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In Trying Times, Penn State Creamery Logs Record Year

on January 09, 2012 10:31 AM

It began with a promise of double-digit state funding cuts, then worsened with workforce reductions and tuition increases.

Later, by November, 2011 had reached once-unthinkable levels of horrible at Penn State.

But through one of the most trying periods in university history, the Berkey Creamery quietly recorded its best year ever, Manager Tom Palchak said last week.

"We were making volumes I just haven't seen in 30 years in the dairy industry," he said. " ... It shows the resiliency of the Creamery, but it also shows the place of dairy products" in people's nutritional and cultural habits.

The Creamery made more than 195,000 half-gallon ice-cream containers in 2011, reflecting total growth of 23 percent since 2007. Sales of bottled juices and drinks have jumped 60 percent since 2007; sales of pint containers of milk, plus yogurt and sour cream, 10 percent apiece.

Overall ice-cream production has climbed 24 percent in the same period, Palchak said. Revenue is up somewhere on the order of 47 percent.

At least 50 percent of the growth, he explained, is directly attributable to the still-new Creamery facility, at Curtin and Bigler roads. The operation, more than 140 years old, moved there from its Borland Laboratory digs in late 2006, propelled by steady increases in demand.

"This addressed pent-up demand that we simply were unable to (serve)" before, due to limited freezer space and other capacity issues, Palchak said.

While other areas in the College of Agricultural Sciences have lost jobs lately, the Creamery has managed to add two full-time technical-service positions, thanks to the sales increases. The operation has avoided job losses, employing a full complement of 23 full-time workers and contributing substantially to teaching, service and outreach in the Department of Food Science.

The department, which has escaped the deep financial stress suffered in other ag-college units, receives Creamery-financed support for at least four full-time positions.

In fact, business has been so robust, the Creamery established extra warehouse space in Rock Springs just to keep up with production volumes, Palchak said. It's continued to develop new tastes, too, expanding its flavor list by about two percent to three percent each year.

The Creamery now counts about 150 flavors, many of which are rotated on and off the regular list of offerings.

"Ice cream is somewhat insulated from recessions to a greater degree than other food products," Palchak said. "That's been proven back to the Depression."

Even the Creamery's famed ice-cream-production short course has seen a marked uptick, registering 136 participants for 2012. The number is usually closer to 110 or 120.

"It was a very, very good year," Palchak said.

That's a story worth telling.

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