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Benefits of Greek yogurt boom questioned by some farmers

A taste for Greek yogurt depends on the palate.  No arguing the industry even here in the Capital District has made an economic impact but there are concerns the dairy demand is lacking.  New York already relaxed regulations allowing farmers to add more cows to their farms, but not everyone is cashing in on Greek yogurt.

"We're proud that we've had a positive impact on the economic area of Upstate New York," said Russell Evans, spokesman for FAGE dairy.

Some call it more than just a spoonful of support for upstate farmers, from FAGE.

"Yogurt comes from here, it goes to California, all the way up to Maine -- it covers the whole country right out of the Johnstown area," Evans said.

Other companies in the state have expanded out west to fix an urge for Greek yogurt.

When asked if FAGE's future plans included staying in New York, Evans said, "well you can see the amount of investment that we're making here.  The picture tells the story."

This picture will cost FAGE $100 million in the next year and a half.  The state Farm Bureau notices a healthy crop cultivated around the plant.

"It starts with dairy farming but FAGE keeps growing, they keep hiring local workers, and investing in their plant using local suppliers," said Steve Ammerman, Manager of Public Affairs for the NY Farm Bureau.

The plant now has the capacity to produce 85,000 tons of yogurt a year.  By the end of the expansion it'll be 160,000 tons, even more FAGE will be relying on area farmers.

When asked if dairy farms truly benefiting from Greek yogurt manufacturers in New York, farmer John Radliff said, "no.  That's the simple truth.  No."

Radliff calls himself one of the little guys, with forty dairy cows on his farm near Cobleskill, and dairy going to FAGE on weekends.

"I'm not going to stake my business on whether they're buying milk or not.  It's just another market.  A good market.  But it's not going to produce any more money for me," Radliff said.

Ratliff won't be adding any more cows, either, saying it's a risk to meet a dairy demand increase.  "Paying off the loan, the money you'd have to borrow to build a barn, to put on more cows, to work to get extra land whether you purchase it or rent it," Radliff said.

When asked if New York dairy farmers were meeting FAGE's need, Evans said,  "yes.  We've been very happy with New York dairy farmer's ability to meet demand and be flexible as demand has grown."

FAGE will add 150 jobs, bringing the workforce at the plant to 400.  It all started with one shop in Greece, like one little farm in Cobleskill.

Dairy pricing is controlled through a complex system that includes the federal government and dairy cooperatives.  It's a four-class system with fluid, drinking milk the highest priced category -- yogurt milk follows.  The Farm Bureau advocates for a reconstructed two-class system to give dairy farmers better opportunities.

The New York Farm Bureau asked representatives from different dairy cooperatives to respond to concerns that the Greek yogurt boom isn't putting money in their milk check.  In the June issue of the organization's Grassroots newsletter, Dairylea Cooperative Vice President of Communications and Legislative Affairs Karen Cartier said, "it is no secret that Class I demand is declining across the nation and in the Northeast due to declining fluid milk consumption, and if this market were not going to be going in to the Class II market, it would be more than likely be made in to butter or powder at a lower price.  Equally important to farms is the fact that Greek yogurt uses three times as much farm milk than traditional yogurts."