Competition aims to hasten dairy product innovation

A new competition will enable agricultural entrepreneurs to introduce new dairy products for consumers, ultimately boosting dairy sales in New York state.

The state Department of Agriculture and Markets, the New York Dairy Promotion Order (DPO) Advisory Board and VentureFuel have introduced a new startup competition, MilkLaunch, focused on accelerating product innovation for dairy products statewide.

The competition includes more than $200,000 in awards, including providing $15,000 to support four finalists in perfecting their product via lab time, customer insights, research and elite mentorship from global experts across the consumer products, retail and dairy industries. The grand prize of $150,000 will be used to accelerate the winner(s) of the competition to get to market and drive dairy sales.

“We want to inspire the dairy community in New York, from large operations to small family-run farms, to put forth new ideas and unique products while inspiring global beverage entrepreneurs to unleash their creativity on the milk category,” said VentureFuel Founder Fred Schonenberg. “Our goal is to rethink what is possible and to deliver exciting milk-based products that customers will love.”

The dairy industry is the largest single segment of New York’s agricultural industry. The state has nearly 4,000 dairy farms that produce nearly 15 billion pounds of milk. It is the fourth-largest producer of milk, the largest producer of cottage cheese and sour cream and the second-largest producer of yogurt.

The DPO Advisory Board, a 10-member board that advises the state Department of Agriculture on the allocation of milk producer funds, supported the project as part of its 2020 goals to promote and increase the consumption of New York milk and dairy products.

“The Department (of Agriculture and Markets) is excited about the kick-off of MilkLaunch, which was enthusiastically supported by the DPO Advisory Board members,” said state Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball. “I believe that for any industry to grow and thrive, we must always listen to our customers and be ready to adapt and change to meet their demands. This competition builds on that idea, fueling the innovation of the next great dairy product to provide consumers with a new and fresh way to enjoy the delicious flavor and health benefits of milk and boost the New York dairy industry.”

Finalists will have an opportunity to collaborate with top food scientists from Cornell University’s Food Processing Development Laboratory and Sensory Evaluation Program to improve their product’s safety, quality, labeling and product marketing practices. During the process, finalists can access the expertise the Cornell team has gained from tens of millions of dollars of NY Dairy Promotion Advisory Board-funded dairy research through the Milk Quality Improvement Program (MQIP) and Northeast Dairy Foods Research Center.

“New York is an ideal place for dairy innovation, especially with Cornell research, processing and product resources available to startups and entrepreneurs,” said Dr. Nicole Martin, associate director of Cornell University’s Milk Quality Improvement Program. “We look forward to working with VentureFuel to identify and support new dairy product development in New York.”

The competition is for early-stage applicants ranging from idea-stage to existing new products. Products must contain at least 50 percent fluid milk, have sales of less than $250,000, and the winners must commit that all milk will be sourced from New York producers for at least 12 months.

Entries are open to all including dairy farms, processors, producers, entrepreneurs, academics and ideators. In addition, VentureFuel will tap into its worldwide network of more than 500 venture capitalists, seed investors, founders and university labs to help discover applicants.

Competition rules and application documents are available at and the deadline for application is Sept. 15.

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Local ice cream makers move toward non-dairy products

In April, Perry’s Ice Cream released a line of oat-milk-based frozen desserts that are dairy-free. In June they started sending out frozen yogurt laced with vegetable purees.

Robert Denning, president and CEO of Perry's Ice Cream
Robert Denning, president and CEO of Perry’s Ice Cream.

This week craft ice-cream maker Eat Me Ice Cream was blending locally grown black currants into a coconut-based ice cream, having recently reached an agreement to supply 61 Wegmans stores in seven states with dairy-free ice cream.

Both businesses are demonstrating that milk and cream are no longer the end-all and be-all of the ice cream world.

Perry’s, a regional giant based in Akron, Erie County, that delivers its ice cream to 8,000 retail locations, and Eat Me, which crafts batches of ice cream sandwiches, pints and quarts in the Hungerford Building near downtown Rochester, are catering to a new breed of customers that eschews dairy products.

