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Industry experts how NYS can seize chance to grow from Greek yogurt

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It’s delicious and nutritious.

That was the catchphrase used by industry experts to explain why droves of Americans have been drawn to Greek yogurt produced in New York state during a panel discussion Thursday at Cornell University in Ithaca. The talk centered on how dairy farmers, processors, educators and legislators can team up to capitalize on the nation’s strong appetite for the product, which is loaded with protein but has a low carbohydrate count.

Experts say the first step toward that goal will be discovering how to entice dairy farmers to produce more milk by increasing their cattle herds. Dairy farmers will need to produce 15 percent more milk than they do now in the next two years to keep up with surging demand, they forecast, because a network of Greek yogurt plants launched here will need the increased output.

Today, there are about 610 dairy farms and 1.4 million dairy cows in the state. But two years from now, cows would have to produce 15 percent more milk than they do now to keep up with demand, said Michael E. Van Amburgh, professor of animal science at Cornell University.

“We could possibly get another 100,000 cows, but that difference will probably be made up mostly by increasing the milk production per cow,” he said. “The hard part about this is it comes down to a farm’s decision. We’re going to have to create an environment for farmers to want to go get more cows.”

While meeting that challenge won’t happen overnight, experts said, wheels already have been set in motion by lawmakers in Albany toward that end. At the Greek yogurt summit hosted by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in August, for example, a key piece of legislation was introduced that would help small dairy farmers with fewer than 200 cattle expand by easing regulations on managing disposal of manure. The number of dairy cows a farmer can own before he needs to enroll as a Concentrated Animal Feed Operation would be increased from 200 to 300 under the plan.

Ideas for legislation discussed at the summit will be used to draft about five bills that likely will be voted on by the Legislature during its next session, state Agriculture Commissioner Darrel J. Aubertine said. Mr. Aubertine emphasized that cooperation will play a critical role among dairy farmers, processors, educators and lawmakers as the state works to pump up the dairy industry. He called Thursday’s forum in Ithaca a case in point.

“We need to take the different facets and players in the dairy industry and have an open, candid discussion without everyone going into their own separate corner,” he said. “There’s a connection between what we’re trying to do in enhancing the yogurt sector as it relates to retail, processing and production. All of us need to be pulling in the same direction.”

William J. Byrne Jr., vice president of Byrne Dairy, Syracuse, said the dairy company is catching up to the Greek yogurt boom. Plans were announced recently for a new yogurt plant and agritourism center in Cortlandville, Cortland County. The 55,000-square-foot plant, which will produce both Greek and regular yogurt, will employ about 65 people.

Mr. Byrne said the $6 billion Greek yogurt industry is expected to balloon to $9 billion in the next five years.

Crucial to the state’s success, he said, will be discovering feasible solutions to help dairy farmers produce more milk.

“There’s a window of opportunity here in the state, and the processors are ahead of the dairy farmers,” he said. “The limiting factor is going to be the dairy farmers, and we have to do everything we can to produce more milk to grow this industry at the rural level.”

Arguably, the dairy industry here has an advantage over the rest of the country as one of the best places for businesses to set up shop, said Patrick M. Hooker, senior director of industrial development of the Empire State Development Corp., a state economic development agency. But he said the state can do a better job promoting that message.

“We remain strong, but there’s plenty we can do with growing businesses and (helping them) see the obvious benefit of being here,” he said. “If you were to look around the world, you won’t find a better place to milk cows and turn them into goods. It’s an excellent location for cow comfort, and we’re a day’s drive away from 60 million consumers across the Northeast. We have a huge amount of consumers in close proximity to milk production.”

Experts say the Greek yogurt boom could be just the beginning of the industry’s progress. Dairy processing plants here can continue to stay on the cusp of the national market by developing and marketing more products tailored toward what today’s consumers want, said Jim Murphy, vice president of quality and R&D for Upstate Niagara Cooperative. The cooperative, which operates five production plants, is owned by 365 farmers across Western New York.

“I think as you see more trends, people are trying to change their eating habits,” Mr. Murphy said. “Yogurt is a product that gives them the nutrition they need with higher protein and lower carbohydrates, without sacrificing flavor and satisfaction. That’s really where we need to be, and I don’t think we’ve tapped the possibilities at all. There will be many more Greek yogurts” to come.

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