New York is serious about becoming the Yogurt State.
If one thing was clear following the first-ever New York State Yogurt Summit on Wednesday, it was that Greek yogurt is more than just breakfast and government officials want to do what they can as soon as they can to expand New York’s role in the industry.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo wasted no time in announcing his first step to making that happen: a proposal to relax dairy regulations so that small dairy farms can add cows and produce more milk.
“These are concrete first steps I feel good about,” he said at the summit. “Changing these regulations will send a different signal that we are serious about this, that we get the role of the state and we want to make positive changes.”
The summit’s name may have garnered a few laughs and myriad dairy jokes, but the idea behind it was much more serious: How can New York capitalize on the exploding national demand for Greek-style yogurt?
Two major producers have manufacturing plants in the Empire State. The hope is that if the government can cultivate the right entrepreneurial relationship with industry leaders, New York could soon be known as the Yogurt State.
Demand is high for the trendy, protein-packed food. Greek yogurt is available in more than just a cup now. It’s being used in granola bars and Ben & Jerry’s frozen yogurt.
Currently, New York is home to 29 yogurt processing plants, a number that has doubled since 2000. New York also produces about 70 percent of the $6 billion worth of Greek yogurt sold annually, with its biggest producer in Chenango County: Chobani. The other big industry player is Fage, which has a plant in Johnstown that continues to expand.
But dairy farms are the linchpin in the state’s plan to grow the industry. If New York farms are unable to produce the amount of milk yogurt producers need to meet demand, these companies will look elsewhere.
Since Greek yogurt requires three times more milk than regular yogurt, state officials and agriculture leaders are more interested than ever in increasing the state’s milk production.
New York-produced Greek yogurt should be made with New York-produced milk, state Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, said at the summit. But the New York State Farm Bureau has said that farmers would have to add 180,000 cows to meet the projected demand for milk.
Kerry Adams would like to help. In fact, she’s wanted to increase milk production at her Ontario County farm for a while, but state regulations have made it nearly impossible for Black Brook Farm to expand its herd beyond the 199 cows it has now.
“We’re at a threshold at this point,” said Adams, who started farming in 1981 with only 60 cows.
For environmental reasons, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations caps the number of milking cows a small farm can have at 200.
“It would be very helpful if you could raise the limit because I don’t feel that our farm is a unique small farm,” said Adams. “I think there are farms out there that want to grow behind the CAFO limit.”
Other farmers echoed her concerns that the cost of complying with CAFO requirements makes expanding their herds too expensive, prompting Cuomo to convene with commissioners behind closed doors. Fifteen minutes later, he was back to announce the proposal to increase the CAFO cap to 300 cows.
The Farm Bureau estimated that there are more than 800 dairy farms currently with 100 to 199 cows that could benefit from the relaxed regulations. If just 10 percent of these farms add 100 cows to their herd, milk production would grow by more than 160 million pounds a year.
“There needs to be strategic and smart state investment to have milk production meet yogurt demand,” said bureau President Dean Norton.
New York Power Authority CEO Gil Quiniones was intrigued by the concept of regional waste disposal systems. Energy costs could be lowered significantly if the state could work with dairy and yogurt industries to create more anaerobic digesters, which turn waste into energy.
“I pledge that I will work with partners in government to look at the incentives structure that we have in place,” he said, noting they would specifically work to help farmers who can’t afford to purchase digesters.
The dairy farmers and agricultural stakeholders in attendance at Wednesday’s summit said it was the first time the state had really brought their voices into the mix.
Milk is what brought Fage to New York in 1998, said CFO Robert Shea.
“We had ample labor out in Johnstown,” he said. “We had access to transportation and a great dairy industry to make our product.”
Shea said he would like to see more state support for the ancillary businesses within the Greek yogurt industry: the transportation workers who haul the product, the whey disposal plant in Johnstown, the people who manufacture the boxes.
“There’s other business as well,” he said, “not just yogurt and milk.”
Chobani CFO James McConeghy had similar thoughts. Government could, for example, consider research and development opportunities in the industry or even figure out a way for the company to be able to purchase the cups it uses for its product within the state.
And when he wasn’t reciting his company’s statistic as America’s No. 1 selling yogurt, McConeghy was telling summit members how increased yogurt production has helped the community back home.
“When you go into New Berlin, you hear people say, ‘Chobani saved this town,’ ” he said. “Foot traffic is way up. You can’t measure it just in dollars. You can see it in attitudes.”