Two area lawmakers are taking steps to help local dairy farmers benefit from the demand for milk generated by the growing Greek yogurt industry.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday he will seek a revival of a grant program that supports investments in biodigesters.  

Locally, state Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, said he plans a “mini-summit’’ this year to connect officials and farmers for talks about industry demands and opportunities.

Since 2000, the number of yogurt processing plants in New York has increased from 14 to 29 today, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, and between 2005 and 2011, yogurt plants doubled in production.

Locally, Chobani in Columbus was at the forefront of production and marketing.

Pending changes in regulations governing herd size and in the status of yogurt as a protein under federal nutrition guidelines are incentives for small dairy farms to grow and help meet demands for milk, Schumer said, and funding for biodigesters is another.

Dairies in New York, as they increase herd size to meet milk demand, need to build biodigesters to handle waste and create renewable energy, Schumer said in a media conference call Wednesday.

The Section 1603, which expired at the end of last year, would provide cash for farmers to cover upfront construction costs, he said, and the provision will be included in bills to be considered this year.

Seward said federal support for building biodigesters, which are expensive, could benefit local farmers and would support efforts initiated through the governor’s “Yogurt Summit’’ in August. But biodigesters as an option locally are “just getting off the ground,’’ he said. 

Other topics that must be addressed include marketing and transporting milk, and milk classifications and prices, which he said need to be changed at the federal level.

Seward said he plans this year to have a “mini-summit’’ focusing on the local dairy industry and opportunities to be part of the growth in the Greek yogurt arena.

“We have a lot of work to do to make connections with smaller farms,’’ Seward said Wednesday.

Producing Greek yogurt takes two or three times the amount of milk needed for regular yogurt, said Mariane Kiraly, resource educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Delaware County. Farmers are

happy about demands for that quantity, which may give them “a sense of security,’’ she said. However, yogurt is made with Class II milk, which doesn’t generate the revenues of Class I or fluid milk.

Schumer’s biodigester initiative is among positive initiatives developing for the dairy industry, Kiraly said.

But Kiraly said she hasn’t heard much from local farmers about greater demand for their milk or interest in increasing herd size. She attributed lack of discussion to the need farmers have to cope with low milk prices, high feed prices, weather conditions and the getting through this year and the winter.

Major yogurt producers have been creating and expanding operations  across the state — Chobani in the Southern Tier, Fage in the Mohawk Valley, Upstate Niagara’s facility in the North Country, and Alpina and Muller Quaker in the Finger Lakes, the Department of Agriculture said in a media release.

CAFO rules to change to help meet demand for milk

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations are facilities of 200 or more large animals in relatively small areas. New York state this summer proposed raising the CAFO threshold number of cows from 200 to 300, which would allow smaller farms to add a significant number of new cows without hitting mandatory expenses triggered at 200 animals.

Under the proposed CAFO regulations, 4,455 dairy farms in New York with fewer than 200 cows could increase their herds by at least 100 cows to better meet the demand for milk fueled by the growing Greek yogurt industry, according to 2010 data from Cornell University provided by Schumer.

Locally, the numbers of farms with fewer than 200 cows by county are 174 farms in Otsego, 152 farms in Delaware, 202 farms in Chenango and 82 farms in Schoharie, data from Schumer said.

Bigger operations, bigger need for biodigesters

Small farms may band together to share a biodigester, Schumer said.

Biodigesters convert organic waste into a nutrient-rich fertilizer and biogas, a renewable source of electrical and heat energy. There are 20 biodigesters across upstate New York, from Rensselaer to Chautauqua, ranging in size from facilities supported by a herd of 350 cows to ones with 3,500 cows, a media release from Schumer said. 

“One of the main barriers family farmers face when expanding is the cost and difficulty of disposing of the increased manure,” said Schumer. “Because biodigesters turn this cow waste into clean energy and nutrient-rich fertilizer, they can be an essential part of the plan to enable our dairy farmers to fully capitalize on the Greek yogurt boom.’’

The Section 1603 program has a proven track record of helping dairy farmers, Schumer said.

For example, Synergy Biogas in Wyoming County utilized Section 1603 to receive a $2,372,406 grant that helped the farm to build its co-digestion biogas facility. The Synergy facility converts animal waste from the farm’s herd and food waste from local food processors into energy that reduces the cost of the dairy’s operation, the Schumer release said. The facility also generates enough electricity to power about 1,600 homes.

The Synergy Biogas facility, built and operated by CH4 Biogas, cost about $7 million to construct, John Noble, president and chief executive officer of Synergy Dairy, said during the conference call.

In addition to manure, digesters can also process whey, a byproduct of yogurt production.

Lauren Toretta, vice president of CH4 Biogas, said CH4 Biogas is interested in interested in building three biodigesters. One proposed project is at a 3,000-cow dairy in Oneida County, which is about 30 miles from Chobani’s yogurt plant, the release said.

Chobani spokeswoman Kelly LaCorte didn’t return a telephone message left Wednesday afternoon by 8 p.m.

Another digester under consideration would be in Lowville, Lewis County, near Kraft Foods’ cream cheese plant, which would convert the plant’s food waste and manure from up to 20 nearby dairies into renewable electricity and gas to heat the plant.

The other facility under consideration would be in Linwood, Livingston County, and would be fueled by waste at the Noblehurst Dairy.   

Schumer said these are three of many projects that could more easily begin construction if Section 1603, which was created through the Recovery Act, were revived.

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