Masters of Metal

Rick Avery | Paul Mueller Company | Springfield, Mo.

The sound of clunky, steel-toe boot covers shuffling on the cement floor and some rather routine clearing of my fogged-up safety glasses do nothing to mask the instant aroma of a shop — the largest and cleanest I’ve ever experienced — as I begin what is sure to be a stimulating tour.

A sheet of metal clambers onto a long, steel table, and a bead from the welder is carefully uniting the enormous pieces of silver material when we arrive at our first stop in the expansive 1-million-square-foot building. Welcome to Paul Mueller Company, or as I’ve seen it referenced in shiny, metal letters: Mueller.

Although intrigued by Mueller’s wine and beer equipment (only a couple of their many product categories), this company piques my interest for its prominence and reputation in storing and handling another delectable product — milk.

 

This Springfield, Mo.,-based company’s rich history, tradition and reputation go back to the 1940s. The now global metal manufacturing company began humbly when two young entrepreneurs, Paul Mueller and Gordon Mann, shook hands on their sheet metal endeavor. The partnership was short-lived, as Paul took over the company only a few years later when Gordon fell ill.

In the years and decades following, Paul ventured into a slew of industries, one of which was dairy manufacturing processing equipment in 1946. The entire Paul Mueller Company story could no doubt fill a novel, and I’d surely be in line to pick up my own copy, because Paul’s reputation, like that of the company he left behind, is filled with passion, craftsmanship, hard work and immense pride. I had the opportunity to talk with Rick McClenning, Mueller’s national sales manager, who not only knows the business backward, forward and inside out, but is clearly touched by Paul’s legacy and the sense of pride he instilled in his employees. 

“There are several employees who had a personal relationship with Mr. Mueller and are still working here today,” explains Rick. “The number of employees that have been here 30-plus years is just amazing in today’s society. There’s really a sense of loyalty, a sense of family, a sense of continuation — there are multiple people here who have members of their family who also work here. That’s unusual in today’s world, but it’s a very big, small business and a family-driven operation.”

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“Your name, your heritage is on the building.”

 

— Rick McClenning

Even after Paul ended his tenure and turned over his day-to-day control, he remained a familiar face at Mueller until his death at the age of 99 in 2015. Not only was he on the board of directors, but he continued to come in almost every day into his early 90s.

And who better to leave his family business to than his grandson, David Moore.

“There’s a sense of responsibility that comes with that, and there’s a sense of responsiveness that comes with that as well,” Rick says. “Your name, your heritage is on the building.”

Beyond its headquarters in Springfield, which has about 600 employees, Mueller does a lot of its dairy product manufacturing in Osceola, Iowa, and has another facility in the Netherlands.

This particular tour continues through the Springfield facility as we follow Regional Sales Manager Jordan Blunt along the multitude of steps it takes to craft a milk tank. Although dairy is just one of the industries Mueller has a hand in, it’s one of their larger business units, accounting for 60 to 70 percent of the milk cooler market share in North America.

With that large of a presence in the milk tank market, the shiny Mueller logo can be spotted on a good majority of Dairy Farmers of America’s (DFA) more than 14,500 member farms. 

Before these cylindrical, smooth and somewhat flashy milk coolers — spanning from 300 to 8,000 gallons in capacity — can arrive at a dairy farm, they go through the multi-step process I watched on a walk-through of the colossal facility.

 

Follow me on the journey of the making of a milk tank (the condensed edition).

Step 1
It all starts with a pallet of raw sheets of metal, which are brought into the Mueller facility and await their turn through the assembly line. This assembly line isn’t filled with robotic movement and a handful of employees supervising the process. No, this process breaks that stigma. The man-made touch is evident in each step these milk coolers take before they’re loaded on the dock.

Step 2
From the slatted, wood pallets, each sheet of metal is lifted onto a solid, expansive table to be welded together using a food-grade finish. This machine requires a skilled employee’s hands, ensuring precision is achieved. The raised bead from the weld is then flattened and smoothed, leaving behind a seamless finish. The sheet is then wrapped into a single, open-ended cylinder.

Step 3
As you can imagine, a manufacturing facility requires a fair share of welding, leading to an assortment of unique welding helmets hanging in stations to be donned by an eager employee. Once the milk tank makes its way to this step, several employees use lifts to move each end of the cylinder into place before securing them with another set of precise welds.

Step 4
Each tank features two cylindrical layers, allowing space to run piping and wiring into the tank without being exposed to the creamy, white goodness that will eventually fill the inside layer to the brim. Foam insulation is then sprayed into the gap to provide optimal efficiency for cooling the milk. The tank also receives its legs in this step before any rough edges are ground down by a crew sporting matching safety glasses, gloves and neon orange earplugs.   

