Western Dairies History
Dairy farming has always been an important part of Mennonite farming history. So farmers here in Spanish Lookout got more and more the idea, that dairying should be tried here in Belize as well. But how is that possible in this tropical country? The following articles will tell you of some of the hardships we went through to get to where we are now. 2003
The first attempt at cheese making was done by the Abram J Thiessen family. They did this for about 8 months. They needed a bigger amount of milk to make good quality cheese. In 1967 sixteen farmers and businessmen formed Western Dairies: B.B. Dueck, H.H.Dueck, I.L.Dyck, B.L. Friesen,G.S Koop, G.U.Konelson, P.D. Reimer, M.C.Penner, C.K.Reimer, H.P.D.Reimer, John K Reimer, Kl.D.Reimer,David G. Thiessen. It was kind of a venture, to put their money into this new business. But they had the vision, that this was the thing to do. Thanks be to God, that our fathers had that courage, and it really took a lot of effort. From the above mentioned brothers only 5 are still living G.S.K., J.D.R., K.D.R., J.G.T, D.G.T. Sept. 2003
2. Getting Started
About in the center of the then settled Community were two wooden buildings, about 30`x 48`. A Canadian gentlemen Peter Butland had tried to start a papaya cannery; but failed. ("His venture was to late for Spanish Lookout. We had already discovered that we were able to gain livelihood through grain cultivation's and obtain a good return from it as a result. The prices that Mr. Butland offered seemed to be too low. His factory at Spanish Lookout never became a full-going operation .
Mr. Butland, however, was very optimistic and made several trips to British Honduras in order to encourage us to commence planting for him, but in the end he was forced to give up in disappointment. The community purchased his buildings in which we later began our dairy operation. "Pioneer Years in Belize".) That is where we started "Western Dairies."
("Most of our equipment came from the USA Two men, Mr. R. John Jost and Aaron Kaufman, both from Pennsylvania, had purchased the equipment for us. A loan was made through the Eastern Mission Board with head office at Salunga, PA.
The equipment was used and very inexpensive. Some repairs had to be made at first prior to its use. The electric power plant and boiler were purchased here in Belize. ‘Pioneer Years in Belize’".)
The first board members were Peter D. Reimer, Heinrich H. Dueck and Gerhard S. Koop as chairman. The secretary was Corny K. Reimer and John P. Thiessen was the plant manager. These are the men that really worked hard to get it started. It was quite a challenge to get the old equipment going.
I well remember how my father use a 35X Massy Ferguson tractor, to go up and down to Western Dairies to do all the necessary errands. My father was fortunate enough to have his brother-in-law M.C.Penner as a shareholder in his sheet metal shop and his son John as foreman. So the business was blooming, even though he spent much time at Western Dairy.
Some of the first employees were Tina & Greta Thiessen (Di.P.T.) and Annie Reimer (A.K.R.) The first milk was bottled in glass bottles. Imagine how they smelled, when they returned from the city a week later and had to be cleaned to be used again. Some insulated wooded boxes were made to deliver the milk to Belize City, which at first was done by Mr. Henry D. Kornelson Sr. 2654 lbs. Of milk were sold the first month.
3. Hard, but Becoming Easier
As mentioned before, a generator had to be bought, since Sp. Lookout did not have electricity at that time, unless some one had his own light plant. To keep down the cost, we had to start with a second hand unit, which obviously is not without trouble. One time when the generator broke down, my father would take his own, almost new, out of his shop and set it up at W.D.. The boys at the shop had to be satisfied with the previous one.
Another time the motor broke down. Then he would hook up his 35X MF to the generator. But running high speed 24 hr. A day, Mr. Thiessen got tired of refilling the fuel tank. So he hooked up a 54-gal. Oil drum. Unfortunately he had to empty the tractor’s tank again and again, because the overflow fuel pipe from the injector pump is connected back to the tractor’s fuel tank.
