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Yogurt once was Greek to me, but no longer

I led a totally yogurt-free life for years. Make that decades. I enjoyed various puddings and custards, as well as different formulations of cottage cheese. But yogurt? No. Never. It had a sour flavor that offended my taste buds.
In addition to my own experience, I can testify that as far as I know, in the old days none of my friends or relatives were familiar with yogurt, either. There may have been some closet yogurt eaters, but I doubt it.
That has changed dramatically. I am now enjoying yogurt on a regular basis, and so are most of the people I know. The tipping point for yogurt came in 1968 with the repeated airing of a memorable television commercial produced by the Marsteller advertising agency on behalf of its client, Dannon. It focused on the case of a frisky and durable-appearing 100-year-old Russian who attributed his longevity to eating yogurt.
As I recall, he had a long beard and wore a big fur hat and was pictured contentedly downing an ample portion of yogurt. He was very animated, boasting about his vigor, as he addressed the camera directly in Russian, accompanied by English subtitles that translated his raving about the benefits of regular yogurt consumption.
The video was later voted one of the top TV ads of the 20th century, and it apparently aroused the interest of millions, many of whom were as uninformed as I was. There were subsequent similar testimonials in ads and news stories about various Bulgarian, Turkish, Greek and assorted other centenarians, extolling the healthy rewards offered by yogurt. Sales began an upward trajectory and have been soaring ever since, bolstered by the introduction of various tasty flavors.
For some, yogurt has always had a slightly mysterious aura. It is made from cow’s milk treated with bacteria. In other parts of the world, the milk comes from different animals such as goat, water buffalo, yak or camel. The latest yogurt news that attracted attention has been the development of Greek yogurt. I recently found some Chobani Greek yogurt at the supermarket and was surprised when I reviewed the information on the package. I expected it would be coming from some processor in Greece, maybe near Athens.
But no. Chobani is manufactured in New Berlin, N.Y., the headquarters of Agro Farma Inc. If you can’t quite place New Berlin, it might help to explain that it is a suburb of Norwich, not far from places like Amblerville, Sages Crossing, Holmesville and East Pharsalia. Those are communities in Chenango County, southeast of Syracuse and north of Binghamton.
It is in New Berlin that a dramatic business story is being written, highlighting success resulting from cooperation between business and state and local governments. Hamdi Ulukaya, the Turkish-born founder and CEO of the company, started the business after acquiring an abandoned Kraft Foods plant in 2005. Employment there has grown to some 400 workers, and the business has been a blessing for dairy farmers who were struggling for years with stagnant demand for their product. Agro Farma is now buying most of the milk produced in the region and planning to build a second plant, aided by an incentive grant from Empire State Development.
Chobani Greek yogurt is richer and thicker than other yogurt styles because it is strained during the manufacturing process. The straining eliminates the whey, resulting in a velvety texture. More milk is needed to make the Greek style, with three pounds of milk yielding one pound of yogurt. There is some concern at Agro Farma that the nearby dairy farmers won’t be able to meet the anticipated growth of demand. The company now buys and processes 21 million pounds of milk each week; the average cow, if there is such an animal, produces more than 20,000 pounds a year. State agriculture officials are promising there will be no shortage, with New York being the third-largest milk producer in the U.S.
Times are good in Chenango County. That is what I like best about telling the story of Chobani, which is a modification of the Greek word "chopani," which means shepherd. Once faced with the closing of an old factory, the community has blossomed into the home of the largest manufacturer of yogurt in the country. Agro Farma and its workers are happy, the farmers are happy and consumers are happy, too.
I’ve learned a lot about yogurt since the old days. My only remaining question is this: Do I want to eat enough to live to be 100?

Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.

2/24/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

One comment

  1. I wonder if this facility also packs Wegmans label Greek yogurt … that stuff is amazing! I often use it as a dessert cream or filling – it’s that good (and being healthy and fat-free doesn’t hurt either!)

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