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Got Milk?: As the longed-for reopening of the Dairy Plant nears, CU hosts a ‘yogurt summit’


For rival sports teams, “cow college” is a handy alliterative epithet for anti-Big Red rabble rousing. But the joke’s on them: Cornell has long been proud of its agricultural bent, from the cider pressed at the Orchards to the blankets made from homegrown wool to the ever-popular recipe for Cornell Chicken Marinade.

In November, the University hosted an event unlikely to unfold in Cambridge or New Haven: a roundtable discussion on the yogurt industry. Held in Clark Hall and streamed online, it featured a dozen participants including dairy industry and retail executives, state officials, and Cornell faculty. New York, as one speaker noted, offers ideal conditions for dairy farming—natural water sources, ample forage, the cool temperatures that bovines favor. Said Patrick Hooker ’84 of the Empire State Development Corporation: “It’s a very excellent location for overall cow comfort.”

The event, organized by CALS, was a follow-up to the “yogurt summit” that Governor Andrew Cuomo held in August. And in New York, yogurt is big business: the number of processing plants in the state (twenty-nine) has more than doubled since 2000. The amount of milk turned into yogurt has skyrocketed, from 158 million pounds to 1.2 billion—mostly due to America’s burgeoning yen for Greek-style yogurt, which requires three times as much milk as the conventional type. Currently a $6 billion-a-year industry in the U.S., Greek yogurt is expected to grow to $9 billion in the next five years—and panelists denied that it’s just another food fad. “It’s really a—no pun intended—culture change,” said Cathy Gaffney ’89 of Wegmans, the Rochester-based supermarket chain.

milk plant

Lisa Banlaki Frank

The yogurt confab included a stop at the dairy pilot facility in Stocking Hall, where senior extension associate Rob Ralyea, MS ’98, offered a tasting of five yogurt incarnations, from conventional to “curdy” (poorly blended) to Greek. Then visitors donned red hard hats and safety goggles for a tour of the dairy plant currently under construction; the project is part of a $105 million renovation of Stocking Hall, the dairy science building that opened in 1923.

Manager Jason Huck, MS ’06, offered a backstage look at the 12,000-square-foot plant, which will process and package milk, ice cream, juice, yogurt, pudding, and more. Its main production floor features floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on Tower Road, plus a gallery where visitors can gaze down on workers tending to the giant steel tanks—design features aimed to strike a balance between accessibility and sanitation. “As an educational facility, our goal is to bring people in,” Huck said. “But as a processing facility, our goal is to keep people out.”

Dairy Store fans, take heart: the shop, closed since mid-2011, is set to reopen sometime between March and May. It will feature more retail space, indoor-outdoor seating, and wi-fi, with a twelve-foot-tall wire milk bottle out front. Store mascots Cornellia and Cal—the fiberglass bovines that were cow-napped in 2006 and eventually returned—will be back, albeit more firmly secured. “They’re in a barn for the winter,” Huck said—precise location, undisclosed.

But more to the point: Cornell’s long ice cream drought is nearing its end. Asked about the ETA of Big Red dairy desserts, Huck flashed the tight smile of the eternally put-upon. “I’m being pressured to have ice cream available for Commencement and Reunion,” he said, “so we’ll have to have at least one flavor.”