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Frank Thomas: He changed dairying - and the world

Aug. 1, 2013 | 0 comments

Have you had your whey protein today?

Chances are you have eaten whey protein today without even knowing it or thinking about it.

Whey is what's left after the cheese is made in every cheese factory across the land. For every 100 pounds of milk the cheese maker receives, about 10 percent goes into the cheese; the other 90 percent is water containing whey protein. You can't see it but until 35 years ago, you could smell it during hot summer days in the pond located behind most cheese factories.

Today whey protein is an ingredient in so many foods: Bakery goods, candy, salad dressing, infant formula, cookies, snack foods, energy bars, breakfast cereal, ice cream, cheese and on and on.

I searched the internet (and asked a lot of dairy people) and could not find an account of the time when the hazard of stinking whey ponds ended and whey protein concentrate became a viable food product and who was the genius who did it.

A livestock trucker and farmer

I know the answers because he was a friend of mine when I was a young Extension agent in Clark County. Every year I hired him to truck 4-H cattle the 200 miles to the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis each August. I also ran into him on occasion as he clerked farm auctions for the long-gone Thorp Finance, a well-known lender who was big in the farm auction business.

He always laughingly proclaimed that the only way he got out of Greenwood High was to sneak out after his junior year and that he was a 'halfway dairy farmer.'

His name was Frank Thomas. Remember the name Frank Thomas, Frank Thomas, Frank Thomas. Frank Thomas was one of the few people I ever met who changed the world: Dairying, cheesemaking, human and livestock diets, food ingredients and health on a national and international basis - and what he did 40 years ago is current today.

I lost track of Thomas after I left UW-Extension and moved on to other ag positions as did he until in 1979 - as manager of ADA of Wisconsin - I attended the annual meeting of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association at the old Playboy Club in Lake Geneva. After lunch, a friend grabbed me by the arm saying "you've got to hear this" and dragged me into a room where a speaker by name of Frank Thomas was about to discuss: "Potential ultrafiltration in cheesemaking and whey processing."

Upon seeing me, the man at the podium waved and yelled out, "When are we going to get together again?" I was in shock from seeing my old farmer/trucker friend, Frank Thomas, wearing a black suit (and not jeans), giving a seminar to the top cheese makers and industry folks in the world.

Off and on over the years, I heard bits and pieces about Thomas and what he was doing but never got to talk with him.

In 1990, Frank who had retired from his Thomas Technical Services and was a banker in Neillsville, and I had a long talk at a cafe and in the bank and he told me his fascinating and inspiring story.

The story begins

"A cheesemaker friend who owned a cheese factory in Hoven, South Dakota, asked me help him out," Thomas began. 'This was in the mid '60s and eventually I bought him out."

Although Thomas admitted to having no experience in cheesemaking, he learned very quickly and a year later bought a cheese factory at Pollock and in 1967 he started a new cheese operation at Sturgis in the Black Hills and then a butter plant at Bowdle.

Thomas often traveled the 283 miles between the four plants while starting a mail-order cheese business called Pondarosa. "We worked around the clock, but it was fun," Thomas remembered.

Into research

"I guess I'm kind of a stingy guy," Thomas explained. "I was paying $3.25 per hundred for milk in 1964 and throwing or giving 90 percent of it away. I learned of a town near the Missouri river that was using some new technology to remove minerals from their drinking water."

Thomas visited the town and began to ponder: "Could I use that technology to take invisible solids out of whey and sell them at a profit?"

Thomas put together some equipment and began testing at the Hoven plant. He set up a laboratory and began researching separating the protein into a concentrate using spiral wound membranes. He, along with as few others in this intriguing research, also began inventing and patenting some of the technology he needed.

In 1972, Thomas opened the first ever ultrafiltration/reverse osmosis whey processing plant at Pollock and became a local hero. The Pollock Pioneer carried a major story in its June 14, 1973, issue hailing Thomas for spending $250,000 to build the new protein plant "which could bring a minor revolution in the whole (dairy) industry."

Getting that first plant up and running was not always an easy project for Thomas and not everyone in the industry thought it would work. In a speech entitled "They said it couldn't be done," Thomas gave prior to the opening of that first plant, John Skogberg, local county agent, quoted these words of Thomas: "Many dairy processing specialists and officials of state universities and USDA said it was impossible to separate the milk proteins from the whey economically."

There were also a growing number of industry and government officials who knew that something had to be done to solve the whey problem at cheese plants. One was William Schwantes, owner of Lynn dairy at Granton, WI, who was having whey disposal problems.

The result: Schwantes and Thomas formed a partnership and Lynn Proteins was built in 1974 as the second plant of its kind in the US. Note: Lynn Proteins is a successful, growing business today.

Thomas and his Thomas Technical Services went on to establish 126 whey protein plants across the country.

The technology Thomas pioneered has progressed since those early days and is now considered a "must' in every cheese operation with whey protein concentrate a valuable product worldwide.

Randy Thomas, Frank's son, became president of Thomas Technical Services in 1990 and continues the business today at its Neillsville headquarters (715-743-4666). Many of Frank's former employees went on to form their own whey protein technology companies.

Frank Thomas died in August 1997 at age 73 after a lifetime changing dairying and the world. Over time his contributions to dairying and human and livestock nutrition have been somewhat forgotten or passed over but his legacy is evident on store shelves, in food processing plants and on consumers tables everywhere. Not bad for a farm boy from Greenwood with little formal education but lots of ideas, energy and ambition.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at jfodairy@chorus.net.

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