On one occasion Mr. Thiessen came and told my dad: "Everything is out 101 out." (a German saying) I don’t remember if it was the generator or something else that broke down. Around 1972-74 the first new 3-cylinder 371 Detroit generator set was bought. That was indeed a great trouble saver. But before the machine was put to full service, we had an awful experience, as told by Mr. John D Reimer:
"We as board decided that this new motor should get a safe and right start. We would not start with a full load capacity. So we let it run half speed for a day or so. Unfortunately the generator did not produce any current, when we were ready to put it to service. After we checked the situation, we found that the voltage regulator was burned. We had to order a new regulator from abroad. After the regulator finally arrived, and we were ready to try the generator again, there was still no current. So what now? Mr. Gerhard S Koop had an advice. He knew generators some times need to be polarized to wake up. So he pulled his 35X MF to the generator to jump from the battery to the regulator. He checked again to make sure that the positive and negative wires were connected right. Then he touched the regulator. ‘Wow’ and the smoke went up. ’What is this? Oh, the wires are exactly wrong through.’ There was nothing left, as to order another new voltage regulator and wait a little longer, until the plant could be put in service." So far from JDR Later another 6-cylinder 671 Detroit, also new was bought.
A boiler was needed to heat the milk. But obtaining a satisfactory boiler wasn’t that easy. Several trips were made ( see " Pioneer Years in Belize" pages 92-94 ) to find and old locomotive boiler. They first made a trip to Hill Bank with Peter D Reimer’s four-wheel drive pickup following an old trail through the jungle. An old railroad ran from Gallon Jug to Hill Bank that had once been used to transport mahogany logs. They inspected the old iron horse ( locomotive ) and decided, its days of service were over.
Our next trip was to inspect two locomotives that the government had seized due to some fraudulent lumber sales. They were located a few miles southeast of San Ignacio. Again we went with the four-wheeled vehicle to inspect them. It appeared as if they were still worthy for the purpose we needed them. An offer was made to the government, to which they agreed and the sum of $100.00 was paid. The boilers were situated on top of an 800-ft. High Hill. It was a dangerous task to bring them down to them down to Spanish Lookout. The second boiler was purchased by a farmer and used as a homemade corn dryer.
How can we use an old locomotive boiler to heat milk and how does it work? It is actually a steel water tank with tubes horizontally installed from one end to the other. The water is all around the tubes and the hot air, fired by wood, travels in the tubes from one end to the other and out the chimney. The water in the tank turns into steam and with it the pasteurizer is heated. To get enough dry fire wood and to fire the boiler every morning was quiet a job.
One evening my father got the message, "The dairy is burning!" We immediately gathered pails and rushed to the dairy. When we got there, the fire was under control already. I remember that our neighbor Mr .Is.L.Dyck was there too. He probably came with his 65 MF tractor. It was probably the boiler under a little roof beside the main building, that had caused the fire. Thanks be to God that only on the roof a little damage was done. But the call had really frightened us!
Later a small kerosene-fired boiler was bought. But these boilers had a lot of problems with leaking pipes. The pipes had to be taken out and replaced with new ones. This usually had to be done at night, because in the day time they were used and still hot in the evening.
A new, modern boiler was bought in the eighties which solved almost all the problems. This one served until 2002 when it was replaced with a bigger one.
C. Ice Builder and Homongenizer
The ice builder was also an old one and created a lot of trouble. Ice water is used to cool the pasteurized milk down to about 38 degrees F. Immediately after it goes through the homogenizer. Sometimes we would have to buy ice from the town of San Ignacio. I remember one time, that I as a young boy had to go to San Ignacio to buy ice. Or another time a refrigerator man had to come from Orange Walk to help us with our refrigeration problems.
The ice problem was solved when we bought a new good size ice builder in 1984. This one is still serving Sept. 30,2003.
One big improvement was made, when in 1983 we were able to buy a bigger, good homogenizer, of which we had been in much need for a few years, because parts for the old one were very expensive. It seems, many improvements were made in the eighties.
D. Packing Machine
The purchase of a milk-packing machine made it possible for the milk to be sold in a more convenient and attractive package. Like the other equipment, this old machine as well and gave a lot of headache to get it going; and with much trouble, afterwards. Many times Mr. Thiessen, or later David Koop and Herman Wolfe had to scratch their heads to figure out what could be the problem. Parts for such an old-time machine were expensive and hard to get. "International Dairy" that helped us out many times in getting what we needed.
In a couple of years a more modern machine was set up. And then around 1986-89
A brand new "NIMCO" packing machine was bought. Two men from abroad came to set up the machine. It was not that all the problems were solved, but it was much better. This machine was more mechanically operated and therefore gave less trouble; but one problem always remained--- that is leaking cartons. This sure can create a big mess in the milk storage room and in the merchant’s freezer! This machine served until 2003 and was replaced with a 12-head strait-line bottle filler.