Step 5
From my conversations with Rick and Jordan, I know calibration of each tank is essential at Mueller — it’s part of their brand promise for a quality product. Once each tank has been assembled, it is carefully calibrated by pulling gram and cubic centimeter draws of water repeatedly from the tank. This part of the process ensures each tank is calibrated as accurately as possible, so dairy farmers can know exactly how much milk their tank encases at any given moment.

Step 6
No matter the capacity of a tank, their shiny, silver, stainless steel aesthetic is a signature feature on the dairy farm. So, before the finished milk cooler leaves Mueller, it is thoroughly shined and sanitized. Then, it receives the final seal of approval as a plate featuring block-style Mueller letters is affixed to the front by a pair of steady, callused hands.

 

Each of these steps culminate into a reputation of quality and customer service, the reason Mueller is a household name on dairy farms.

We really appreciate the fact that we’re on the dairy farm side of this business.
— Rick McClenning

The pride Mueller employees take in their products, especially their milk coolers, is like that of a farmer’s cow reaching 100 pounds of milk produced in a day — neither of these accomplishments occurs overnight. They take time, dedication, continuous improvement and a family working together toward a shared goal.

“We really appreciate the fact that we’re on the dairy farm side of this business. While there are certainly tough times in the dairy economy cycle and there are negatives that go along with it, it’s a real blessing to do business with the dairy farmer end user,” Rick says. “There’s just something a little different about the people who dairy farm. And that’s special and neat, and helps us enjoy coming to work every day to be able to serve that group of people.

A Father’s Story, A Daughter’s Legacy

Tammy Lowery | Buckner Dairy | Fair Grove, Mo.

I first met the family from Buckner Dairy amid a cacophony of voices as a group of dairy farmers converged in Springfield, Mo., for a meeting of their dairy cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America (DFA). We met as strangers; happenstance joined us at a table where we shared lunch, stories and cold glasses of milk. Some tales were outlandish, most were funny and, I was assured all were true. They centered on farming and family. I was struck with the group’s dedication to dairying, family and storytelling. 

 

The family’s patriarch, Charles Buckner, is a stalwart in the Missouri dairy community. One of the first stories he shared wasn’t about his family’s rich history on their operation, but about its bright future at the hands of his eldest daughter, Tammy Lowery.

Windy or calm, frigid or sweltering, and even on the rare perfect days Missouri occasionally offers up, you’ll find Tammy in the parlor, working with the cows. She’s been on the farm all her life, milking cows before she was 10 years old. She has known since she was a little girl she wanted to stay there. When she got a little older, she committed it to ink and paper: “I wrote in my high school newspaper that I was going to be a dairy farmer,” Tammy reminisced. Her dream came true in 1980, when she began managing the dairy branch of her family’s farm.  

Standing in the parlor on a frigid February day, Tammy was a bit reticent to speak about herself and her work. As on every farm across the globe, work at Buckner Dairy goes on regardless of the weather, world events or visitors to the farm. Although Tammy’s work is extraordinary, to her, it’s everyday life. She takes care of her family, takes care of her cows and feeds the community.

When given the opportunity to share stories about her love for dairying, Tammy becomes downright voluble. She knows each cow as it files into the parlor, pointing out that this Holstein may shy at the camera flash, the Braunvieh back there was likely to be a little feisty and kick off the milker a time or two, and in general, the Crossbreds (a Holstein and Jersey mix) are her best milk producers. Tammy says the Crossbreds are sturdy cows, usually provide large quantities of milk with high butterfat percentages, and she and her brother, William, who manages the beef side of the operation, agree they are more economical when it comes to feed.

As Tammy expertly evaluates each cow and completes her morning work, she shares her true passion: “Teaching kids about the dairy, that’s one of my favorite things.”  Tammy explains, “we have preschool to sixth-grade kids come out to learn about the farm.” William says most of the kids come through the Head Start program in Springfield, Mo., and usually, it’s the first time these kids have ever seen (or smelled) a farm.

Knowing from personal experience that an infatuation with farming can form at an early age, Tammy makes it a point to educate youngsters about life on the family farm. She teaches the kids about hard work, educates them about the dairy industry and offers the chance to form a passion like hers. 

Sharing their dairy story is as much of a family tradition for members of the Buckner family as the dairy itself. “This is the oldest dairy farm in Greene County,” Charles told me. Theirs is a Century Farm that started as 60 acres in 1914 and has become a diversified operation of more than 350 acres, 300 dairy heifers, 150 beef cows and 150 dairy cows. 

