Got milk? Mountaintop Beverage does.
Got a 330,000 square-foot state-of-the-art automated aseptic bottling facility capable of processing staggering amounts of raw dairy into an array of products with up to a one-year shelf life?
Mountaintop has that too.
And it’s just getting started.
On Friday, the first trucks carrying shelf-stable milk from the Mountaintop Beverage facility rolled away from the Morgantown Industrial Park to locations across the country.
Not bad when you consider the site where the massive factory stands was literally a mountaintop in August of 2021.
Since then, 1.7 million cubic yards of dirt was relocated, 50,000 tons of concrete was set in place and a dizzying tangle of stainless-steel piping — eight miles worth — was pieced together to form the plant’s circulatory system.
“This is quite a place,” Mountaintop Beverage CEO Jeffrey Sokal said.
And it’s got quite a mission.
“The goal we have is to help rebuild the farming infrastructure and to rebuild dairy. Dairy production in the state of West Virginia is down roughly by half over the last 10 years,” Sokal said. “The state has very strong FFA and 4-H programs. So, for folks who want to farm, this factory is going to be here for decades.”
That’s why recruiting Sokal and his team from western New York to West Virginia became a priority for Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt and West Virginia Dairy Association Deputy Commissioner Joe Hatton.
Sokal credits both men primarily for bringing Mountaintop Beverage to the Mountain State and notes hundreds of individuals, from the governor’s office to the county commission, have gone the extra mile to help make it happen.
“We’ve felt welcome right from the start and made to feel like this project is important to the state and the community. So many people have gone out of their way to push this project,” he said.
“And we want to be here. There are industrial parks with shovel-ready sites all over Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, but we wanted to be here because of what this facility can do for this state, the community, the ag community and the dairy industry. We went to a lot of trouble to clear this site. So, anybody who questions why we came here, we came here to make a difference.”
Today, about one-third of the 330,000 square-foot factory built as Phase I of the overall project is in production. It currently has a workforce of 150 people. Sokal anticipates the entire facility will be operational by year’s end, with more than 200 employees producing shelf-stable milk, coffee products, protein shakes and plant-based beverages.
A big emphasis for the company will be school milk.
The last year saw the closure of several large production facilities, creating shortages of school milk all over the country, and particularly in the southeast.
Sokal explained the school milk production capacity coming online at Mountaintop Beverage is the largest in the United States by a factor of three.
And that will represent just one of the facility’s three production lines.
Currently, the plant is receiving its milk from Somerset County, Pa.
Even in its limited startup capacity, the plant already has a demand nearly twice what West Virginia farms can provide.
Further, there’s already a dairy processor in the state, United Dairy.
“If I’m taking all the milk from local farms, then I’m taking milk away from their business. If I’m bidding the schools, which are typically supplied by United, then I’m taking business and jobs away from Wheeling, Charleston and Uniontown, where they operate. That doesn’t do the area any good. We’re just shuffling deck chairs,” he said.
“What we want to do is rebuild. Initially, we’re getting our milk from Somerset Valley and over time as we rebuild the dairy infrastructure and help build up dairy farming in and around the state, then we can do that cooperatively with them.”
And while Sokal and his team are figuratively building the state’s dairy industry, they’ll be physically building more production capacity.
Sokal anticipates construction on an additional 170,000 square feet of production space, or Phase II, could begin as early as this summer and come online in 2025. After that, Phase III.
“We designed a 750,000 square-foot factory. We just haven’t built it all yet,” he said.
Playing a critical role in those expansion plans is the question of interstate access, meaning the construction of the new Harmony Grove interchange connecting I-79 to the industrial park.
Glenn Adrian, co-owner of the Morgantown Industrial Park as part of Enrout Properties, said he’s hopeful the new interchange will be under construction in 2024 and open in 2025.
Sokal admitted the pace at which this process is moving has been a frustration.
“Bottom line is we wouldn’t have come if we didn’t get that commitment from the state. We’re here. We feel like we’ve held up our end. So it’s certainly taken a little longer than we would have hoped, but I think they’re making material progress now,” he said. “For us, you can’t really overstate how important that is.”
Original Article by Ben Conley on The Dominion Post.com