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Political battle helps cultivate increased Greek yogurt sales

WASHINGTON – When Russia blocked delivery of creamy Chobani Greek yogurt to the Sochi Winter Olympics last year, both of New York’s senators swung into action.

Democrats Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand phoned anyone and everyone who could help free up the 5,000 single-serve containers in cold storage at Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey.

“Chobani Yogurt is safe, nutritious and delicious and the Russian authorities should get past ‘nyet’ and let this prime sponsor of the U.S. Olympic Team deliver their protein-packed food to our athletes and media workers,” Schumer said in a news release.

Ultimately, time ran out and the yogurt was donated to food banks in the New York metropolitan area. Schumer called it “a silver – or gold – lining.”

Although unsuccessful, the effort illustrated the appeal of upstate New York’s Greek yogurt industry in general, and Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya in particular, to Washington’s political world.

Practically unheard of a decade ago, Greek yogurt has taken the dairy-consumer world by storm, from about 2.5 percent of yogurt sales in 2008 to nearly 36 percent this year. And the bulk of the industry is in the upstate dairy belt. Among them: Chobani in South Edmeston, Chenango County; Fage in Johnstown, Fulton County; Muller Quaker Dairy in Batavia, Genesee County; and Buffalo’s Upstate Niagara Cooperative, which markets as Upstate Farms.

For the state, Greek yogurt is more than just a success story. It’s a win-win tale of economic redemption, the industrial phoenix risen from the ashes of closed-down factories in small- and medium-sized towns and cities across the state. From 2011 to 2014, the job count at New York’s dairy manufacturers rose by 1,500 to 9,570, according to data from the state Department of Labor.

In the same time frame, overall manufacturing jobs in New York dropped 1 percent. Chobani employs more than 1,000 at its plant and in an office suite in nearby Norwich.

And although Greek yogurt by itself isn’t enough to totally lift New York’s dairy industry out of the doldrums, its milk-intensive production process has given farmers and milk producers a needed cushion against the vagaries of supply and demand.

In the key period between 2008 and 2013, milk used to make yogurt in New York went from 158 million pounds to 1.2 billion pounds, a seven-fold increase. The state saw a 2 percent rise in milk production last year, and it went from being the nation’s No. 4 dairy state in 2012 to No. 3 today.

Ulukaya’s own story embodies the entire industry’s aspirations, and goes a long way toward explaining the 43-year-old Chobani founder’s appeal to political figures.

An Kurdish immigrant from Eastern Turkey, Ulukaya arrived in the U.S. in 1994 with little other than ambition to live the American dream and memories of the thick, delicious yogurt he grew up eating. In 2005, he received a junk mail flier advertising sale of a closed Kraft yogurt plant in the South Edmeston-New Berlin area. An $800,000 loan from the Small Business Administration’s Albany office helped him buy the plant in 2005 and he began testing and marketing his Greek-style yogurt.

He named it Chobani, Turkish for “shepherd,” and shipped the first batch to supermarkets in 2007. Five years later, Chobani was booking more than $1 billion in sales.

One booster, state Farm Bureau President Den Norton, said the “yogurt empire” was New York agriculture’s answer to California’s Silicon Valley.