The Boom Starts Here

11/17/2012 7:00 AM
By Maegan Crandall Central N.Y. Correspondent

Panel Discusses Benefits, Challenges of Yogurt Bonanza in NY

ITHACA, N.Y. — No longer just for diets and the health-conscious, yogurt has gone mainstream. From drinkable to-go varieties to the growing popularity of creamy, Greek-style, yogurt is booming — and New York is at the center of it all.

Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences recently hosted a forum to discuss the current yogurt explosion and discuss the benefits and challenges that the New York yogurt and dairy industry, processors and producers face.

Patrick Hooker, former state commissioner of agriculture and current director of agribusiness development at the Empire State Development Corp., said the geography of New York naturally suits dairy production and therefore offers a huge bonus for the development of yogurt in this region.

“If you were to look around the world, you would not find a better place to milk cows and to turn that milk into consumer goods than you would here in this region of the United States,” Hooker said. “You’re dealing with a naturally sustainable production area. This part of the world is a place where the soils are excellent and well-suited to growing the forages which are the basic ration for the dairy cow. This is done through the natural fertility of the soil, the recycling of the nutrients that are there, and it’s also done with natural snow melt and rainwater. We are not contorting mother nature in any way, shape, or form to produce the basic building blocks for milk production in the Northeast.”

Additionally, the location in relation to the consumer represents 60 million consumers up and down the eastern part of the United States, all well within a day’s drive of this production area.

“You’re talking about an epic and cultural diversity that you don’t see anywhere else in the world. It is all of that consumer demand that has driven the ingenuity in the dairy industry here,” said Hooker.

Hooker also said the location of Cornell University offers a tremendous base of knowledge that supports various programs focused on animal health, animal welfare, business management on farms, and environmental stewardship.

“Cornell offers world-class dairy product research capability in addition to tremendous scientists that can support these businesses,” he said.

Bill Byrne, of Byrne Dairy Inc. — which is in the process of opening a new yogurt plant in Cortland, N.Y. — also believes that New York is an excellent location to jump on board the yogurt boom.

“Greek yogurt is taking over not just the nation, but the world. It’s really an amazing development to go from a start-up to a billion dollars in sales — which is what Chobani has done,” Byrne said. “I think we are seeing an increase toward the value of the protein in the diet, an appreciation for dairy protein as a protein source, and also higher protein and lower carbs. And it tastes good.”

A growing yogurt industry also supports a growing economy.

“Dairy is certainly one of the major drivers in agriculture, and agriculture in and of itself is one of the major economic drivers in rural New York state,” said New York Agriculture Commissioner Darrel Aubertine. “We’re not going to see the resurgence we want to see without recognizing that agriculture has a major role to play. There is a role and certainly a connection with what we’re trying to do here with enhancing the dairy industry — and the yogurt sector in particular — as it relates to retail, processing and production.

“We’re working with all the players in the dairy industry — Cornell, the processors, producers and retail — all of us pulling in the same direction is really the path that we are trying to capitalize on,” Aubertine said.

While the yogurt industry is successfully growing, several challenges also face producers in particular.

A few considerations to keep in mind, said Josh Woodard, an assistant professor in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell, include the heavy impact of immigrant labor in dairy that could potentially pose a significant risk to producers; unresolved issues with the Farm Bill that also directly impact dairy producers; and a new era of commodity volatility that requires managing risk at the producer level.

However, a high level of cooperation between industry leaders, producers, educators and retail businesses represents the motivation to succeed and address potential problems.

“We have dairy processors working together with producers and universities to build the expertise and the innovation pipeline. Then we can tap in to what we can do in terms of training and workforce development,” said Martin Wiedmann, a food science professor at Cornell.

Tristan Zuber, a Cornell regional dairy processing Extension associate based in Batavia, agrees.

“New York dairy manufacturing jobs have increased 3 percent over the past six years, whereas other manufacturing sectors have fallen tremendously,” she said. “With more processors coming into the area and other processors expanding, there’s going to be a strong need to develop a well-trained workforce at these plants. So, training would be provided to attract new talent to the food processing sector and Cornell has been working to develop a strategic plan on how to staff these plants coming into the area.”

Rob Ralyea, senior Extension associate in the department of food science, noted that companies are invited to use the university’s food processing and development laboratory to rent and run small batches of new products, so as to not waste large amounts of milk.

The forum also included a tour of the $105 million renovation to Cornell’s Stocking Hall, which will include a pilot plant where industries can develop new products, and a 12,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art dairy processing plant, where students and industry professionals can get hands-on training and dairy products will be processed for use on campus.

The facilities are slated to open in spring 2013.


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