Smith Brothers Farms will turn the spigot to "on" and fill its first milk bottles on Sunday at its new dairy processing facility in Kent, Wash. Monday morning, its home delivery customers in the Puget Sound area will enjoy a glass of milk or pour it on their cereal.

The dairy processor will keep a container of the first milk to come off the line, just as it plans to save a container of the last product to come off the line of its old facility.

Dustin Highland of Smith Brothers Farms told me that the milk moves from cow to fridge in less than 48 hours. You can't get pasteurized milk much fresher than that. Highland talked with me this week about the company's decision to move into a new plant, selling the family farm and taking on debt. Any one of those actions would undo me; the dairy processor undertook them all at the same time.

Smith Brothers Farms is a fourth-generation family-owned dairy processor

Highland, who is the director of revenue operations, is a fourth-generation member of the Smith family, started by Ben Smith in the 1920s. Scott Highland, Dustin's father, is the president and CEO. Two cousins, grandchildren of Ben Smith, also manage the business.

The old plant was on the grounds of the family's dairy farm. It got out of the milk producing business when milk producer/handler regulations changed in 2006. The dairy farm is owned and now farmed by Carpinto Brothers, who own a produce market.

The new dairy plant was a Heinz soup processing facility located two miles from the old plant. Highland's company used to send totes of cream there. Fillers and pasteurization tanks now stand in spots once occupied by soup kettles. The old plant was cramped. Like many plants, new equipment and conveyors were fit in willy-nilly as the plant grew. The new plant is organized and streamlined. It's a "happier place," Highland said.

It's more efficient, too. The company estimates it will save 1.3 million gallons of water annually thanks to a new glycol cooling system. Electricity use to cool the 20,000-square-foot refrigerated warehouse is expected to drop by 10% to 15%.

Smith Brothers Farms has positioned itself for growth from new products and from co-packing opportunities, Highland said. Raw milk capacity increased 55% to 70,000 gallons and pasteurized milk capacity soared 300% to 60,000 gallons. It packages milk in half-pints (for schools) and 300-gallon totes (for coffee shops and other foodservice accounts) and everything in between.

Smith Brothers Farms treats its home delivery customers with tender loving care

Milk processing is a competitive business. Grocers discount milk heavily to generate store traffic. Smith Brothers Farms is not in that business. It sells directly to 45,000 homes and to foodservice accounts. Highland told me his company is competing on customer service. It invested in sophisticated online ordering and order management software. Its customer service staff does everything to resolve issues or complaints satisfactorily. Smith Brothers Farms' social media activities keep it close to customers and help it to decide on new products to develop or add to its home delivery routes.

Amid news of plant closings or consolidations by large dairy processors, it is refreshing to speak with an independent business that is investing in a large plant. Here's wishing Highland and his 124 co-workers much success on Sunday and in the years to come.