E. Deliveries and Sales
The first deliveries were done by Mr. Henry D Kornelson Sr. With his 1959 half ton Chevy for $22.50 a trip to Belize City. Around 1969 my father Gerhard S Koop bought a small 6-wheel truck, built a caboose-type box on it and used it for both hauling milk and passengers. Later he sold the truck to Mr. Bernhard F Kornelson, who had just come from Mexico. When Mr. Kornelson died of a heart attack, his son Levi, still young took it over.
In 1981 Western Dairies bought their first new Mazda truck from Costa Rica. An insulated van box was built there before they came home. This made it possible to do more deliveries in town and the sales went up. The cooling system of the first trucks were of a kind of ice plates inside the box, operated by an electric motor which had to be plugged in to the current at home. The next morning the plate was very cold and stayed icy till about noon. Delivery trucks that were bought later had a cooling system driven by a gas motor. This made it possible to keep the milk cool all day long.
The first milk buyers in Belize City were Mennonite Center (operated by Mennonite Missionaries from USA). Other good customers were Brodies, Ro-mac’s and Save U. The British Army, which had two camps in Belize, one in Ladyville and one at Central Farm, has been our best buyer for many years. But at first the question came up, if we as nonresistant Christians could supply the army with milk, without harming our testimony. It was agreed that supplying people with milk, could not be prepared with taking up arms.
Another good customer in Belize City was Mr. & Mrs.E.Hoare. They did deliveries to many small stores. After Mr.Hoare, died Mrs.Hoare with her sons ran the business for many years.
Chocolate flavored milk was a product that also brought a lot of sales. Later we added strawberry, cherry and banana flavors to it. But of course this made it harder work for the staff. Many times they would have to work overtime.
Our main goal has never been to make cheese, but to sell fresh milk on the market; however, when there was a surplus of milk, we made cheese. But making good quality cheese in a tropical country from pasteurized milk has been a hard task. Sales went up and down. When fall came along, the milk supply dropped and the hard-won customers were unable to obtain any cheese, and they were constantly lost. Through the years thousands of pounds of cheese had to be dumped because of a bad flavor and /or simply because we could not sell it. But with enough skill and information from experienced cheese makers, we now have been able to make and sell a lot of good quality cheese.
At one occasion a vacuum pack was bought to seal the plastic bags. This helped a lot to prevent mold on to cheese. During the years 1985-1991 it was my duty to handle this machine and to keep order in the cheese room. At that time any work, which was not on the daily schedule for the workers, was left for the board members to do. We also made processed cheese. With that we used 40-50% aged and 50-60% fresh cheese. We had an old copper boiler heated by steam to melt the cheese. On a long day’s work we could fill about 200, 4 lb. boxes of processed cheese. I well remember that the neighbor girls were hired for such a day. This supply could last two or three months. Sometimes that cheese tasted very good, especially those with Jalepenos Peppers in it. But other times it tastes so bitter, that it actually was not good to sell. Finally we stopped making processed cheese for a while. Since 1995, when we bought a stainless steel cheese melter, we have made and sold some again.
G. Shareholder Changes
As mentioned before, Western Dairies started with sixteen farmers and businessmen as shareholders. In 1977 they decided that the dairy was now stabilized enough, so that they could turn to a milk shippers owned revolving transact. The idea was, that the milk producers could own the dairy. Mr. Ben L Friesen (one of the first shareholders) was the chairman at that time. He served another year and the responsibility was handed over to the younger generation. Others that have served in the board later from the first shareholders, were Corny K Reimer and David Koop (a new shareholder). The board members were John P Thiessen, Corny K Reimer, Joe Friesen David P Koop and David P Thiessen.
It was agreed to sell the dairy to the milk farmers as a resolving plan, to be paid within five years. This was later changed to six, because of the rapid increase of inventory.
One thing that should be mentioned is, that at the beginning a lot of work was done by the board members, especially the leader. What do we call hard work? Well, things like doing repairs on the equipment day and night, hiring staff, going along with the delivery truck and talking to the customers to increase sales. These responsibilities were gradually over more to manager and foreman. Of course it is still hard for the board to make all the required decisions, but the muscle work is left more for the staff to do. Managers that have served are: Herman Wolfe, Reymond Reimer and David Plett, Heinrich P. Dueck. Managers for the electricity were: Johnny W Plett, David B Penner and Jake H Letkeman.
In 1977 the first addition was built for cold storage rooms. The concrete walls were poured by Mr. Abram P. Dyck. Mr. Dyck first went to Chih., Mexico to get material to make cement forms. He and his brother Bernhard, who lives in Mex. Both brought a pickup-load of sheet metal and square tubing. After the forms were finished, they soon started to cast the walls for WD, which were one of the first buildings that were poured of concrete in Spanish Lookout.
