A lightning strike Tuesday knocked out dairy processing at Smiling Hill Farm in Westbrook for up to a week.
Milk and cheese production has been on hold since midday Tuesday. A bolt from a passing thunderstorm apparently damaged sensitive controls required by the federal government to monitor pasteurization. The creamery can’t operate without that equipment in place, and it will be days before the replacements will be up and running. In the meantime, Smiling Hill Farm could lose thousands of gallons of milk that needs to be processed.
“Worst case scenario, we may be out for a week,” said Warren Knight, a member of the family that owns and operates Smiling Hill Farm and neighboring Hillside Lumber. “Best case scenario, we may be able to make some milk Saturday.”
No one was injured by the lightning. While another strike damaged a tree on the property, the barnyard and the ice cream shop were not affected and are open for normal hours. The farm posted a message on its Facebook page Wednesday for its customers.
“We sincerely appreciate your continued patronage during this time, and ask that you visit the Farm and purchase the milk products which we currently have available,” it reads.
The storm hit in the middle of processing a batch of strawberry milk for Contoocook Creamery in New Hampshire, one of four smaller farms that relies on the creamery at Smiling Hill Farm. Employees who were there told Knight the lights flickered in the plant and they felt a tingle in the air. Then a worker realized the milk was no longer flowing easily through the machinery. The controls were the only equipment seriously damaged, but their replacement is more complicated than many other parts in the creamery.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture require these controls to monitor factors like temperature and pressure during processing. Knight said the replacement equipment had to be special ordered from a manufacturer in New York, and it could be shipped overnight Wednesday or Thursday. Once installed, it will need to be inspected by state officials before processing can restart. Knight said he hoped insurance would cover at least part of the cost, which could be more than $10,000.
Cheese is an aged product, so the farm has plenty on hand for customers. While new ice cream can’t be made without its dairy base, the farm had enough in the freezer. But milk produced by the cows can only wait 72 hours for pasteurization, so it is likely the farm will need to dump 2,000 gallons or more, Knight said.
The farm most recently processed its own milk Monday, and it has a shelf life of 15 days. Knight hoped that supply would hold over the farm’s 30 to 40 wholesale stores until production could restart. But he worried about losing customers if it runs out. Some other products, like yogurt and fresh cheese curds, could also be impacted.
“That clock is ticking,” Knight said.
As its name suggests, the farm is located on top of a hill. Knight said he knows the property is vulnerable to lightning, and a strike wiped out the computer system at Hillside Lumber 12 years ago. The family has installed grounding rods and taken other protective measures, and there hasn’t been serious lightning damage in at least five years, Knight said.
“This could have been much worse if we hadn’t taken those steps in the past,” Knight said.
Knight was in Florida and was scrambling Wednesday to get back to Maine to help the family business.
“We really don’t have an alternative,” Knight said. “The only alternative is to go out of business. We’re pushing ahead.”