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Medford dairy plant serves the West

Mail Tribune

Sixty years ago, Jorgen Jorgensen launched an enterprise that has endured the test of time and ownership changes.

The fresh milk processing plant sandwiched between Court Street and Riverside Avenue near the Rogue Valley Mall has been here longer than most Southern Oregon residents. Although it no longer turns out ice cream, cottage cheese or butter, the reach of its products far surpasses their penetration just a generation ago.

— — — — Times have changed in past half-century

— The name, of course, has changed. So have the — products, packaging and machinery.

— Jackson County farmers provided most of the milk 50 — years ago. Today, most of the milk processed at the WestFarm Foods (Darigold) plant comes from — outside the county. The locally processed ice cream, butter and frozen vegetables were readily — consumed within the area.

— Employees recall that Jorgensen always drove a — shiny-new Cadillac to work. Smelser says he was admiring the boss's wheels one day when Jorgensen — came up and asked Do you want to drive it? and handed over the keys.

— He paid his employees well and provided turkeys on — Thanksgiving, hams at Christmas, as well as bonuses.

— But he wasn't one for waste or excess.

— I remember him talking to the staff, which — included the manager of the dairy, recalls Victoria Blatherwick, who was a wholesale — bookkeeper in the mid-1950s. He said 'You watch the dollars and I'll watch the pennies.' —

— After learning the ropes on a Central Point route, — Smelser grabbed the downtown Medford route, which began two hours earlier.

— I would load out at 3:30 in the morning then go — back home for breakfast, says the 71-year-old Smelser. I'd hit the restaurants in — downtown about 5. There were a lot of restaurants and stores - Newberry's, Woolworth's, the — Groceteria, Eastside Market, the Vet's Club, the Owl's Club and Brown's Club.

— There were plenty of challenges as technology changed.

— Back in the days when we were switching over — from bottles to cartons, we had what was called a Pur Pak machine, Smesler says. The — carton machine was very delicate. The cartons would go through a vat of melted wax to seal. We had — a problem with leakers that didn't get sealed well and you'd get to a store and find half-dozen — cartons leaking and have to mop up the milk. — — Today, you'll find Darigold's Medford milk production delivered all the way to San Jose. Local milk may be bought along the Southern Oregon and Northern California coasts and east of the Cascades.

"We have a pretty large geographical market nowadays and we're competitive wherever we are," says Bruce Hodges, who's been at the processing operation since 1979 and plant manager since 1983. "Competition is pretty keen. We're always looking for ways to drive out costs, but our big focus is on quality."

Jorgensen's was the dominant dairy product brand in Jackson County for more than a quarter-century before selling to Mayflower Farms of Portland in the spring of 1967. 1971, the Jorgensen name faded into history. A decade later, Darigold Inc. of Seattle obtained the plant. In August of 1999, cooperatively-owned Darigold Farms changed its name to Northwest Dairy Association and the company changed its name to WestFarm Foods, but retained the Darigold brand name.

The NDA's membership reflects the ongoing consolidation in the industry. Just five years ago, there were 950 members; now there are 750.

Milk comes to Medford from 14 NDA-member farmers in Jackson, Josephine, Klamath and Siskiyou counties. Matney Way, just south of Klamath Falls, is the top supplier, delivering 48,000 pounds daily. The Straube, Medina and Vogel dairies are the only remaining Jackson County dairies.

Milk arrives anywhere between six and 36 hours after it's extracted. The plant has had a raw storage capacity of 450,000 pounds since the early 1980s.

"It comes in the wee hours of the morning, seven days a week," Hodges says. "We cycle three times a week, so it's processed that day or the next."

The plant takes in four to five 50,000-pound tanker loads daily, meaning about 1.5 million pounds are processed weekly. About 40 percent of the milk is shipped to California, an amount equal to the raw product brought in from Siskiyou County producers.

Hodges says the plant had as many 50 employees in 1980. Today, there are 37 workers, reflecting the industry's automation.

The product line is simple: whole, — percent, 2 percent and fat-free, along with a dash of chocolate milk to satisfy the desires of school children. But fat-content regulations require different content and packaging for California-bound milk

Drivers on seven Darigold truck routes deliver 130,000 gallons of milk each day. Two percent is the most preferred by consumers and fat-free skim milk comes in fourth. The milk is packaged in everything from half-pint to 5-gallon containers used by institutional customers.

Two tankers filled with cream are sent to Portland each week, where they're turned into half-and-half, whipping cream and ice cream.

In the mid-1950s, Jorgensen Dairy Products had more than 100 wholesale accounts in the Medford-Ashland area, ranging from supermarkets to mom-and-pop grocers and restaurants.

Accounts such as Ray's Food Place, Food 4 Less, Sherm's Thunderbird and Winco augment a variety of independent retailers. Hodges says Unified Western Grocers - formerly known as United Grocers - is the largest customer.

Milk is produced Monday, Wednesday and Friday, leaving four days for cleaning.

"We do almost as much cleaning and sanitizing as we do processing and packaging," Hodges says. "It's been said that milk is the near-perfect food. Unfortunately microbes think so, too, so we have to be super clean."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail

Medford dairy plant serves the West