About seven years later we were in great need of more space. The health inspectors were constantly telling us we need a better and cleaner environment for our processing plant. It was decided to build a complete building with a second floor over the old wooden one. Mr. Menno D. Loewen was contractor at this time. After the main wall and roof were there, the old building was broken down and carried out piece after piece. During all this mess, the plant had to operate every day. What a relief for the dairy crew, when the project finally got finished and all the equipment could be moved to the right place.
Several additions after this have been made during the years. Western Dairies now (2003) have a floor space of 17,850 sqft.
B. Delivery and Sales
Our first two delivery trucks were Mazda, bought in Costa Rica. Later all trucks, (accept one second hand UD,) were Isuzu , either used or new brought down from U.S.A. They came with an insulated van box and most of them with a cooling system as well.
Soon after we had our first delivery truck, we began to do deliveries to Orange Walk district once a week. Deliveries to Belize City were mostly done on Mondays and Fridays. In about five or seven years we started a route in the Cayo district and one to Stann Creek around 1997.
Since 1998 Western Dairies has a distributing center, (whole sale and retail) in Belize City. Now (2003) six trucks and one van make weekly deliveries: Belize City, 3 routes 4 days; Orange Walk, 3 days; San Ignacio area, 3 days; Stann Creek, 3 days; Belmopan, 2 days; and 1 day to P.G.
C. Ice Cream, Drinks etc.
For many years we had the vision, that Western Dairies should also make ice cream. Good quality, imported ice cream was sold for about $32.00 per gallon in Belize City. So we saw an opportunity in making ice cream. We bought a second hand machine, but it seemed as if it were not complete, and with the board and staff always busy to keep everything going, it took another couple of years until finally in 1994 when we bought a brand new machine, we were able to make ice cream. The quality was very good and the sales went up rapidly. It is sometimes said: "Western Dairies has the best ice cream in the world." 15 different flavors are available now.
Other products that Western Dairies were starting to sell are: low fat milk, yogurt, flavored drinks, sour cream and purified water. All these new products did a lot to keep Western Dairies upright.
As neighbors saw an opportunity to obtain electricity 24 hrs. a day, they hooked up to Western Dairies current. Quality Poultry Products has always been our best customer and still is. A 200 volts line was set up to Reimers Feed Mill. As earlier mentioned in the early seventies the first new generator set was bought from U.S.A. It gave us a lot of trouble. After that only new sets have been bought.
On one occasion a general meeting was called to discuss “Who was going to supply Spanish Lookout with electricity, Western Dairies or another company?” It was decided that WD should go ahead with the plan to stretch a line all over Sp. Lkt., except Edental, to supply the farmers with current. At that time some businessmen and farmers had their own small generators. Some would supply their neighbors as well, like: Friesen Hatcheries ( they still operate with their own plant, although they are connected to WD line has a standby), Koop Sheet Metal and Isaac A. Wolfe at the south end of SL and Isaac P. Dyck in Rosenhof.
In 1981 or 1982 the line was extended about two miles west along Rosenhof with 440volts, which later reached 1 ½ miles north way up to Jake G. Thiessen and 1 mile East to H. H. Dueck. On these lines mainly secondhand wires were used. Many joints had to be made and the boys doing the job, learned to weave a good joint very well. Most of the poles were cut in the bush. We already knew that sapodilla were of thew best.
In 1982 two men, C.K. Reimer and John P. Thiessen, were sent to U.S.A. to get some more information on how to make and operate a high voltage power line, also to buy some supplies like transformers etc. They came back positive with the information, that if we would be very careful and deliberate, we would be able to build and operate a 2400 volts power line. Jacob R. Hein, Bernie Thiessen and Gerhard P. Koop were appointed as overseers or managers for the job.
For this project we used treated pine poles and new wire; except at those places where we replaced another line, we used the same wire again. To set the poles, we used tractor with a front-end loader. Cornelius K. Thiessen was very skilled in handling a tractor for that.
By the end of the year the project was just about finished. The line reached south to Abram U. Wolfe, west to Jacob G. Hein, east to Peter D. Loewen and northeast to Anton W Dueck. The lines in Rosenhof and Rosenort were left as they were with 440 volts. Due to burned 440 v transformers from lightning ( it seemed as if the 2400 volts transformers were more durable) we soon changed those lines to 2400 volts as well. Most of the writing jobs on the poles were done by ladder.
