Nearly a year after opening a new $32 million cultured dairy products plant in West Seneca, Upstate Niagara Cooperative officials say bigger is definitely better.
The new $32.5 million plant, which opened last May, is twice the size of the century-old plant it replaced on Scott Street in Buffalo and it can process twice as much raw milk.
It also has eight filling lines, more automation and more modern and updated quality and environmental controls that, combined with the merger of the Upstate Farms and Niagara Milk cooperatives last July, has boosted efficiency and given the business greater economies of scale.
"We have to compete in the real world," said Bob Hall, Upstate Niagara's chief executive officer, after an event marking the plant's first year of operation on Thursday. "We have to be efficient, and we weren't as efficient in the old plant."
In all, Upstate's sales grew by about 9 percent last year to about $500 million. The work force at the new cultured dairy expanded by 10 workers to 142 people, while the entire cooperative now employs about 1,000 workers at its West Seneca facility and four others in Western New York, including 300 at its majority-owned O-AT-KA Milk Products facility in Batavia.
The cooperative gives the 420 local dairy farmers who own and operate Upstate the chance to not only collect, bottle and resell their milk, as most dairy cooperatives do, but to also process their milk into more than 275 different products that it then sells.
Those products include Upstate's flagship Bison brand dip, sour cream, cottage cheese, ice cream mix and yogurt products that also are marketed under brand names such as Upstate Farms and Breakstone's, said Dan Wolf, the cooperative's chairman and a local dairy farmer.
The merger of the two local cooperatives also is creating opportunities for additional growth, with the addition of several new customers responsible for the hiring of 10 workers over the last year, said Dudley Chaffee, Upstate's vice president.
The West Seneca plant processes about 110 million pounds of raw milk each year. Much of that milk is turned into sour cream, cottage cheese and dip. But yogurt has emerged as the plant's fastest growing product, distributed to customers in nearly every state, including Alaska.
While it takes less milk to produce yogurt than it does some of the plant's other products, yogurt now accounts for about half of the pounds of output in West Seneca, compared with 15 percent to 20 percent a few years ago, Hall said. Part of that growth is due to four-ounce yogurt packages that the cooperative sells to cruise lines and airlines.
"Yogurt is enjoying a great revival. We wanted to be part of it," Hall said.