Construction is moving forward on a 80,000 square-foot milk processing and distribution plant in northeast Columbia.
A groundbreaking ceremony for Aurora Organic Dairy was held Thursday afternoon at the construction site at Route B and Waco Road. The $91 million construction project is set to be completed by 2018.
“It really solidifies the advancements in agriculture and the food service corridor that we’re trying to develop here in Columbia,” said Mayor Brian Treece. “It also represents the largest economic development project in the history of Columbia.”
The Columbia City Council approved the more than $2 million purchase of land by the Colorado-based dairy company in February. The Boone County Commission then approved the company for a 75 percent property tax abatement under the Chapter 100 bond process in March.
Marc Peperzak, Aurora Organic Dairy CEO, said the company had been looking at setting up shop in Columbia since 2011.
“This is a good place to be,” Peperzak said. “We like the atmosphere, we like the culture, we like the University, we like the resources. We’re very pleased with the community support.”
But AOD’s new development has been met with concerns over its farming style and whether the company is actually organic. In 2012, AOD paid $7.5 million in a Missouri class action lawsuit for “deceptive advertising” claims based on language used on the side of milk cartons about how cows were fed at farms.
Mark Kastel, co-director of The Cornucopia Institute, a food and farm policy watchdog group, released the following statement Thursday:
“These operations aren’t good for anyone but a select number of well-heeled investors. They destroy the quality of life for neighbors, including family-scale farmers, significantly erode property values, subject animals to short, unhealthy and stressful lives and create low-wage employment with arduous conditions, generally filled by exploited immigrants. And in the case of Aurora, the allegedly fraudulent milk they are dumping in the marketplace is undermining the livelihoods of ethical family farmers.”
“We are 100 percent organic,” Peperzak said in response to recent media reports questioning whether the company meets USDA organic standards. “I can assure you that we are fully certified, always have been.”
Scott Dye, with the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, and a Columbia resident, called out Columbia’s Regional Economic Development organization Thursday for allowing AOD to build in the city, despite past lawsuits regarding its organic certification.
“As the owner of a 132-year-old family farm, I see no positives for Missouri agriculture with AOD’s arrival, just another vertically integrated factory food corporation putting more economic pressure on sustainable family dairies that are already struggling with low milk prices due to corporate oversupply,” Dye said in a group statement with Kastel Thursday.
The new plant is expected to employee more than 100 people. While county and city leaders are excited for the jobs that come with AOD, their opinions differ on the company’s history.
Janet Thompson, District II Boone County commissioner, said the organic aspect is concerning for her, but she believes the market will speak for itself.
“If a person decides, or a community decides that something doesn’t meet the standards that they adhere to, they decide not to buy it,” she said.
“I’m satisfied with this company and the integrity,” said Mayor Treece. “They’ve always had the organic certification. But lets be clear, we’re not building a grazing pasture here, we’re building a milk processing plant.”
Under the Chapter 100 bond agreement, Aurora Organic Dairy must employ a certain number of people in order to continue receiving abatement benefits.