Greek-style yogurt now accounts for about a quarter of all yogurt sales in the United States. Much of it is made in upstate New York, where this low-tech industry is having a big economic impact.
Collins Knoll Farm is home to 650 milking cows, and that is not including over eight hundred dry cows, heifers, and calves waiting their turn. Every day, a tanker truck collects milk from owner Dave Collins and other local dairy farmers and brings it to the Chobani yogurt plant in Edmeston, NY.
Chobani, who holds the title of number-one selling yogurt in the country, 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. Their recently built warehouse sees 1.7 million cases of yogurt pass through it each week.
Chobani spokesperson Kelly Lacorte says that number is pretty close to their production capacity.
“Our demand is so high that we’re just doing our best to keep making enough yogurt,” she said.
The company was started by a Turkish immigrant named Hamdi Ulukaya, who thought America yogurt was too bland, especially compared to the Mediterannean 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 10-12 percent a year. From Chobani to Fage in Johnstown to Alpina in Batavia, Greek yogurt plants seem to be 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 has never seen.
“This is a once in a generation event. Greek yogurt just dropped in and added a whole new component to our diet. From a dairy industry standpoint, it's just seismic,” he said.
New York is the country’s third biggest dairy state, with $2 billion a year in milk sales. Hooker says all that production and know-how, 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, I would say, half a dozen prospects right now and they are in various stages of interest and commitment on the part of companies, we have not peaked out,” Hooker said.
More plants could mean more jobs for upstate NY. Chobani alone employs 1,100 people and says they plan 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. As farmer Dave Collins says, more jobs in the dairy industry in turn help farmers support local businesses.
“You want to stimulate the economy, 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,” Collins said.
While the upstate New York 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 has given them a future.
Katie Gleitsmann reported this story as part of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College. You can read more of the project's stories at their website, nyrp-uc.org.