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Alpina's shiny new Greek yogurt plant is right across the industrial park from another new yogurt plant. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Alpina's shiny new Greek yogurt plant is right across the industrial park from another new yogurt plant. Photo: David Sommerstein.

How the 'Silicon Valley of Yogurt' is reshaping dairy farming

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It's been about a year since Governor Cuomo convened his Yogurt Summit. He urged the state's dairy farmers to ramp up to meet the growing demand for milk from the booming Greek yogurt industry.

New York has eclipsed California as the number one yogurt producer in the country. And there are no signs of the growth slowing down.

David Sommerstein went to western New York to visit one of the brand new Greek yogurt plants that have opened recently to see how they're reshaping New York dairy.

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

There’s an old pumpkin patch in the city of Batavia, halfway between Buffalo and Rochester. In just two years, not one but two new gleaming yogurt plants have displaced the pumpkins - this in a town where people are used to factories closing, like the Sylvania TV plant in 1980.

Alpina, a company from Colombia, and Muller Quaker, a joint venture between Pepsi and a German firm, have invested 225 million dollars total. They’ve created more than 160 new jobs so far.

Alpina industrial director, Roger Parkhurst, looks on as employees check cups of yogurt for proper sealing. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Alpina industrial director, Roger Parkhurst, looks on as employees check cups of yogurt for proper sealing. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Inside the Alpina plant, there's the sound of machines filling yogurt cups, the smells of adding fruit flavors…

The lovely aroma of mango fruit, and it permeates the whole room, and it’s a great smell.

And the industry-wide belief in more growth to come…

We’re now entering a room that sounds like a cave…

Alpina’s pasteurization room looks like any modern industrial room - disinfected tiles, stainless steel pipes and valves. Just that it’s kind of empty. Alpina’s industrial director Roger Parkhurst, in sanitary whites and a hairnet, says 75% empty, to be exact. The plan is to fill it.

So it sounds like a big echo chamber because there’s hardly anything in this room, cause we’ve got it ready for expansion, which we hope to do in the next couple years.

Production has ramped up so quickly, Alpina has hired in one year the number of employees it thought it would in four. The company’s already bought more land outside to build even bigger.

Parkhurst has been involved in New York yogurt and dairy since the late ‘80s when he worked at the then-Kraft plant in North Lawrence in St. Lawrence County. He says, in his industry, Greek yogurt is a revolution.

Alpina's product is on shelves at stores across the Northeast and parts of the Midwest, including Chicago and Texas. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Alpina's product is on shelves at stores across the Northeast and parts of the Midwest, including Chicago and Texas. Photo: David Sommerstein.
It used to be just fruit on the bottom or Swiss style yogurt. That’s all there was, and it was just a matter of do you like one brand over another brand. Now with Greek, you’ve introduced a whole other element into yogurt. Now you look at the protein, you look at the texture. So, from a yogurt perspective, yes, I think this has been the most exciting thing since yogurt was introduced in the U.S.

And plop – it all fell right in the lap of the likes of Steve Hyde. He directs the Genesee County Economic Development Corporation, which attracted these yogurt plants to Batavia.

When you looked at the big picture and you went, hmmm, the market of consumers from Batavia, New York is 125 million people from a day’s drive.

Chicago, New York City, the whole eastern seaboard. Meanwhile, New York is the country’s fourth biggest milk producing state. And voila!

And you went, oh my goodness… That New York is now the Silicon Valley of yogurt.

The Greek yogurt pioneers, Chobani and Fage, started the boom in 2007-2008. Now there are more than 40 yogurt plants scattered across the state, including an HP Hood plant in LaFargeville, and an Upstate Niagara plant in North Lawrence, where Alpina’s Roger Parkhurst used to work.

Since last summer’s Yogurt Summit, state and agriculture officials have been trying to engineer a comparable revolution in New York’s dairy industry. Governor Cuomo’s led the initiative himself, and the goal seems to be to push 20th century dairying into the 21st century. A recent press release called it “dairy acceleration”.

There’s grant funding for smarter business plans, for modern milking parlors, and for anaerobic digesters that turn manure into electricity. And Cuomo raised the trigger for costly environmental plans from 200 to 300 cows. Both efforts are to encourage smaller dairy farms to grow and modernize.

New York Farm Bureau president Dean Norton says more yogurt plants will mean more demand for New York milk.

The spigot’s going to have to get bigger or we’re going to have a shortage here in New York, and we’re going to be bringing in milk from other states, like Pennsylvania and Ohio and Vermont. I’d like to see New York farmers have the opportunity to fulfill those obligations to those yogurt plants.

The jury’s still out on whether the effort to boost dairy production is working. There aren’t any more cows this year than last year. But what has happened is New York is producing about 3% more milk.

Farmer Shelly Stein says the Greek yogurt boom will help dairy farms grow because they know there will be a stable demand for milk. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Farmer Shelly Stein says the Greek yogurt boom will help dairy farms grow because they know there will be a stable demand for milk. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Farmer Shelly Stein says that’s because a lot of bigger dairy farms are milking smarter. More local yogurt plants means farmers don’t have to truck their milk as far. They’re using the money they save on hauling fees to invest in new technology and bigger, cleaner barns that make the cows more productive.

I now have a stable market and a demand for my milk. It allows us to invest in growing our business, attract our young people back to our farm businesses, and showing a greater investment into what makes us efficient.

But even among the state’s biggest dairy innovators, there’s a level headedness about the New York Greek Yogurt bonanza. John Noble is president of Noblehurst Farms, where they milk more than 1,000 cows.

Our profitability may be more determined by if they’ve gotten rain in New Zealand, or if China decides they don’t want to buy any more milk powder from the United States. That’s going to drive our price much more than what a yogurt plant in Batavia would do.

Still, there’s a comeback vibe in Batavia. Economic developer Steve Hyde says Greek yogurt is just the beginning. The region’s becoming a hub for food processing of all kinds, from Buffalo wing flavored cheese to frozen vegetables to fancy mushrooms. Genesee Community College has launched a food processing training degree.

And so you really have this huge, like rising tides lifts all boats going on.

But what if people get sick of Greek yogurt and move on to the next fad? Well, Upstate isn’t ready to think about another bust just yet.

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