Charles began milking cows in 1952, and the farm is part of life for all four of his children. Two of his grandchildren even work on the farm a couple days a week. They’re the fifth generation to work and learn on Buckner Dairy, and as Tammy mentions, “there are three great-grandchildren in the family now, and who knows, they may decide they want to carry it on when they get older.” Passing farm knowledge between generations through stories and experiences is part of this dairy’s long tradition.

The milk from Buckner Dairy is picked up every other day from a family of haulers that has been transporting the Buckner’s milk for three generations. After pick-up from the 2,000-gallon milk tank on the farm, the milk journeys to the Cabool, Mo., plant where it’s added to Starbucks® coffee drinks or to the Hiland® Dairy Springfield, Mo., plant, where it’s processed as fluid milk 

Providing milk for the community is a point of pride for Tammy and her family. They drink milk from their farm, and Tammy’s mother, Katherine, offered me a Starbucks Frappuccino® after inviting me in to her home. 

Teaching kids about the dairy, that’s one of my favorite things.
— Tammy Buckner

Buckner Dairy is full of tough, driven women. Tammy proudly regaled me with a couple of stories about her mother, who milked cows for 58 years. Katherine milked by hand for many of those years, including while she was pregnant with her first child, Tammy. Only four hours before going into labor, Katherine was in the parlor, milking and checking the cows. Today, although she’s handed the milking off to Tammy, she still accompanies her husband and children out to the barns and fields to care for the animals.

William, namesake to the farm’s founder, his great-grandfather, and born the same day he passed, lives in the original farmhouse. Tammy’s sister, Janet, is a staple on the farm, feeding calves and helping with everyday chores. Their other sister, Sherry, lives on a farm not far away and is always available when they need another set of hands. “We’re a really tight-knit group,” Tammy says. 

Charles and Katherine have 10 grandchildren, all with varying degrees of involvement in agriculture. This family is narrating its traditions into the future, teaching the next generation how to dairy and the importance of family farms. 

Tammy’s dairy expertise is the result of dedication, years of hands-on experience and lessons learned from her family. As a way to transfer some of that knowledge to others in her community, Tammy participates in promotions and education for the Greene County Farm Bureau. The program promotes agriculture and educates the public about its importance. 

As evidenced by Tammy’s community involvement, empowering the next generation to be an active part of the agriculture industry is a large part of her life. She was the first female officer in the Fair Grove Future Farmers of America (FFA) program, paving the way for generations to come. Her children and many of her nieces and nephews participated in the same program years later. 

During the brief hiatus between morning and afternoon work, I gathered with the family around the dining table. We refreshed ourselves with Frappuccinos® likely containing milk from the very cows we’d just seen outside, looked at family photos and shared a few more family anecdotes. And with a multitude of grandchildren and great-grandchildren creating their own stories, there will be plenty more to share in the future.

A Plant with a Purpose

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When Brian Paris, general manager of Craigs Station Creamery, drives to work each day, he is filled with a strong sense of belonging. 

As he pulls up to the state-of-the-art facility, he passes grazing cows, farming equipment and dairymen and women hard at work out in the barns — an idyllic setting not typical of many dairy ingredient plants.

 

“For me, to drive here every morning and to see the farms and the grainery and the tractors and everybody out working, it’s like, ‘Wow — I am a part of this,’” Brian says. “It’s just so cool to be a part of this.”

A joint venture of eight family-run farms and Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), Craigs Station combines the resources of a leading dairy company with the traditional values of family farming. The creamery, located on one of the partnering farms in Pavilion, N.Y., specializes in producing highly customized dairy ingredients for world-class consumers, from Icelandic-style yogurt company Siggi’s to Norman’s/Dairy Delight, a super kosher manufacturer in New Jersey.

The plant’s ability to produce dairy ingredients in a variety of formats — including rBST-free, Orthodox Union kosher, super kosher, lactose-free and more — has attracted a diverse group of customers. But the majority of them have one thing in common: a genuine concern for where their dairy ingredients come from. 

“Our customers are obviously very concerned about the environment,” Brian says. “They have a strong sense of wanting to have their products made with ingredients that come from a place where there’s care and thought taken in regard to the environment, and we are very much designed to do that.”

The farm families involved in Craigs Station have been employing sustainable farming practices for generations. Today, they use the most innovative, environmentally friendly techniques to continue producing fresh, high-quality milk. From reusing water to composting for fertilizer, the partners in Craigs Station incorporate conservation efforts on their farms wherever possible. The plant itself runs on energy from an on-farm digester, which recycles waste from the dairy, plant and even some local food companies to reduce the operation’s carbon footprint. 

