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Inside New York's Greek yogurt boom

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The buzz around last week's "Yogurt Summit" had a lot of people ask questions. Why was Greek yogurt such a big deal and why was Governor Cuomo spending political capital on it?

It turns out Greek-style yogurt now accounts for about a quarter of all yogurt sales in the U.S. And much of it is made right here in upstate New York because we're close to the yogurt-eating masses on the East coast. It's a low-tech industry that's having a big economic impact.

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Like many other upstate New York dairy farmers, Dave Collins hasn’t milked a cow by hand in a while. He says it’s been about 20 years. When Collins’ grandfather ran the farm, he owned six cows. Now, Collins Knoll Farm is home to 650 milking cows, and that’s not counting the more than 800 dry cows, heifers, and calves waiting their turn. And the way things are going, those cows will get their turn, and so will a lot of others.

Every day, a tanker truck collects milk from Collins and other local dairy farmers. He says it’s usually full when it leaves his farms. “It’s stopped at other farms when it gets drives right to a plant somewhere. Most of the time its down in Edmeston, in Chobani.”

You’ve seen Chobani Greek-style yogurt in the store. Its success is transforming the yogurt industry and revitalizing a piece of upstate New York. In only four years, Chobani, which is made by a company called Agra-Farma, has become the number one-selling yogurt in the country.

Chobani buys 25 million gallons of milk a week from New York farmers like Collins, and it ships to all 50 states, Australia and the city of Toronto.

Company spokesperson Kelly Lacorte stands amid piled-high stacks of Chobani cases as forklifts fill up the 50 to 60 trucks that arrive every day to deliver it. She says the warehouse was built last year to handle increases in production. “1.7 million cases of yogurt pass through each week. We’re pretty close to capacity of the amount of yogurt we can produce but our demand is so high that we’re just doing our best to keep making enough yogurt.”

A Turkish immigrant named Hamdi Ulukaya started the company in 2005. He thought America yogurt was too bland, especially compared to the Mediterranean style he grew up with.

Greek yogurt is made by straining the liquid whey out of milk, then adding bacteria cultures.  It takes three pounds of milk to make one pound of yogurt, and the result is a thicker, tangier yogurt, loaded with protein.

Over the past several years, Greek yogurt has helped New York state dairy production increase about 10 to 12 percent a year. From Chobani to Fage in Johnstown to Alpina in Batavia, Greek yogurt plants seem to be is popping up everywhere. New York State’s Director of Agribusiness development Pat Hooker says Greek yogurt has given the dairy business a boost like he’s never seen: “This is a once in a generation event. Greek yogurt just dropped in and added a whole new component to our diet. And from a dairy industry standpoint, it’s just seismic.”

New York is the country’s 3rd biggest dairy state, with 2 billion dollars a year in milk sales.  All that production and know-how, says Hooker, plus access to the more than 60 million consumers on the eastern seaboard, help make the state an ideal location for yogurt manufacturers. And he says more may be coming. “I probably have half a dozen, I would just say, prospects right now and they are in various stages of interest and commitment on the part of companies, we have not peaked out yet.”  

All those plants mean jobs for a struggling upstate economy. Chobani itself employs 1,100 people here, and plans to add another 125 by the end of the year.

A recent Cornell University study reported that each new processing job creates 4.72 additional jobs. Chobani’s Lacorte says in addition to the local construction and trucking, 98 percent of the fruit they use is grown domestically.

And they help dairy farmers like Dave Collins support local business, too. “You want to stimulate the economy”, he says, “just give it to the farmer because they can’t keep their money. We update our equipment and everything else. We fixed a lot of barns this spring already.”

While upstate dairy farms have always been a large part of the state’s agricultural economy, Greek yogurt has given the farmers more than a reputation. It’s given them a future.

Katie Gleitsman of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College.



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