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A worker checks finished yogurt cups at the North Country Dairy in North Lawrence. Photo: Courtesy Upstate Niagara Cooperative.
A worker checks finished yogurt cups at the North Country Dairy in North Lawrence. Photo: Courtesy Upstate Niagara Cooperative.

Milk culture: touring the North Country yogurt plant

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A couple of years ago, things looked bad for dairy processing in North Lawrence. Healthy Food Holdings was shutting down its Breyer's yogurt plant, and laying off more than 100 workers.

But within weeks, the plant was quietly purchased by the Upstate Niagara Cooperative. The Buffalo-based dairy processor renamed the plant the North Country Dairy. It says yogurt is on an upward trend in New York State, and the Cooperative wants to be part of that.

Many food manufacturers guard trade secrets tightly, and won't allow visitors. Upstate Niagara wouldn't allow the North Country plant manager to talk on tape for a story. But he did take me on a full tour of the facility.

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Reported by

Julie Grant
Reporter and Producer

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Walking through the North Country Dairy is loud. About 50 people work here, and most of them wear protective earphones.

All these containers of yogurt are just traveling through. Frankly, it reminds me of Laverne and Shirley.
We start at the beginning of the process. Plant manager Matt Davis takes me to the garage, where huge milk trucks pull in. They've come from area farms. About 380 dairies across New York are members of Upstate Niagara.

The raw milk is tested for temperature, bacteria content, and antibiotics. If it tests well, the milk is pumped into a silo.

The plant now has 72 hours to make and package yogurt. First stop: huge vats, where it's mixed with sugar, starches, and other dry ingredients. Then it's heated up for pasteurization. And it's piped to the fermenting tanks.

Upstate Niagara has invested in new fermenting tanks, sized for the latest industry boom - Greek Yogurt.

"The plant manager opened up one of the huge tanks, and let me look inside. It's all bubbly on top. You can see that the culture is working, and it smells really sour."

Plant manager Matt Davis assures me it's not sour milk, it's the acidity from the yogurt culture. Greek yogurt uses its own yeast, it ferments longer, and it needs about three times as much milk as regular yogurt.

Once it's ready, it's time for the fun part: filling those cute little cups.

North Country Dairy makes and packages yogurt for different brands that ship yogurt all over the country. The Cooperative is launching its own Greek yogurt line this summer.

Packing Greek yogurt is different than regular yogurt. So the plant is breaking in a new machine that fills cups. It has three types of Greek Yogurt today.

They've just finished packing peach flavor. It smells great.

Now a worker is unpacking a big bag of flavored pineapple for the next batch.

But first – cleaning.

"They want to make sure that these yogurt cups are perfectly safe for people to consume," Davis says. "After they finish one flavor, they're cleaning these with water for ten or fifteen minutes, running through the system, spraying thru hoses, and they're even spraying with this very high pressure chlorine before they start the next batch."

Finally, it's time for the pineapple. A line of cups drop into place. "You can see the fruit, it's going into each of the cups." The cups are weighed before the yogurt is added.

"Now they've done testing, to make sure the cups are getting the correct amount of fruit, and then a separate test to make sure they're getting the correct amount of yogurt, and now they're about to start the process where they put in the fruit and the yogurt, and then they seal the top, and that will be the final product."

But when it's finally time for the foil lids, one line of cups isn't sealing properly. They have to stop again, and tinker with the machine. After a few tries, the cups are being filled and sealed properly. A finished cup is sent to the lab, as a safety check, while the rest move from the filling machine to packaging.

 "They got it running, so now we're headed into where the conveyer belts are, where all these containers of yogurt are just traveling through. Frankly, it reminds me of Laverne and Shirley."

A worker checks the cups again, and the machine lines them up to be boxed. Another machine stacks the boxes onto pallets, and they're sent to the warehouse. It's cold.

"So we're standing here in basically what is a huge refrigerator. There are pallets with boxes on them filled to the ceiling. The plant manager says there's probably about a half million pounds of yogurt right now. But this place is not even half full, and there's another refrigerator like this in the other room. He says sometimes there are millions of pounds of processed and packaged yogurt in here at one time."

The yogurt will be trucked out within hours, headed to grocery store shelves. And Upstate Niagara hopes its cooperative continues to grow along with the booming yogurt industry.

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