The following paragraph is written by Bernie Thiessen.----- As our distribution lines extended so were or troubles expanded. It seemed the company was always short on funds; so we had to thrive on the transmission lines. At first our lines were built without any lightning arrestors. Consequently, WD had many a transformer burnt. Unfortunately, at one occasion our largest, 671 Detroit generator set burned out. I guess WD’s president had a severe headache at this point. However, with our optimistic board, this problem was quickly solved temporarily. One of the previous old generator set, a Perkins 6-cylinder with a belt-driven generator was called on duty. Interesting, this generator did not have any voltage regulator. This was not a problem for David Koop, one of the board members at that time. He simply wired a series of bulbs to the exciter and old faithful was on line. As the voltage dropped we had a to plug in more bulbs. If the voltage soared to high, we unplugged bulbs, depending on the load on the transmission lines. This meant 24 hr. a day in observation of the volts. At night time? Well, someone had to do it. To this task, Bernie Thiessen together with David D. Thiessen were assigned to take watch full eye to this old generator set. If there hadn’t been any nightshifts more stressful than this, most people today would consider nightshifts. Simply plug or unplug bulbs is not a stressful job. However, in about a week time the damaged generator was restored and life presumed as usual.---- B.D. Thiessen
I have been involved with the power line job for about nine years. I want to express a special “Thank you to God” that he protected us from any major injuries with this project; although sometimes we made a thoughtless mistake, for instance pulling the wrong circuit breaker.
Some of the biggest problems we had to keep the line in order, were: a. Burned transformers and wrecked lines, caused by thunderstorm and lightning; b. Noisy telephone line. At that time Sp. Lookout had an old time telephone system with about 15 lines across the community. Occasionally a line or two would become very noisy. So we as the PL personal were on duty to search for a faulty power line. Sometimes it took some days, until we found a damaged transformer, a dead bird on top of a pole that grounded a line or whatever. c. Later when BTL came to supply us with international telephone, they used our power line poles to fasten their line. It appeared that our line at some places was too low. That caused their line to be too low indeed, and a high truck load would pull down our precious line. One such case was at QPP 9:00 PM. That meant a well-planned nightshift work. And who would pay for the damage, WD, BTL or the truck driver?
In 1987 the line was extended to Edental, which meant we needed about another eleven miles of line. It was decided to make cement poles for this project. The first pole was put up on the first of May. The line started at the west end of Rosenhof and the voltage was stepped up from 2400 to 7200. A tractor with a long beam fastened to a front end loader with a bucket at the end, was used to do the work up in the air. This indeed saved a lot of ladder climbing. By the end of November all 22 farmers in Edental had electricity, which they had waited for so long.
A figure was made, with the amount of electricity they were using then, it would take over one hundred years to pay for the cost of the line.
Unfortunately they were too much in a hurry making the concrete poles or the concrete mixtures was not right, because many of the poles have already broken to pieces and had to replaced with pine poles.
The first power line truck with boom and bucket was bought in 1992.
In 1995 the power line was extended a few miles north Green Hills, a new village.
Back to our generators: With the rapid increase of electricity consumption, the demand for bigger generators appeared again and again. In 1983 or ’84 Western Dairies bought the first 250 KWA Cat generator set from a dealer here in Belize. Soon a second set of the same size and a motor to replace the twin Detroit motors (the generator it self was still good) and a synchronizing unit were bought in Lubbock, Texas, with deal much cheaper than what was offered here in Belize. The synchronizing unit was set up to make it possible to run two generators at the same time. These Cat generators were very dependable, but could not beat the Detroit. Later we bought more and bigger ones, either here in Belize or from U.S.A. The mechanics from the Caterpillar dealer have helped us many times when our skilled operators needed advice. Our plant operators at that time were Herman Wolfe and Bernie Thiessen. These generators have caused very few blackouts. Most of the blackouts we had, had to do with repairing lines or connecting a new customer.
Just recently a new Detroit, 2000 KWA has been put into operation.
The electricity business is also operated as a resolving plan. It first started as a 5-year loan and was later changed to six. In January 2003, it was put to seven years, because we needed to buy a new light plant.
But one fact we can not overlook. This electricity business has for many years been a big help to Western Dairies that they, if at all, could survive. Because often the net income from electricity sales was more as from milk sales.
Since 2002 the milk and electricity departments have been two separate businesses: Western Dairies and Farmers Light Plant Corporation.