Former Air New Zealand pilot Liam Fitzgerald is one of five new employees at Fonterra's cream cheese plant in Darfield, who have been hired to help meet surging demand from China.
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SUPPLIED Liam Fitzgeral and Blake Aston at Fonterra's Darfield cream cheese plant.

The plant had more than doubled production of the dairy product in the last year, plant manager Blake Aston said.

Fitzgerald was put on furlough by Air New Zealand after Covid-19 severely disrupted international travel but said he was enjoying the break from flying.

He had worked for Fonterra before he became a pilot, in a whey production plant, and decided he wanted to go back.

Fitzgerald initially began doing temporary work in one of the two milk powder plants at the Darfield site, but when production at the cream cheese plant increased he applied for a permanent role.

The plant at Darfield is now operating around the clock to meet the demand, having added 75 per cent more capacity.

Plant manager Blake Aston said demand had grown by more than 100 per cent in the last year and five new permanent employees were needed to work the new shifts.

China’s changing demographics were driving the popularity of Western foods including huge demand for cream cheese which was used in items like lollipops, drinks and moon cakes, Aston said.

Darfield produced 90 tonnes of cream cheese every day, which was packed into 20 kilogram boxes for export.

There was an existing cream cheese factory in Hamilton, but Darfield had been established in 2012 to service the growing Asian market and it employed more than 280 people, he said.

Most of what the plant produced went to China but also went to other markets in Asia, the Middle East and US.

“The Chinese really enjoy the taste of the cream cheese and they are putting it in a number of applications now. Machiato beverages and even sports drinks and beers.”

A new German blender allowed the plant to change the firmness and consistency of the cheese to meet customer preference and give its products a competitive advantage, he said.

The plant work was technical and staff were expected to be able to run every piece of equipment, Aston said.

Fitzgerald had just completed his forklift training for use in the pack house. Most of the training was done on the job.

He had only been there for three months but said there room for his career to grow.

“If the opportunity comes up I’d love to learn the other roles. I love flying but at the moment I have got a young family and this role works quite well. I see my family every day,” he said.

Last month, 14 of our dairy farms in Maine, as well as dozens of dairy farms across northern New England, got an unexpected and disappointing notice from Danone of North America saying that they were discontinuing their contracts with our organic dairy farmers in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and elsewhere.

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