“Clearly this is a consumer-led transition,” said Andrew M. Novakovic, professor of agricultural economics at Cornell University. “There are (ice cream) companies that are purely 100 percent plant based. A number of startup companies were trying to spearhead this,” he said. But now companies that have dealt exclusively in dairy products for decades are adding on oat-based or nut-based ice creams, too.

“They’re saying if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” Novakovic said. “Dairy companies are basically saying if we stick to our conventional products we’re going to see our sales decline.”

Other dairy companies like yogurt-maker Chobani have started offering non-dairy alternatives, he noted, and the same is true of meat-based product manufacturers.

“If you look at consumer surveys, there aren’t many of us who are 100 percent vegetarian or vegan,” Novakovic said. Perhaps 10 percent or fewer are eating that way. However, “there’s a considerably larger number or percentage of the population that says, ‘I’m trying to cut back.’ They don’t want to go meatless but they feel it would be desirable to cut back for two or three different reasons.”

This trend is particular strong among millennials, with Generation X not far behind, he said.

Perry's dairy-free ice cream
Perry’s dairy-free ice cream

Perry’s probably could ignore the non-dairy movement safely for a little while longer. Even without an oat-based frozen dessert, Perry’s had been growing by leaps and bounds. The company reports that sales went from $90 million four years ago to $130 million in 2018. Since 2017, Perry’s expanded sales into Virginia and Ohio, and added Wegmans stores in Maryland.

“We’re growing, in spite of whatever non-dairy, non-milk alternatives are out there,” said Robert Denning, president and CEO of Perry’s. But the company has always kept an eye out for consumer trends, reacting to the zeitgeist by introducing limited-edition flavors such as “Bad Breakup” and “Berry Into You” before Valentine’s Day.

“We’re taking a global look at consumers. The diversification of our portfolio aligns with many diverse consumers,” Denning said. “Consumers are much more segmented and niche, looking for different products. It’s no longer a one-size-fits-all in this business.”

The oat-milk products, known as Oats Cream, are geared to appeal to people who want a rich, flavorful and premium dessert that does not include dairy products. Flavors include Coconut Caramel, Oat Latte, and Peanut Butter Coffee Cake, but not vanilla and chocolate because Perry’s felt the basics had already been covered in non-dairy treats.  The new frozen yogurt treats make use of probiotic yogurt, swirled with sorbet made from fruits (strawberries, raspberries, watermelon and grape) and vegetables (sweet potatoes, purple carrots and orange carrots.)

“These products are accessible for health-minded foodies, parents seeking healthier snack options for their children and traditional frozen yogurt consumers alike,” said Gayle Perry Denning, vice president of strategic branding and corporate sustainability for Perry’s.

Robert Denning noted that eating patterns have changed so that people are snacking more. As a result, some consumers are looking for healthier snacks. Perry’s frozen yogurt novelties, such as the Yo Buddie Bars, appeals to this niche by offering a less processed treat with 80 calories.

While Perry’s gets nearly all of its milk and cream from within a 150-mile radius of its Akron plant, it has also been able to source its oat milk locally, too, as the Elmhurst Dairy in Elma, Erie County, has switched to processing oats after operating a dairy for 90 years.

From left, Catelyn Augustine and Amber Odner, co-founders of Eat Me Ice Cream.
From left, Catelyn Augustine and Amber Odner, co-founders of Eat Me Ice Cream.

Eat Me Ice Cream, founded by Amber Odner and Catelyn Augustine in 2011, started out producing about half of its products with milk and the other half with coconut milk. Demand for a high-quality, non-dairy product has driving growth of the non-dairy, (or, as Odner says, plant-based) portion of Eat Me’s business to 90 percent of its output.

“The primary reason for more plant-based is because we’re really committed to that and believe it’s a fast-growing category,” Odner said.

Until recently, Odner said, there haven’t been a lot of high-quality, plant-based ice cream options. Some that existed tasted as if they were for people on a restrictive diet.

“We cater to food lovers that (crave) an indulgent category,” Odner said. The high-fat, super creamy coconut milk that forms the base of Eat Me’s plant-based ice cream provides a richer experience than some other vegan options.

It is sometimes hard to provide the same experience with cow’s milk and cream, Odner said, as small producers like Eat Me have a hard time sourcing the super-premium milk they require. She and Augustine are hoping to grow just large enough that they can source their cow’s milk from a dedicated farm, she said.

