JEROME • The smell of warm milk greets you as soon as you step out of your car in the Jerome Cheese Co. parking lot.
If you work here long enough, it’s the kind of odor that might stick to your clothes no matter how many times you wash them, like the milk-stained bib of a baby.
When plant manager Bill Riebesell goes home at night, his children tell him he still smells like work.
“My kids think I smell like stink,” Riebesell said with a laugh.
But after 17 years of working within the walls of Jerome Cheese Co., Riebesell doesn’t even notice the scent of dairy heated to 162 degrees anymore.
When he opens a vat of pasteurizing milk, a pungent cloud of steam escapes, stinging nostrils and eyes. The state requires milk to be pasteurized at 161 degrees for 15 seconds. Workers here go a step further to be safe and heat the milk to 162 degrees for 16 seconds — one of the first steps in the process of making cheese and dairy products.
In one room of the plant, the milk will go from the consistency of water to pudding and then to the texture of moist scrambled eggs — and it takes place all day and all night, with 275 employees side by side with machines.
“The cows do it 24 hours a day, and so do we,” Riebesell said.
Jerome Cheese Co. is owned by Davisco Foods International and is the Minnesota-based company’s second cheese production facility and fifth dairy products plant. The Jerome building is more than 307,000 square feet on 58 acres. Inside, work is being done to double production by adding more freezers and processing areas, and the company hopes to add about 100 more workers.
The first vat of cheese was made at Jerome Cheese Co. in December 1992. In 1993, 49 million pounds of cheese were produced. In 2005, there were 170 million pounds, and last year 210 million pounds of cheese.
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Riebesell joined the company in 1995 as an operator working the night shift. Originally from Minneapolis, he had no idea what to expect moving to southern Idaho. He was fresh out of the military and college. He imagined Idaho as fields and fields of potatoes, and not much else.
And though Jerome, with a population of around 10,000, is no Twin Cities, what Riebesell found was a job at one of the more automated plants in the nation. Tasks like filling a blue plastic bag with 43 1/2 pounds of warm cheese curds used to take four people but now require none. This part of the process is done completely by a machine that knows when a cheese block is complete, even folding and sealing it shut.
As the cheese block rolls along the moving belt to become shredded cheese or ready-to-eat block cheese, it passes through a metal detector — in case a piece of machinery broke off inside — and a camera that detects if the blue plastic seal is broken. Riebesell punctures a hole in one of the blocks to demonstrate the efficiency of the machines. Before the block hits the end of the belt, a red light signals its imperfection and a plant worker diverts it to the right.
The ones that make it past the careful eye of the camera are boxed and sent to the cooler where they will go from 92 degrees to 52 degrees, sitting in refrigeration for 18 to 20 hours.
“We might be Mayberry, U.S.A., but when you walk in it’s New York City,” Riebesell said.
As Riebesell walks around the plant, his black shoes with lime-green shoelaces — indicating these are his plant-only shoes — smear a white sanitizing foam from the floor of each doorway into the hall. The plant does use bacteria in several of its products, but this foam is supposed to kill the bad bacteria that may be tracked in.
“We don’t want any competing house cats,” he said.
As Riebesell rounds the corner, he fist-bumps a man cleaning the white walls with a brush and pounds on the glass window to say hello to people who are testing the milk hauled in by huge semi-trucks with mirror-finished storage tanks. They test for antibiotics; if any are found, the computer alerts the workers and the milk can’t be unloaded.
Every day Jerome Cheese Co. receives 90 or more truckloads of raw milk. It also tests for the amount of fat, water, lactose and other elements that the milk contains.
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From a night shift operator to plant manager, Riebesell said his story is not unique.
A number of workers started out performing more manual jobs that are now performed by machines, he said. Now they are managers supervising the machines and computers, and when one malfunctions, they fix the problem.
If one cog in this orchestra of machinery quits, it slows down a plant that processes in a month more than 195 million pounds of milk, producing more than 17 million pounds of cheese, 8 million pounds of whey powder, 23 million pounds of condensed milk and 1.8 million pounds of sweet cream.
Three types of cheese are made in Jerome: barrels or processed cheese that will used to make canned cheese; block cheese or ready-to-eat cheese in blocks, cubes and shredded; and mozzarella. Stacks of brown boxes in the cold storage construct a fortress of chilled cheese.
Usually when cheese leaves the plant it does not go directly to grocery store shelves. Cheese made in Jerome is often sent to companies like Kraft Foods and Schreiber Foods Inc., which repackage the product. Cream is sold to other plants where it is made into butter and ice creams.
In 2011, Jerome Cheese Co. completed construction on a mozzarella line that can produce and package 36,000 pounds of cheese in an hour.
Some of the cheese stays in the plant for a while, where it is goes from block to shredded cheese in a matter of minutes. It is funneled into plastic bags ready to be sealed and shipped directly to restaurants.
The horde of small ribbons of white and yellow fluttering out of the overhead pipe is never-ending, until the machine starts to beep loudly and a worker calms its cry.