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New York's yogurt no laughing matter

Monday, May 12, 2014
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With all the state's legitimate needs, it would be easy to dismiss the recent state Senate debate over naming yogurt the "official state snack" as the ultimate embarrassing example of how dysfunctional our state government has become.

But if you stop laughing for a second, you'd realize that the debate isn't the far-fetched waste of time some have portrayed it to be. This isn't about snacks. It's about business.

Big business.

New York's dairy industry is a major state employer and revenue generator, ranking third in the country only to California and Wisconsin. In 2012, the state's dairy industry was worth $3 billion, and milk production was responsible for $2.56 billion of it. Dairy production even has a local impact. In the eight counties surrounding Schenectady, there are nearly 450 dairy farms with nearly 57,000 milk cows.

More to the point of Tuesday's debate, there are 29 yogurt-producing plants in New York that manufactured 692 million pounds of yogurt in 2012. At a time when yogurt sales are soaring nationwide ($4.2 billion at last count), New York is the country's biggest producer.

According to the National Agriculture Service, yogurt sales have risen 211 percent since 2001, much of that driven by the 18-34 age group, the marketers' dream demographic, who eat a lot of the stuff for breakfast. Additionally, nationwide sales of Greek yogurt grew by 2,500 percent between 2006 and 2011. About a third of the yogurt sold in the country is now Greek-style, and the nation's largest producer of it, Chobani, is based less than two hours from here, in Norwich, N.Y.

The news for New York's yogurt industry only gets better.

Federal officials are pushing to get yogurt on New York's school menus, and several other states are piloting a program that adds Chobani yogurt to their schools' culinary offerings. As companies find more ways to use yogurt in other food products, the market will continue to grow.

In the same way other states promote their famous products like California wines and Florida oranges, (Idaho, Nebraska, Kansas, Wisconsin and Iowa mention agriculture products right on their license plates), New York can and should use the yogurt craze to boost its reputation nationwide as a major producer of dairy products, specifically yogurt, as well as its other agricultural offerings.

The hour or so that our state senators supposedly wasted debating the official state snack may turn out to be the genesis of a lucrative marketing strategy, similar to how the state now aggressively markets New York-made wine, beer and cheese.

And in the end, it could be the state's economy that gets the last laugh.

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