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Ag tour shows opportunity, challenge for St. Lawrence County

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Eat a smoothie or parfait from a fast food restaurant, and the yogurt may have come from Upstate Niagara Cooperative’s North Country Dairy in North Lawrence.

Yogurt produced at North Country Dairy is sold under private label and under the Upstate brand at Walmart, Safeway, Aldi and Target and on cruise ships, airplanes and school districts across the country.

“We have quite a range of end users and consumers,” plant manager Matthew P. Davis told about 30 lawmakers and other leaders Friday at one stop on an annual tour of important agricultural highlights in St. Lawrence County. “This plant infuses a lot of money into the local economy.”

While most of the milk is not from local sources, the plant’s operation pays for electricians, contractors, lawn care, waste removal and pest control, and its employees eat at restaurants and stay at motels.

The plant was rescued from near-extinction in 2011 by its purchase by Upstate Niagara. A multimillion-dollar capital project to install a centrifuge to expand on the plant’s production of Greek yogurt has just been approved, which is expected to swell the facility’s workforce, now at 53 full-time employees. Another round of hiring is possible by the end of the year.

“The folks here are very busy,” Mr. Davis said.

But the cooperative is not growing mindlessly, even though its has the ability to produce five times its current volume, he said.

“We’re after the right business, the right customers, slow steady growth,” Mr. Davis said.

Knowing when to expand and when to call a halt has been key to the long-term success of Tri-Town Packing in Brasher Center, one of two U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified slaughterhouses in the county. A third USDA-certified operation has opened in Croghan, which should help relieve waiting at peak times of the year.

Tri-Town used to be more seasonal but wanted to hang on to its skilled employees by offering them work year round, said Thomas J. Liberty, one of the owners of the family operation. So it solicited business from Vermont producers who bring 15 to 25 head every week. That limits the availability of the slaughterhouse for local producers during busy times in the fall.

“They’re willing to come over when we need the work,” Mr. Liberty said. “Now we’re pretty much busy all year round and crazy in the fall.”

Juggling the desires of a local food movement looking for more options while having enough work to keep employees on a steady schedule is a challenge.

While competition is good, market share has to be considered carefully, Mr. Liberty said.

“If you build a plant to handle November, somebody’s going to starve in March,” he said.

Tri-Town smokes cheese and produces value-added products, such as meat snack sticks. It has a retail butcher shop, but the meat is not local.

At Christmas last year, Tri-Town sold 140 prime rib.

“That’s 70 beef. What am I going to do with the rest of it?” Mr. Liberty said. “For me to try and market a whole carcass, it’s very difficult. They don’t want that chuck roast for Christmas. That whole local business, it’s very difficult to do.”

The tour, sponsored by the county Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board, the county Soil & Water District, the county Industrial Development Agency, Farm Bureau and Cornell Cooperative Extension, attracted several legislators from St. Lawrence and Franklin counties, Assemblywomen Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, and Janet L. Duprey, R-Peru, and Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh.

“I think it’s important we get out and do this so we actually know what’s going on,” Mr. Owens said. “There is a movement to buying local and we need to know what’s involved.”

The county has room to build on its agricultural resources, said Robert G. Andrews, chairman of the Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board.

“We have so much potential that’s untapped in St. Lawrence County,” he said.

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