Archive for November, 2012

A Greek Chorus

November 29, 2012

On most mornings, my main priority for breakfast is quick and good. Yogurt often fills that bill, especially when accompanied by a helping or more of fresh fruit. I am sure that I am not alone in that opinion. Over the past several months, I have become aware of the fact that Greek yogurt is an increasingly popular form of yogurt. It is also somewhat surprisingly the center of a rapidly growing industry in upstate New York. Even more surprisingly, this industry has both environmental and economic sustainability aspects.

Economically, 2 of the largest brands (Fage and Chobani) have plants in the area. They each buy a lot of milk from the surrounding farms. As the demand for their product has grown, they have each steadily purchased more and more milk from the area. In fact, the yogurt industry in New York State has doubled since 2005. In response, the state of New York put together a “Yogurt Summit” earlier this year. As a result of the Summit, the state is proposing to allow for larger herds before “CAFO” regulations kick in. These regulations apply to “concentrated animal feed operations”, i.e. larger herds. In New York, “larger” means 300 cows vs. the current 200 cow limit. This policy change will allow some of the 800 farms with 100-199 cows to fairly quickly expand their herds (to between 200-300 cows) to handle the increasing demand from the yogurt plants.

I am not sure of the environmental impacts of this change, but I am sure that the State’s other initiative to help the industry will have positive environmental impacts. The plan is to recycle the special characteristics of the whey produced in the manufacturing process into either electricity or fertilizer. Recycling into fertilizer is pretty straightforward. The yogurt plants sell the whey to the farmers, who then use it as part of a fertilizer mix.

The other use for the whey involves huge tanks called anaerobic digesters. These are filled with special bacteria that love, love, love the specific excess acidic whey by-product of the Greek yogurt manufacturing process. In the case of the Fage plant, its whey goes to a nearby wastewater management plant that has one of these digesters. The bacteria eating the whey actually create biogas that the plant’s generators burn to power the facility. These generators came in really handy after Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc with the electricity grid.

The technology is so impressive that the New York Power Authority hopes to spread its adoption by creating incentives for farmers and manufacturers to build the required anaerobic digesters. Gov. Cuomo also plans to advocate for New York’s Public Service Commission (that regulates utilities) to devise a plan to make it easier for the electricity from these digesters to connect to the broader electric grid via lower interconnection costs.

Wow. And I thought I was just enjoying a bowl of Greek yogurt for breakfast. I never knew that my breakfast could have such wide implications.

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