The towering white walls of the Fonterra factory at Kauri houses some of the most advanced processing equipment in the world. The factory celebrates 30 years of operation this year. Reporter Kristin Edge talks to some of those who have been working at the site since it opened on State Highway 1, 10km north of Whāngarei.
At the heart of the factory a plethora of shiny silver pipes wind their way round corners, up and down and around. It could be something out of Willy Wonker's chocolate factory but instead this world-class factory takes millions of litres of milk from Northland dairy farmers and produces tonnes of milk powder and butter products - some of which are used to make chocolate.
The rows of varying sizes of stainless steel pipes are part of the fractionation plant and it's the only one in New Zealand. The high-tech set-up takes concentrated milk fats and splits out the low and high melting point fractions that are made into spreadable butter and pastry butter.
Heading the cream side of the operation and overseeing the fractionation operation is Matt Byrham. He started his career with Fonterra by working in the Kauri site cafe after finishing school. He progressed up the ranks and has clocked up 30 years.
The proud Northlander, "born and raised in Tikipunga", was getting some life experience before he applied to become a police officer.
However, he's not disappointed and is now heading a highly skilled team using some of the most advanced milk processing equipment in the world.
During the peak of the season up to 3 million litres of milk is processed every day at the site with 37 tankers collecting the milk from farms north of the Auckland Harbour Bridge and as far north as Ngataki.
There are two powder plants on site with the older plant housing the largest single stage evaporator in the world.
The storage shed is cavernous but blue drums stacked six high fill the void. Pallets of bagged milk powder products tower above the concrete floor.
Product that comes in here is gone within three days.
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The other Fonterra site in Northland is in Maungaturoto which was established in 1902.
The site processes about 247 million litres of milk a year which is equivalent to about 99 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The site processes raw milk into a range of milk powders, whey powder and rennet casein most of which is sent to markets overseas in South East Asia and the Americas.
The Kauri site employs 280 operational staff and about 310 staff in total including regional and support roles based at Kauri.
There is no doubt about the economic importance of the site and the importance of the Chinese market.
Fonterra's Kauri site exported around $42.5 million in products to China for consumption in 2017/18. That's about $237 per person in Northland.
And Fonterra's only other site at Maungaturoto exported around $40.8m in products to China in 2017/18 — about $228 per person in Northland.
Eleven per cent of all dairy in China — the world's biggest market — comes from Fonterra farmers.
Today there was a celebration with current staff who had worked at the site for 30 years and former staff who had clocked up three decades.
Gavin Donelley remembers when he first started at Kauri after working at the Hikurangi Dairy Factory before its closure.
"There was no technology at Hikurangi, we were human cogs making the stuff there. The closest I had come to a computer was the Pac-Man spacey machine at the local takeaway shop."
He said all the staff were in the same situation and it wasn't long before they came to grips with the new technology.
"It was so flash and clean it was more like a hospital."
After spending time in the production side of the operation Donelley is now an environmental supervisor.
He loves the chance to give back to the local community and takes pride in that.
"My mates and neighbours are cockies and I'm working for people who are working hard."
Some of the projects Fonterra has been involved in include making a safe swimming place for families at Hikurangi's Lake Waro as well as creating a carpark at the popular lakeside skate park.
By-products that make great gardening compost have been given to schools for their vegie gardens. Tankers have also been used to cart water to fill local school pools during hot periods.
Team manager for his shift tankers is Paul Somers. He has spent time behind the wheel collecting milk from farms across the region and reckons the drivers take real pride in their work.
He said the trucks now were very modern and made the job very comfortable.
In her role as a microbiologist Donna Crowe says working at the Kauri site means continuously learning.
"There are a lot of us here who have rural links or have family farming. So it's really important to us that the company does well."
Ray Critchley has been involved in the dairy industry for 45 years and reckons a highlight of working at Kauri has been the people.
As materials planner he oversees the purchasing and packaging of ingredients.
Seeing finished products on the shelves of supermarkets and dairies that have been produced at Kauri was also rewarding.
"It's pleasing to know I've played a part in getting the product there."
The raw milk trucked to the site is turned into whole and skim milk powder, lactic butter, salted butter, ghee, buttermilk powder, fractionate butter and Anhydrous Milk Fat.
These products are then shipped around the country and the world where they are then used to make other products such as infant formulas.
Rowan Hartigan, Kauri site operations manager, said it was a proud moment to see products made in Northland ending up on plates across the country and around the world.
• 1989 opened for business
• 3 million litres of milk processed in a day at peak of season
• 37 tankers collecting milk from across Northland
• 310 people employed at site
• 3 plants on site - 2 powder plants, 1 cream plant
• 95 per cent of farmers' milk is exported from New Zealand