The problem of what to do with the company’s acid whey biproduct is causing headaches for neighbors
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 nearChobani’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 chobani.com 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.”
Much of Hollister and the surrounding area quietly slept through decades of state growth, where shells of old buildings from a generation ago still stand and neighbors notice little changes like a new porch addition on a house. Alfalfa, wheat, irrigation and cows still occupy most people’s time. A local ordinance that limits residential building to one unit per 160 acres makes the Hollister area a quiet place, neighbors say.
The quiet ended in March, said Hollister excavation contractor Carl Jones.
The Jones Place sits slightly north and across the road from the irrigation pond that took in shipments of Chobani’s cast-off whey. The loads ran 24/7 and shook Jones’ trailer. In three months, neighbors guess that 1,000 truckloads passed Jones’ home. He couldn’t sleep.
“There really wasn’t anything you can do,” Jones said.
Jones and his neighbors called every government agency they could think of, trying to find solutions to what Mike Courtnay puts in the nuisance category. Calls to Chobani representatives went unanswered. Conversations with Idaho DEQ officials were vague.
“They just played dumb,” Jones said.
Neighbors also wanted answers. What was in the tanks? Was the irrigation pond lined? Why weren’t neighbors notified before the shipments started? What about spills, seepage and water quality?
“It’s going to ruin the aquifer here. We have a very shallow one here. Our water stands at 30 feet,” Deb Courtnay said. “We don’t want to cause problems, but we don’t want our livelihoods to change either.”
Mike Courtnay farms wheat. He also drills wells and said the water level in some areas stands at as little as 4 feet to 5 feet.
“The ground out here is flat and it’s under a layer of gravel. I think eventually [whey] will leak into the soil and it’s going to change the nitrate level that’s in the water,” he said.
As spring wore on, questions went unanswered and business dropped downwind from the irrigation pond at Nat-Soo-Pah.
“There were trucks running all night long and there were campers who complained and pulled out early,” said Nat-Soo-Pah owner Jim Herman.
And the farmland festered.
“I did smell it a couple of times. It was pretty rank,” Herman said.
At one point, a Nat-Soo-Pah maintenance worker thought something had died in the pool’s vacuum room.
Then rumors began to fly.
Neighbors say they heard that government agencies were told to look the other way and let Chobani do what it wants.
“If I hauled 2,000 loads of crap and dumped it in Boise, I’d be sitting in a courtroom,” Jones said.
“They saw [Hollister] as a small little town they could take advantage of. If they dumped [whey] in Twin Falls, they’d have thousands of people screaming about it, rather than 100 or 50,” Herman said. “I can’t fight them, I’m just a little guy compared to them. They look at me and think they can do whatever they want. You’ve seen their factory.”
A way with the whey
Livings don’t come easy in Hollister. Farmers work the water-impoverished region raising dairy cows, growing wheat and feed and tending to the demands of agriculture. Some land jobs at the canal company and other civic offices while a few put their dialect-neutral voices to work at the now defunct Dell call center. There are no McDonalds for teen workers but plenty of factory jobs at the meat packing plant, sugar beet processor and, now, the Chobani factory in Twin Falls.
The December 2012 opening of the Chobani plant earned a nod on the Congressional record, and after touring the Twin Falls plant, Idaho Falls native and Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, who joined lobbying efforts to get Chobani on school lunch menus, gave a broad accounting of his favorite Chobani flavors.
“I don’t know that there’s one kind that jumps out at me more than the others, but I can tell you that the kind I just had was blueberry and it was delicious,” Crapo told reporters.
The company promised the opening of the Twin Falls plant would yield more than 400 jobs, and Chobani reports that it currently employs more than 1,000 full- and part-time workers from the Twin Falls area. Those employment numbers don’t include contract labor from businesses that haul Chobani whey and wash water away from its Twin Falls plant or the jobs Gibby added to his ag business payroll at Carne Inc.
Carne’s Chobani-spurred growth started with the hiring of additional staff, the acquisition of new equipment and the purchase of land just outside Hollister, up the road from Nat-Soo-Pah, slightly north and across the street from The Jones Place and an alfalfa field away from The Courtnay Place. He dug the pond and started filling it with Chobani wash water shipments. It could hold five 6,500-gallon truckloads at a time, and he’s happy to give press tours of the operation, he said.
