Away with the Whey: Chobani Yogurt Puts Rural Idaho in a Stink 

The problem of what to do with the company's acid whey biproduct is causing headaches for neighbors

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Mike and Deb Courtnay can count miles between their neighbors' homes east of Hollister, where nameless, numbered roads stretch straight and remain off the GPS grid. On some days the only sighting of life near the Courtnays' Southern Idaho farmstead comes in the form of deer that wander down the South Hills toward fields of wheat and alfalfa. For five generations, the Courtnay family relished the peace and quiet in what Deb calls the "suburbs" of Hollister.

Then, Chobani moved in.

"Suddenly, we had trucks going day and night," Deb said of the usually desolate sage- and scrub-lined roads, which last spring were filled with tanker trucks on the half-hour trek southwest from the Twin Falls Chobani plant to the outskirts of Hollister.

The trucks hauled the Greek yogurt industry's biggest quandary and a smelly secret: gallons and gallons of acid whey-spiked wash water.

Protein-hungry Americans' love affair with the thick, velvety variety of yogurt brought economic promise to the Twin Falls area last year with the opening of a Chobani processing plant—the largest yogurt factory in the world. According to CNN Money, Chobani revenue went from zero to $1 billion in five years, a growth rate on par with Facebook and Google.

The company also recently received a boost from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's approval of Greek yogurt as a school lunch menu item and Washington, D.C., lobbying efforts that made Chobani a top supplier.

Along with the economic impact that comes with the roughly 1,000 full- and part-time workers Chobani now employs in the area came hundreds of thousands of gallons of acid whey—a manufacturing byproduct of Greek yogurt—to Hollister-area farmland.

The byproduct of this blooming love affair hasn't found the same embrace consumers and politicians extend to the finished product. Chobani reported record earnings while neighbors near its upstate New York plant complained of odors and environmental concerns. And while Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo stood before the press lauding his favorite Chobani flavor and industry public relations tout Idaho as the new yogurt state, Greek yogurt producers search to find a place for the whey that left Hollister-area neighbors desperate for fresh air and answers about the environmental impact of Chobani waste disposal in their community.

Until science catches up with Americans' demands for Greek yogurt, much of Chobani's whey travels south to the farmland that neighbors the Courtnays, where it's dumped into an irrigation pond, mixed with water and applied to fields as a soil amendment.

The whey arrives via tanker truck, suspended in a wash water slurry that picks up traces of whey as Chobani workers douse the factory in water for cleaning. Roughly 86 percent of the whey and wash water concoction that Chobani pays one local business to unload goes to area farmers to use as a feed supplement. The rest becomes fertilizer that seeps into Hollister-area farmland.

"I don't know if you've smelled whey or not. It is nasty. Really nasty," Mike Courtnay said.

"I was raised on a farm that had 3,000 pigs and we had whey," Deb said. "And it is not a bad smell at first, but when it gets hot, it ferments and it's a horrible, horrible smell."

The couple sat in the living room of the dream home they built three years ago, looking through the picture window, trying to describe the smell of whey on a warm day as the southern winds blow across the arid landscape. Just below the South Hills' slope and across an alfalfa field, Mike pointed to two trees. Between them lay the irrigation pond that Reed Gibby bet his future on.

When land next to the Courtnay property went up for sale, Gibby saw economic opportunity. He bought the land, installed the irrigation pond and began filling it with water and Chobani's whey waste.

"Instead of wasting it, let's use it," Gibby said.

That's exactly what he did, applying the whey-infused contents of his irrigation pond to neighboring fields as a fertilizer—a practice he characterizes as an eco-friendly alternative to chemical soil amendments.

"Farmers all over apply acid to soil to release nutrients," he added.

As whey soaked the soil, temperatures climbed and the wind blew across the land, prompting neighbors to grill the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and government officials about noise pollution from heavy traffic, farming rights, disclosure, environmental sustainability and, in general, the smell of the newest operation up the road. The questions paralleled concerns from neighbors near Chobani's New York plant.

"There's the potential for mismanagement that could cause some groundwater concerns," said David Anderson, Idaho DEQ drinking water and engineering manager, noting that while the Gibby operation complies with all state regulations, mismanagement potential remains inherent in any farming practice—pesticides could spill, farmers could over-apply fertilizers and things could leak. And farming almost always stinks, Gibby said.

"You just have to smell it; in my opinion, it's worse than a hog farm," Mike Courtnay said of the whey soaked-fields, whose odor mingled with the spring breeze. Deb likened the aroma to warm, rotting beer.

"Sometimes in the mornings, I can smell it in my house," Mike added.

Protein, Pain and Profit

A cartoon paints a picture of how milk becomes a container of Chobani yogurt. "Our local farmers bring us fresh milk," it says. "We pasteurize the milk ... We add five live and active cultures ... Our authentic straining process removes excess whey ... We fill cups with Chobani ... We deliver Chobani to your local grocer."

