“How can Greece be doing so badly? Everyone I know is eating Greek yogurt,” one woman says to another in a New Yorker cartoon.
Ah well. Greece’s loss is New York’s gain. The state is now America’s No. 1 producer of yogurt, and still growing.
How did New York become the yogurt capital of America?
Maybe it’s because we don’t call it labneh. Perhaps it’s a triumph of American marketing – rebranding a diet food as an exotic treat. Or maybe the dairy cows of New York State really are so contented that the yogurt made here is genuinely special.
Whatever the reason, everyone we know is eating Greek yogurt, and New York’s dairy industry is doing better than it has in years.
Just ask Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The ascendency of Greek yogurt is one of his favorite things to talk about. In 2012, he held a “yogurt summit” to try to keep the momentum going, and by the end of 2012, New York State – home of Chobani, Fage and Alpina USA – officially outpaced No. 2 California to take the yogurt-making crown.
(We are also tops in cottage cheese production, but hardly anyone talks about that.)
Now, like seeds off a fast-blooming dandelion, the effects of the yogurt craze are spreading out and starting to grow.
• Müller Quaker Dairy has the grand opening for its yogurt plant in Batavia on Monday. The plant is expected to create about 180 jobs, and positive photo ops for politicians at every level.
• Small family farms – many in Western New York – are finding a ready market for their own artisanal brands of yogurt.
• Yogurt franchises – frozen and otherwise – are opening new stores (check out the Elmwood Village this summer) and grocers have expanded their dairy sections to accommodate all the varieties.
• Genesee Community College created a new food technology major to help train workers for the yogurt businesses, while Cornell University is adding certification programs, short courses and other classes.
• And state government recently eased regulations on large-herd dairy farms and supplied more money to farm-assistance programs to keep the supply of milk coming.
Those who believe yogurt has peaked may want to guess again.
Tristan Zuber, a Cornell University extension associate who specializes in yogurt production, has no immediate fears about job security.
“In New York State, we consume 13 pounds of yogurt per person per year, up from about 8 pounds in 2005,” Zuber said. “Compare that to 22 pounds per person in Canada, and 60 pounds per person in Europe, and it’s clear it can grow.”
But until recently, American yogurt – thinner than the Greek variety – carried the image of being for women on a diet or something that moms served as a “healthy” snack, even when it was loaded with extra sugar, gelatin and cornstarch.
Then came Greek yogurt makers Fage (pronounced fah-yay) and Chobani – both with manufacturing plants in Central New York. Greek yogurt is strained, with much of the whey – that’s water, milkfat and lactose – removed, resulting in a dish that is thicker and creamier – and that requires three times as much milk to make as regular yogurt.
Send in the cows
Last year, 692 million pounds of yogurt were produced in New York State, and Müller Quaker had yet to open. With demand increasing on the grocery end, Cornell estimates that, back on the farm, New York’s dairy herd will need to increase production by 15 percent in the next few years.
At the New York Farm Bureau, public affairs manager Steve Ammerman said this doesn’t necessarily mean adding 15 percent more cows. There are other ways to increase production he said, on a “per cow” basis.
“If they eat right – a good balanced diet – you keep the cows comfortable, and you work closely with veterinary care, to keep them healthy, they will produce,” he said.
To help farmers raise and keep happier herds, Ammerman said the state is providing more money for assistance and training programs, such as DAP, the Dairy Acceleration Plan, and AEM, Agricultural Environmental Management.
But some might want more animals.
The governor approved a recent change in state environmental regulations to make it less expensive for small farms to expand. Calling it “farmer-friendly,” the state Department of Environmental Conservation raised the cap on the number of cows a farm can have from 199 to 299 before CAFO rules for animal waste disposal kick in. CAFO stands for concentrated animal feeding operations and conjures up images of “factory farms” with perhaps a thousand cows (which, according to the DEC is about the average number of animals on New York’s regulated CAFOs).
Farmers are also being offered millions of dollars in grants to install methane converters that turn manure into electrical power, to help offset the cost of waste disposal.
But, like many dairy owners, Nathan Blesy of Springville feels caught in the middle on the changes. He already has more than 250 milkers on his farm, so the CAFO change won’t help him.
“We were just over the threshold already, and we plan to stay in compliance as long as we’ve already invested the money,” Blesy said.
And getting help to buy a methane digester won’t be much help to farms his size either. “You’ve got to have about 1,000 cows to make the thing function, is my understanding,” he said.
21st century farm bill
Instead, Blesy and many other farmers are urging Congress to pass the Dairy Security Act – which Blesy called “a dairy program for the 21st century” in a recent op-ed in The Buffalo News.
“They need a farm bill that’s going to help all of agriculture,” Blesy said.
Chautauqua County Executive Greg Edwards, who grew up on a dairy farm and has been involved in statewide discussions on ag policy, agrees with Blesy.
“We have an opportunity to increase our production to meet a known need for fluid milk and other uses,” Edwards said, “but the pricing structure for fluid milk is broken – it has been for decades. Farmers don’t know how their milk is going to be used and the pricing isn’t transparent.”