“It’s a very remote area,” Gibby said of the Hollister area land that holds his irrigation pond and the fields he soaks with the diluted whey wash water. Still, he said, “We want to be a good neighbor. We love our little farming [community].”
David Anderson, with the DEQ, says shortly after those shipments began, he began fielding calls from neighbors.
“We had some concerns; it’s mostly concerns about trucks,” he said.
Neighbors also cite environmental concerns. Leakage, spills and over application hit their radar screens, especially after learning that the Gibby pond isn’t lined.
And toxic worries spiked following New York Post and Modern Farmer reports detailing the hazards of Greek yogurt whey. The articles noted that acid whey holds the potential to turn waterways into a “dead sea,” killing aquatic life and rendering drinking water unpotable.
“If we can figure out how to handle acid whey, we’ll become a hero,” the Post quoted a Greek yogurt producer saying at a recent New York yogurt summit.
Scientist John Lucy sees the concern as akin to worrying about milk that hasn’t spilled. Whey is simply food, he said, and while the pH of yogurt whey puts the semantically charged adjective of “acid” before its name, the byproduct is no more toxic than orange juice.
But Hollister farmers say they wouldn’t pour orange juice into their groundwater, either.
“If it rises the nitrate level of our well, it will be too late,” Mike Courtnay said.
The application of whey and whey-tinged wash water as a fertilizer is certified under the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a soil amendment and the Gibby operation complies with all environmental regulations, Anderson said. Calls by neighbors to planning and zoning officials, county commissioners, city leaders and state representatives yielded one answer: Farming sometimes stinks and the Chobani way with whey falls under Right to Farm protections.
Some neighbors think that justification stinks, too.
“The waste water that comes out of a factory is totally different than an agricultural product. It’s industrial waste,” Jones said. “The dairy lobby is so strong and I don’t think they’ll get any laws to change.”
According to Mike Courtnay, “I think the only thing we can do is go to court over a nuisance suit.”
Some Chobani representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment, others shuffled Boise Weekly‘s request for an interview around before corporate spokeswoman Laura Herbert agreed to answer pre-submitted questions about the company’s Twin Falls operation and the Hollister area whey disposal contract.
“Chobani is committed to being a good community partner. That extends to the responsible use of whey, which is a natural byproduct of our authentic straining process,” read a written statement Chobani issued Boise Weekly.
“We do not, nor have we ever ‘dumped’ our whey in a manner that is harmful to the environment,” the statement continued.
Hollister neighbors said they started seeing some movement over their concerns when Hollister city officials raised questions about the potential threat of acid whey to the city’s groundwater supply. Hollister Mayor Dixie Choate, who could not be reached for comment, called a June town hall meeting, drawing out Chobani officials, Gibby and roughly 40 neighbors who quizzed the companies about odors and operations.
“People were concerned about the issue,” said Rick Dunn, Twin Falls County Planning and Zoning administrator. “They addressed the issue.”
Neighbors said they came away with a different impression of the meeting.
“They said, ‘We’re going to keep doing this but we’ll be nicer about it,'” Jones said.
The meeting yielded some concessions, Gibby said. He agreed to stop night shipments, reroute trucks to avoid high traffic past neighbors’ homes, add odor-reducing amendments to the wash water and line the irrigation pond.
“In my opinion, we’ve gone above and beyond what we need to do, and I want to do more,” Gibby said.
On a mid-July day in the Hollister outskirts, the roads stood desolate and the air smelled of cattle and 99-degree baked dirt and sage. The whey wash water shipments stalled for a moment. The supply just wasn’t coming in, Gibby said.
“Upon receiving inquiries from citizens in Hollister, we worked in partnership with our contractor to slow hauling to the Hollister site in order to allow time to fully assess and address the concerns of the community,” Herbert wrote.
Other cattle feed and fertilizer contracts, along with supplemental anaerobic digestion, processes much of Chobani’s whey and wash water for now. And for the moment, Hollister-area neighbors cling to their respite of quiet and fresh air.
“Currently, there’s no need to go to Hollister,” Gibby said. “When there’s a need, we’ll go there. There’s just no need now.”