Simple enough? The cartoon just leaves out a few steps in the process that have Hollister-area neighbors worried about where Chobani trucks away its whey.

The protein-heavy punch of Greek yogurt comes from a high concentration of solids derived from separating yogurt from its watery whey. Homemakers of Greek yogurt start with a batch of regular yogurt, pack it in cheesecloth and let it strain for a couple of hours. An overnight strain yields cream cheese, and both processes leave a sour, lactose- and protein-laden acid whey that often goes down the kitchen drain.

Where to put industrial-sized portions of whey is more complicated.

Unlike sweet cheese whey, which finds a home as a valuable ingredient in baby formula and bodybuilding supplements, acid whey for the most part finds only two homes—in livestock feed and fertilizer.

It's the latter use of acid whey and milky whey-spiked wash water from the Chobani plant that put Hollister neighbors in a malodorous maelstrom. Where Gibby smells a business boost, neighbors smell a nuisance.

"The fertilizer nutrients in the whey doesn't even pay for the fuel to haul it out here. So they're basically just trying to get rid of it," said Mike Courtnay.

One container of yogurt yields about three containers of whey plus a dose of whey-infused wash water from factory processing. And that 3-1 ratio keeps milk scientists busy.

"Whey produced in cheese making has a different composition, pH balance and nutritional make-up. These differences mean our whey has to be used in an alternative manner than cheese whey," said Chobani spokeswoman Laura Herbert, who noted that the company invests in efforts and research to find more uses for acid whey.

If you step back 30-plus years, cheese producers shared a lot in common with today's yogurt producers. Making cheese produced millions of gallons of whey that had few uses.

"It was used as a fertilizer or in animal feed. That's basically what they were doing with it until the 1970s," said John Lucy, professor and food science director at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research. "Then industry found new technologies to convert this waste product into valuable ingredients."

Generations of babies suckled on formula and body builders buffed up thanks to the extraction of lactose and protein from cheese whey, a sweeter version of whey with a slightly higher pH than its more acidic cousin, yogurt whey, or "acid whey" as it's often called because of its roughly 4.5 pH—an acidity similar to orange juice. Figuring out how to extract and concentrate sweet whey's nutritional components proved so profitable that producers began manufacturing cheese just to sell the whey as a food supplement. The discovery turned the industry upside down, Lucy said, but dairy scientists have yet to discover a similarly useful second life for yogurt's acid whey.

"The Greek yogurt side of [whey] is a new phenomenon in the U.S.," he said.

Few Miss Muffets reside among the American population of dairy lovers and while we'll happily eat our curds, we prefer to pass on the whey.

Traditional European diets include a good dose of Greek-style yogurt, which leaves plenty of acid whey in its wake. Much of the whey becomes fertilizer to neutralize the pH of soil or goes down the hatch in many parts of the world, where beverage producers add sweeteners and flavorings to the whey to create a protein-fortified drink. Sans an American penchant for sipping whey, livestock that can live on whey alone and a technology to convert whey into profitable food products, Greek yogurt companies end up with a lot of whey on their hands.

Market researcher Packaged Facts noted a 50 percent surge in Greek yogurt sales in 2012 at $1.6 billion—an increase that took Greek yogurt from just 1 percent of yogurt sales in 2007 to 35 percent of sales in 2012. Chobani would not disclose Twin Falls production numbers, but told the Twin Falls Times News that the company's New Berlin, N.Y., plant uses almost 4 million pounds of milk to produce 1.7 million cases of yogurt weekly. A Chobani spokesperson told the Times News that the Twin Falls plant would make at least that much yogurt. In an email interview, Herbert said the Twin Falls plant was built with growth in mind.

To yogurt magnates, investors and the Twin Falls community, those numbers translate into prosperity; to those in the Hollister "'burbs," they mean yet more truckloads of whey shipments.

The Way to Hollister, Idaho

Addresses don't mean much in Hollister. And most people drive past it on Highway 93 without stopping. If you've driven to Jackpot, Nev., via Twin Falls, you passed Hollister, population 272. A halfway point between gambling and Twin Falls remains one of its claims to fame, along with the Nat-Soo-Pah Hot Springs and RV Park, to the east.

Absent names and numbers—much less GPS coordinates—for some roads, residents give directions in relation to Nat-Soo-Pah and the big sign telling travelers to head eastward for a hot soak. The local moniker for whole swathes of land often refers simply to the family that lives there, as in, "The Smith Place" or "The Courtnay Place." Some places still bear the names of folks who occupied the farmland in generations past when gopher hunting, canal swimming and trips into Twin Falls kept area youth occupied. Conversation and a handshake go a long way in Hollister and many neighbors step up for each other like family in times of need. Deb Courtnay remembers when the father of a new immigrant family was seriously injured in a farming accident. Neighbors kept the family dairy running for months in his absence.

"We really are genuine people," Deb said of her neighbors. "Most of the farms that are out here have been farmed for generations."

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