And because all of its milk is sourced exclusively from eight local family farms, Craigs Station is able to meet the needs of its eco-conscious customers through a process that is also highly traceable. 

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“The fact that I’m out at the farms on a fairly regular basis is not something typical that would occur at other plants, and I love it.”

- Brian Paris

 

“We have eight farms,” Brian says. “The milk cannot come from any other place but one of these eight farms, which makes us extremely unique.” 

Brian is in near-continuous contact with all eight farms, an experience he says he feels lucky to have as manager.

“The fact that I’m out at the farms on a fairly regular basis is not something typical that would occur at other plants, and I love it,” Brian says. “I work in such a way that after 30-some odd years in the industry, I’m actually doing what I always wanted to do, and that’s to be out on the farms. To be able to get out and amongst the very source of our milk … It really gets me going, like,
‘I have an obligation to make this thing work, and I have to really work hard to do this because I’m supporting what’s going on at
these farms.’”

“These farmers work hard,” he adds. 

The farmers involved in the original facility are also part of a new phase: Craigs Station Cheese. As a joint venture with DFA, their milk marketing Cooperative, and Arla Foods, an international dairy cooperative based out of Denmark, the plant is in the early stages of producing artisan cheeses with one of the strongest traceability stories on the market.

No one exemplifies the hard work that goes into producing the milk for Craigs Station Creamery quite like Kristy Northrop, a partner at Lawnel Farms, located just a mile down the road from the plant.

These farmers work hard.
— Brian Paris

The fourth generation on the dairy, Kristy works alongside her husband, brother and parents to oversee every aspect of their operation. With no middle management, Kristy says the family does all of the work themselves — and that work ethic is something she’s already passing on to the fifth generation, her 5- and 7-year-old children. 

“When you’re a dairy farmer, it’s in your blood,” Kristy says. “When it was negative 10 degrees out the other day, every single one of us was out there working. I drug my kids out of the warm house and had them in my office because they need to see the blood, the sweat, the tears that go into this business.” 

Kristy wants to make sure the surrounding community understands, as well. Founded by her grandfather and great-grandfather, Lawnel Farms has been a part of the local community for generations, and Kristy says it’s important to continue to connect with and educate their neighbors about what goes on at the dairy and at Craigs Station Creamery.

From recommending Siggi’s yogurt to other shoppers at the grocery store to hosting farm tours and sending an annual community newsletter, Kristy is always looking for opportunities to bring consumers closer to the farm. At on-farm events, the family regularly serves bottled chocolate milk made with skim sourced from Craigs Station, and the visitors rave about.

“It’s very exciting for a small community like this to have something like Craigs Station connected to it,” Kristy says. “I think people are super excited to be able to have this in their backyards.”

For Chris Noble, who serves as manager of Craigs Station Ventures, the group of farms invested in Craigs Station Creamery, the plant literally is in his backyard — it’s located on Noblehurst Farms, his family’s dairy.

“It’s very fresh milk that goes from our facility about 1,000 feet to the creamery,” he says. 

Chris says the creamery is important to the local community in more ways than one. In addition to connecting local consumers to their farmer neighbors, Noble says the plant and the farms involved have created jobs for people in the surrounding area. 

“We think it’s a true benefit, not only to Craigs Station Ventures, but to our community as well,” Chris says. “We’re employing people who grew up in the community, who know agriculture, rather than sticking it someplace in the middle of a city.” 

But Craigs Station’s impact is reaching far beyond the agriculturally rich community where the plant is located. The creamery is also helping to communicate farmers’ stories to consumers who may not be as familiar with how or where their food originates. 

“Consumers really have a great interest in knowing today where their food comes from and, probably as importantly, how that food is being made,” Chris says. “What better way to tell that full story than to locate the plant next to a farm?” 

That’s what Craigs Station is really about — connection. It’s about dairy farmers partnering with their family members, with plant employees and with a leading Cooperative to build stronger connections with consumers.

And all of it is built on family farms coming together. 

“Even though we’re in the same business as dairy farmers, we don’t view ourselves as competitors — we see each other as allies and friends,” Chris says. 

He attributes the eight farms’ ability to work together in part to the ties they’ve shared over the years. In fact, Chris’ grandmother and Northrop’s grandfather were twins, and many of the elder generations on the farms grew up together, going to the same schools, playing on the same baseball teams and generally belonging to the same close-knit farming community that has endured today.

But partnering Craigs Station Creamery with DFA has brought them together in a new way. Most importantly, Chris says their Cooperative has provided a platform to better communicate the farmers’ stories, something today’s consumers are demanding. 

“Sometimes the stories are just as important as the quality of the product,” he says.