Eat Me ice cream
Eat Me ice cream

In the meantime they’re busy expanding the plant-based line. Flavors of dairy-based ice cream are often about the kind of chunks added in – nuts, cookie bits or chocolate chips, she said. But Eat Me mostly flavors the ice cream directly with black currants, lavender and ginger, for instance, rather than adding chunks.

Consumer response to Eat Me’s line of plant-based ice creams has been quite positive, Odner said, as public discussions of food allergies and how food is processed have grown and become more commonplace.

“Just with the craft foods movement, fewer people are shocked by the idea that it’s dairy free. More people are interested in trying it. More people are looking for it,” Odner said.

Novakovic said dairy processors are finding that non-dairy milks can be easier to handle, as they’re not as perishable as cow’s milk.

“When you’re dealing with milk or cream or other liquid dairy ingredients, you can’t fiddle around with when you process that,” he said. “It spoils. If you get a bunch of soybean meal or crushed almonds in your plant, that can stick around for a while.”

On the other hand, consumers may not realize that plant-based dairy products might have been sitting on a shelf for a while before they reached them, he said, or have been ultra-pasteurized to lengthen their shelf life.  Dairy products are basically made every day and shipped daily to grocery stores. Non-dairy milk products might arrive just once a week.

Nevertheless, non-dairy milks are growing in popularity to the point that their sales are roughly equal in dollar value to cow’s milk, Novakovic said. Plant-based milk tends to be priced much higher, though, so the volume of cow’s milk sales is still higher. He estimated that today about one-third of sales are non-dairy milks, while the rest are cow’s milk. Four years ago, non-dairy milks represented about 10 percent of sales, he said.

There’s no denying the growth swing, he said, but the dairy industry has seen big pendulum swings in the past. A couple of decades ago, many consumers preferred margarine to butter, feeling margarine was healthier because it didn’t contain cholesterol.  “There was a period when butter almost vanished,” Novakovic said. That completely changed after the discovery of harmful trans fats that are created by making vegetable oil into solid margarine form. And more consumers are willing to consider butter an indulgence now.

Non-dairy forms of cheese first became available about 50 years ago as a cost-cutting measure, he noted. But plant-based cheeses have largely failed to catch on in the general population for reasons of taste.

Cheese is a huge driver in the dairy industry because milk that isn’t consumed in liquid form often is used to make cheese, a product with a much longer shelf life. A cheese alternative that tastes good could indicate a lasting interest in plant-based dairy products and present a threat to dairy producers.

“If you see people going to alternatives with cheese, that’s going to be a very difficult proposition for the dairy industry,” Novakovic said.

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Local farms produce line of cheese sustainably

A collaborative of eight farms in Livingston and Wyoming counties has released a line of cheeses under the Craigs Creamery brand, promoting the products’ sustainability.

Craigs Creamery cheese i-- chunk, slices and shredded -- is produced by a collaborative of local farms.
Craigs Creamery cheese

The cheeses are made from milk delivered from the members’ farms to their production plant at the Noblehurst Farm in Linwood, Livingston County. The plant runs on electricity produced on the same farm by a biodigester that turns manure from the member farms and food scraps from restaurants and Wegmans into methane that generates electricity.  

“At Craigs Creamery, we’re focused on the future of farming, which is why we’re constantly seeking new methods to reduce our carbon footprint,” said Chris Noble, a seventh-generation farmer at Noblehurst.  “From the bio-digester to solar panels to recycling water waste, we are investing in sustainable methods and working toward becoming a zero-waste operation.” Since the digester began operating five years ago, 20 million pounds of food scraps have been diverted from landfills, Noble said.

The brand is also emphasizing the local nature of the process, from locally produced feed for the cows to the plant being situated minutes from all of their farms. Retail outlets offering the cheese, however, are not yet local. Craigs Creamery is being introduced in Giant, Stop & Shop and ShopRite stores, a footprint that ranges from New England to Virginia. None of those stores has an outlet in the Rochester area.  

“With Craigs Creamery, consumers get to know where their food comes from and can have confidence it was sourced responsibly — features that are highly important to today’s consumer,” said Frank Mariello, general manager at Craigs Creamery. “Now they can experience farm to table cheese and the goodness of family farming in the convenience of their grocery store.”

