Officials say it will be Northeast’s largest milk plant, using 5 million pounds of ‘locally sourced’ milk per day
By Sherry Bunting, published in Farmshine, May 12, 2023
WEBSTER, N.Y. – New York got the nod this week as the “preferred location” where The Coca-Cola Company will build its new fairlife ultrafiltered milk processing plant in the Northeast.
New York State Governor Kathy Hochul made the announcement Tuesday (May 9) that the company selected a site in Webster, Monroe County, New York for the $650 million project, expected to break ground this fall and be operational by the fourth quarter of 2025, pending final due diligence and appropriate approvals.
The 745,000 square-foot facility is expected to create up to 250 new jobs and “utilize an estimated 5 million pounds of locally sourced milk per day, making it the largest dairy plant in the Northeast,” the NYS Governor’s announcement stated.
Founded in 2012 through a “strategic partnership” between Select Milk Producers cooperative and Coca-Cola, with early grants from Dairy Management Inc (checkoff), fairlife is now wholly-owned by Coca-Cola since 2020.
Calling the fairlife project a “major opportunity for New York,” Gov. Hochul said it will “drive economic impact, particularly in the Finger Lakes,” and it will “position New York to regain its spot as the 3rd largest producer of milk in the U.S.”
“The Town of Webster is well situated between high-quality dairy cooperatives in the Rochester and Niagara regions, with a surrounding workforce that has the relevant manufacturing and food and beverage experience, making it the ideal location for fairlife’s expansion,” said fairlife CEO Tim Doelman in a statement at the company’s website.
He noted the new facility will allow the company to “significantly increase capacity and deliver fairlife to more households.”
Empire State Development (ESD) is providing up to $21 million in assistance for the fairlife project through the performance-based Excelsior Jobs Tax Credit Program in exchange for the job creation commitments.
Monroe County Industrial Development Authority (IDA) is expected to apply to the ESD for a separate $20 million Capital Grant, to provide adequate power and infrastructure services to the site. Also collaborating on the project are the Town of Webster, Rochester Gas and Electric and Greater Rochester Enterprise, and NYS Ag and Markets.
ESD Commissioner Hope Knight highlighted Upstate New York’s farm and dairy infrastructure, and Assemblyman Brian Manktelow observed the increased demand for local dairy production and transportation would be additional economic benefits on top of the creation of in-facility jobs.
NYS Ag Commissioner Richard Ball said the decision “highlights the excellence of our dairy community whose farmers will be supplying the milk.”
New York Farm Bureau president David Fisher, a dairy farmer, said the news “is needed for the long-term success of our dairy farms.” He noted the state has 3500 dairy farms, milking 620,000 cows and producing over 15 billion pounds of milk annually with “abundant resources, good land, access to water, and innovative farmers.”
“We were in tough competition with other states,” said New York Gov. Hochul, noting her own heritage coming from a family of dairy farmers in Ireland.
One of the states competing for selection was Pennsylvania.
“While the outcome of this selection is not what we hoped, the Shapiro Administration remains strongly committed to supporting Pennsylvania’s dairy industry and attracting processors to grow here,” said Pennsylvania Ag Secretary Russell Redding in an email response to Farmshine questions Wednesday (May 10).
Redding noted that Gov. Shapiro and teams across agencies were engaged in this project “allowing us to meet fairlife’s criteria for tax climate, resources, utilities, permitting, and incentives.” He reported that Pennsylvania currently makes $15 million in tax credits available annually for dairy manufacturing companies to expand processing in the Commonwealth.
“Just as we were nationally competitive for this project, we plan to be in the running for other selections of this type,” Redding added, thanking all industry and government entities who work on these coordinated efforts to welcome businesses and support agriculture.
When asked specifically about the whether or not Pennsylvania’s state-mandated Class I fluid milk over-order premium (OOP) played any role in the outcome, Redding stated: “The OOP was not a factor.”
The fairlife line includes Class I fluid milk products as well as dairy beverages that fall outside of the Class I criteria into manufacturing milk classes. The company offers a range of products including fairlife ultrafiltered milk, Core Power protein shakes, and fairlife Nutrition Plan meal replacement shakes.
The fairlife products are made through an ultrafiltration process that removes lactose and condenses other solids to raise the protein content while lowering the natural sugar (lactose) content. For flavored beverages, this means more sugar and other sweeteners can be added because the natural sugar content is lower.
According to the New York Governor’s press announcement, this ultrafiltration process “gives milk a longer shelf life.”
All fairlife products carry the UHT mark for ultra high temperature pasteurization, which also increases shelf-life. Some of the flavored fairlife products, such as YUP and CorePower are already offered as shelf-stable beverages in supermarkets and online, so it is unclear whether aseptic packaging will extend to all fairlife milk and beverage products in the future.
Other leaders from the collaborating New York State agencies and organizations highlighted the project expands their goal of positioning New York as a hub for attracting technology and innovation in food and beverage manufacturing.
In fact, the Governor’s press announcement stated that, “The research for fairlife’s branded milk process (ultrafiltration) originated at Cornell University over a decade ago.”
However, the story told by fairlife co-founders Mike and Sue McCloskey, as recently as the 2020 Pennsylvania Dairy Summit, and in earlier meetings, presentations, and published interviews, is that they discovered the reverse osmosis and membrane filtration process when dealing with a well issue on their former dairy in New Mexico.
After seeing what this filtration did for separating minerals in the water to make it more palatable to the cows, they started tinkering with filtration for milk, the story goes.
Select Milk Producers (SMP), also founded by the McCloskeys, then began using reverse osmosis and ultrafiltration as early as 1995 to reduce the water when moving loads of milk to cheese plants. At the same time, they began their high protein, low sugar milk proposition by partnering first with H-E-B supermarkets across the Southwest under the Mootopia brand in 1996 – a precursor to what is fairlife today.
Sue McCloskey explained to Pennsylvania producers at the 2020 Summit that they saw other protein drinks in the market they could compete with by concentrating the protein in the milk.
She said this means that the raw milk going into the ultrafiltration process must be very low in somatic cell counts because the process separates some solids, like lactose, while concentrating other solids.
Products in the fairlife line are currently made at the original SMP ultrafiltration plants in Dexter, New Mexico and Coopersville, Michigan. Newer plants opened in Goodyear, Arizona in 2021 and Petersborough, Ontatio, Canada in late 2020. The latter sources all of its milk from Canadian farms for the Canadian consumer market.
Ultrafiltration is employed by other dairy companies, such as Cayuga Milk Ingredients (CMI) using proprietary European technology to produce unique liquid and dry milk and dairy ingredients for sale in the U.S. and internationally.
Also located in the Finger Lakes Region of New York in the town of Auburn, CMI announced its own expansion last year to break ground this spring on a second facility that will have aseptic packaging capabilities for manufacturing a range of shelf-stable fluid milk, filtered milk, and dairy-based beverage products.