he emphasizes. “We train our employees and teach them the industry. We are … recognizing talent and rewarding them.”

What’s more, the plant is preparing some employees for future leadership roles with the cooperative, Narayan says.

“We are also bringing in fresh talent from the outside and elevating employees within dairy and moving them up the ladder to provide more opportunity,” he adds. “We have a network of plants that will offer our employees growth and more opportunities to succeed.”