The yogurt boom is great news for New York State, Edwards said, and the state should make the most of it, including pushing for real help for smaller farms.
“A profitable family farm means workers are paid, farms are viable, money flows out for equipment, seed, livestock, feed, fuel,” Edwards said. “We have the opportunity to do something that is big and important.”
Peaches and cream
That may be the case, but, at some local farms, they’re going the small and creamy route instead.
Alongside all the Greeks and other big brands like Dannon and Yoplait, artisanal yogurt is finding a niche.
“There are well over 80 small processors in New York State,” said Zuber of Cornell. “We see a lot of farmers wanting to create value-added products.”
That means they take the raw materials from their farms and turn them into food you’d find on a market shelf – and for dairy farmers, that means cheese, dips and yogurt.
Blue Hill Farm in East Otto recently took the leap from selling at local farmers markets to opening its own store in Buffalo, on Lexington Avenue at Ashland Avenue. Open three days a week – Thursday-Saturday – it sells its home-crafted White Cow Dairy items in returnable glass bottles – just like the milkman used to carry.
Along with dairy products, these specialty farmers are selling a way of life. The Blue Hill website lists the diet of its pasture-fed cows: “... coltsfoot, beebread, burdock, violet, fescue, buttercup, birdsfoot, chamomile, peppermint, chickweed, wild strawberry, yarrow, horehound, yellowdock, feltwort, orchard grass, nettles & clover.”
And of its customers: “ ‘fresh dairy,’ the likes of which few have seen (nor tasted) in a century or so ... custards, puddings, creams, grassy yogurts, whey tonics, fresh cheeses, and savory spiced sauces.”
Trystan and Max Sandvoss, the brothers who own First Light Farm and Creamery, are also among those branching out. They began with goat milk cheeses made from milk from a small herd on their East Bethany farm. Now, using milk from the certified organic Jersey cow herd at nearby Grasslands Dairy, they are making cream-topped yogurt.
“Everyone is crazy about yogurt right now,” Trystan Sandvoss said, and so they decided to offer something a little different.
Unlike the strained Greek brands and commercial yogurts, Sandvoss said, their yogurts are not homogenized or fat-free, and they contain no stabilizers, sweeteners or thickeners. What they do have is live cultures – the probiotics that give yogurt its nutritional kick – and the richer taste of Jersey milk.
“It’s easy to make a nice, thick yogurt without adding anything to it,” Sandvoss said. “The culture blend that we have developed, combined with the cream, gives the yogurt a natural sweetness.”
The welcome mat
Looking back 10 years, anyone who tells you he or she saw the yogurt boom coming is probably exaggerating. It even caught some of its producers off guard.
“It’s not like Greek yogurt was anything new,” said Ammerman, of the Farm Bureau.
It has been around for thousands of years before achieving astounding popularity almost overnight. It now is 45 percent of all yogurt sales, according to figures from Wegmans, and has made people like Hamdi Ulukaya, the charismatic owner of Chobani, look like geniuses. A Turkish immigrant, he started his yogurt company near Cooperstown with five employees in 2005 and is now a billionaire. While taking pride in his product, he often tells audiences that he also was unprepared for how popular it would be.
On the heels of such success, Ammerman is busy.
“Half the calls that come in are tied to the topic,” Ammerman said of calls to the Farm Bureau. “It’s a consumer issue, it’s a business issue, it’s a farm issue.”
It’s also a political issue, and one that community leaders love to support.
Genesee County is showing the way. The new Müller Quaker plant – a joint German-American project of Theo Müller Group and PepsiCo – will be Batavia’s second big yogurt maker when it opens this week. The South American–Swiss, in the form of Alpina USA, are already there.
“It’s no secret that Alpina located here for the abundance of milk and the quality, from the milkshed of Genesee and Wyoming counties,” said Gregg Torrey, assistant plant manager for Alpina Foods, “and also because of the shovel-ready site” in the Genesee Valley Agri-Business Park.
Alpina has about 55 full-time employees, with roughly the same number of part-time workers, and expects to add more.
“We are in a growth mode, for sure. I think we’re going to be in a growth mode for the foreseeable future,” Torrey said.
It will be helped along, he said, by graduates of nearby Genesee Community College, which is starting a food processing technology degree program in 2014; the Rochester Institute of Technology, with its experts in packaging and industrial design; and Cornell University, which specializes in all things agriculture.
Cornell’s Zuber has worked with several companies interested in doing yogurt business in New York.
“The No. 1 thing that the yogurt companies are looking for is a good quality workforce,” she said.
More than 8,500 people already are working in the dairy processing industry in New York, she said, and every new processing job has a fantastic “multiplier” of 4.72.
That means, for every yogurt plant job, nearly five other jobs are created elsewhere – in farming and farm supplies, transportation, distribution, sales, and so on.
“We get requests for training … on almost a daily basis,” Zuber said. “I wish I could tell you how busy we are.”