ARLINGTON, Iowa — From a monitor in the corner of his office, Steve Faust points to the dark spots on the security camera where the lights have been turned out in the Arlington AMPI plant.
“I look up at the security camera and I see those dark squares and it hits me every time,” Faust said. “There is nothing going on out there.”
On Nov. 1, AMPI announced it was closing its Arlington nonfat dry milk plant as well as a cheese plant in Rochester, Minnesota. At Arlington, 49 people were or will be laid off, including Faust.
He started his career with AMPI in 1979, bagging powdered milk at the co-op's Jesup plant. It was a summer job for the 17-year-old, but he continued full-time during his senior year working after school and during weekends. When the Jesup plant closed in 1985, he transferred to Arlington.
He worked his way up to lead, head of the safety department, plant superintendent and division manager in 2014. That put him in charge of the plant and all the farms that delivered milk into Arlington. He had 60 employees beneath him.
“I've been blessed to have AMPI advance me through the years,” Faust said. “Even though the plant is closing, I can't look down on AMPI for what they've done for me for 40 years.”
Arlington AMPI has always been a nonfat dry milk plant, but did make butter for a time. The plant was built in 1960, five miles south of Arlington at the intersection of Highway 3 and Highway 187 by Maquoketa Valley Creamery. It became AMPI in 1971.
Production ended at Arlington on Nov. 2. Fluid milk continues to move through the plant's milk receiving facilities for transfer to other AMPI plants and for sale.
“We're trying to find ways to move AMPI milk in northeast Iowa to the other AMPI plants as efficiently as we can for the farmer,” Faust said. “We don't want to put a burden on the farmer as far as cost of transportation. We expect to have that done by March 31, but that's a fluid date.”
All field staff are staying, Faust said. Milk that came to Arlington will go to reloading facilities at Earlville and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.
The office staff was reduced to three the last week in December.
The unemployment rate in the area is very low, so there are job opportunities for displaced employees, Faust said.
“That is the only silver lining I can think of in the cloud of this plant closing,” Faust said. “No one likes to see a plant close, but I'm happy some of the people have found other employment.”
One of the highlights of Faust's years at the Arlington plant was in 2014 when the whole facility became Grade A.
“There are other Grade A powder plants in the country, but this was the first one in Iowa and the only one in Iowa,” Faust said. “We were a training ground for state inspectors because they never had a Grade A powder plant in Iowa. We opened up our markets in Grade A.”
Another big moment was when the plant installed a robot.
“Robots get a mixed review because people look at robots as replacing humans, but people didn't have to lift 55 pound bags anymore and that opened that job up to people who would have had a hard time lifting 55 pound bags all day,” Faust said.
Faust has a lot of pride in the employees who worked under him.
“They have done a fantastic job,” he said. “This plant closing is absolutely no reflection on the job they have done for the company.”
The dairy industry is changing and there's not enough milk in the AMPI network to keep all the AMPI plants going, and cheese has a better return than nonfat dry milk, Faust said. It's just basic economics and raw milk supply.
Faust will stay on for a few months to help work through the process of closing the plant and the transition of the sale.
At 58, he said he's too young to retire.
“I'll land on my feet somewhere, whether it's with another company owning this facility or going somewhere else,” he said.