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140 more jobs? Say cheese!
Proposal to reopen Airport Way cheese factory near Del Webb
The cheese factory on Airport Way north of Lathrop Road and west of Del Webb at Woodbridge could go back into production. - photo by RYAN BALBUENA

An international food corporation interested in supplying cheese and baby formula to the growing Asian market wants to re-open the cheese factory on Airport Way just north of Lathrop Road.

And if the firm can tackle wastewater and air quality concerns with cutting edge technology, it will bring 140 full-time jobs to Manteca and create a demand for 36 tanker trucks of milk a day. That’s the equivalent of 216,000 gallons of milk.

Councilman Steve DeBrum, who is employed as an area manager for the Dairy Farmers of America, noted the milk demand “would be a big shot in the arm” for Northern San Joaquin Valley dairies. DeBrum, who has nothing to do with the project either personally or professionally through his employer, noted the fact most of the production would be for export and would end up being a significant net gain for dairy farmers.

The councilman also noted such jobs “aren’t minimum wage jobs” but many would fall within the coveted head-of-household jobs.

DeBrum said he is being cautiously optimistic.

“There are so many unanswered questions,” DeBrum said. “We need to make sure air quality, water issues, and permit concerns are addressed.”

Don Smail, the City of Manteca’s economic development manager, indicated that the process of determining whether the project will work is in the initial stages.

The Los Angeles-based firm that imports seafood is purchasing the plant from California specialty Cheese. Actual cheese production hasn’t taken place at the Airport Way plant directly across from the western edge of Del Webb at Woodbridge for years. There have been, though, cheese produced elsewhere that is taken to the facility for cutting, processing, and packaging.

If the project clears environmental impact review process that includes stringent standards imposed by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District and Central Valley Regional Quality Control Board city officials indicated it would then take about a year to get the plant up and running.

New state standards have been put in place since the plant was last operated.

In terms of water, the cheese production process must address salt issues and have the water pre-treated before it is sent to a wastewater treatment plant.

Smail noted there is new reverse osmosis technology that has effectively addressed salt concerns elsewhere. He added new processes also greatly reduce the amount of salt used in cheese making.

New rules are also in place for odor control and suppression.

The growing Asian market - particularly China - is being targeted by the firm. They also intend to produce baby formula from the cheese making process that they hope to also market in China.

The cheese plant would require about $150,000 worth of electricity a month to produce provolone, ricotta, and mozzarella cheese. The plant could be a project for cogeneration of electricity due to waste heat.

Agriculture processing jobs would help reduce unemployment

If the cheese plant is successfully re-opened, it would dovetail into the city’s newest economic strategy to take advantage of the region’s strength - agriculture- to create higher paying job in food processing. It is seen as one of the more effective ways to chip away at Manteca’s unemployment rate that just dipped below 14 percent.

Manteca’s ability to handle agricultural processing wastewater via land disposal, its location in the heart of one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, and plans to triple the size of the Union Pacific intermodal truck to rail lift facility on the city’s western border with Lathrop is seen as an ideal way to create jobs.

The three could combine to allow Manteca to take advantage of a demand for a second “fruit and veggie express” train to urban markets east of the Rockies.

Union Pacific representatives working with Smail are pushing for the private sector to create the nucleus of home base for such a train.

A  fruit and veggie express of 15 refrigerated train cars has been making the  30-hour trek to the UP intermodal operation in Joliet, Illinois for 20 years from Delano near Fresno where produce is processed and packaged for distribution to supermarkets. But instead of staying in Illinois it moves to the Eastern Seaboard where it supplies an insatiable demand for fresh California produce.

Railroad officials would like to see a second express train run to Joliet to supply Chicago and the Midwest. There’s one hitch, though. The ground back in Illinois is frozen during much of the winter and part of the spring. That means if produce is washed and processed there the agricultural wastewater would have to be processed with domestic wastewater. It can’t be disposed off via the land due to the harsh winter. The heavy nitrate concentration from washing produce overtaxes wastewater treatment plants just as it was doing in Manteca before the purple pipe was installed.

Manteca has a five million gallon basin to handle agricultural wastewater adjacent to the municipal wastewater treatment plant. Eckert’s that processes bell peppers at their Moffat Boulevard location requires only a million gallons of capacity.

At the same time the Center Business Park project is moving forward directly to the east of the intermodal yard to provide ideal location for such food processing.

The city has been getting the word out that food processors are welcome in Manteca. The end result is several food firms now have Manteca on their radar.

While most food processing jobs aren’t head of household in nature they do provide families with essential second jobs or even people with their first employment opportunity.