The cheese is available in Swiss, muenster, mozzarella and cheddar, with some in chunk form, others in slices or shredded.

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State fair opens with an ice-cold Expo Center and old favorites

Now here’s a landmark event: the butter sculpture at the New York State Fair, which opened Wednesday, is 50 years old.

Not the sculpture that’s on display at the fair this year, of course. What’s 50 years old is the tradition of sculpting a whole mess of dairy fat into a revolving piece of artwork and putting it a refrigerated display case.

The 50th anniversary sculpture is a double scene. One on side, a woman is buying milk in a store. And through the dairy case walks a male farmer, who emerges from the other side – a farm represented by a calf and small boy taking a selfie with it. Agri-tourism, anyone?

Two arm wrestlers compete at the State Fair last year. (Photo by John Haeger-NYS Fair)
Two arm wrestlers compete at the State Fair last year. (Photo by John Haeger-NYS Fair)

The massive state fair, which brings you the butter sculpture and many fried foods on a stick and celebrates agriculture and a few other things, runs through Labor Day, which falls on Monday, Sept. 3, this year.

As usual, the fair is full of old favorites and brand new things. You can still get an ice-cold cup of milk in the dairy building, and a giant baked potato in the horticulture building, both for next to nothing.

One of the bigger new things is the new Empire Expo Center, a 136,000-square-foot convention center and arena, constructed entirely since  December 2017. At the opening ceremonies for the fair Wednesday morning, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared the building the largest exposition center in the Northeast.

The center has been made into an ice rink for the duration of the fair. An exhibition game between the junior teams of the Buffalo Sabres and the New York Islanders was scheduled for opening day in the $63 million building.  Fairgoers could try curling on Thursday and Friday. A broomball tournament will take up both days this weekend. In order to showcase the building, the fair has scheduled events there every day, including a “wedding on ice,” on Sept. 1.

The building is expected to be a year-round attraction, which Howard Zemsky, State Commissioner of Economic Development, said will “transform the fairgrounds into a year-round destination, unlocking the full economic potential of the fairgrounds and this region.” With 4,000 retractable seats, the building can accommodate live sporting events, 500-booth trade shows and any number of indoor events.

Cuomo said the fair is a metaphor for the state’s economy. “If you’re going to build a new economy, you have to start by building a new infrastructure and attracting those jobs.  Everybody knows that, every president has said it, it just doesn’t happen. In New York, we made that happen.”

The governor said he used to accompany his father, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, to the fair and noticed each year it was “just a little older and a little more deteriorated.”  He would think, “‘Why don’t they do something? What a phenomenal facility…. Why aren’t they doing anything?’ ”

Government is about doing things, Cuomo said. That includes the fair’s orange parking lot, which used to be a pock-marked gravel lot accommodating 4,000 vehicles. Now it’s paved and marked for 7,000 cars.

All the improvements, though, aren’t taking away fair traditions:  the midway, musical acts, free samples, animal competitions, and the Iroquois village.  There is still a day highlighting dairy products (Aug. 30).

New days this year highlight Concord grapes (Aug. 23,) maple products (Aug. 27) and anti-stigma (Aug. 31) with activities on awareness of substance abuse and free training in the use of Narcan, an antidote to opioid overdose.

There will be a choreographed drone light show every night except Sept. 3 at 9:30 p.m., calling attention to the new state-designated “Drone Corridor” in central New York. The state is investing in drone technology as an economic driver in the corridor stretching from Syracuse to the Mohawk Valley.

The annual food truck competition, in which some 50 vendors offer $3 samples to fairgoers, will include 18 new entries Sept. 1 and 2. The new trucks include Abbott’s Frozen Custard, Roc City Sammich, and Kona Ice from Rochester.

Musical acts will dominate two stages – Chevy Court and Experience Stage.

The Chevy Court includes headliners Hanson, Blondie, Counting Crows, Smokey Robinson, and Ludacris.

Experience Stage will feature tribute bands, all women-bands, a lineup of Latino bands, Eddie Money and some talent showcases.

And if fairgoers are too tired – or have sampled too many New York-made beers or wines – they can ride home on the Amtrak train that stops at the fairgrounds on fair days.

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