Cornell Shows Off New Dairy Facilities

6/15/2013 7:00 AM
By Amy Halloran New York Correspondent

ITHACA, N.Y. — Cornell University is in the midst of a $106 million renovation and new construction project to update the Stocking Hall Dairy Facility, which is also home to the department of food science.

The old dairy bar closed in August of 2010, and construction began in November of that year. The new dairy bar will open in July, and the plant will be completed sometime this year.

“The building was quite old,” said Jason Huck, the general manager of dairy operations. “We didn’t have the facilities to do what we require as one of the top food science research schools in the whole country.”

This is the first phase of the project. The second will be a renovation of the original Stocking Hall tower itself, where administration offices will be housed, along with small classrooms and a sensory lab for consumer testing.

The dairy plant is a portion of the new facility, offering a very prominent face on a main road through campus. The two-story building has a glass front, making visible a network of stainless steel pipes, tanks, tubes and conveyor belts. The conveyors will deliver ice cream containers and bottles into the plant in a useful but also visually striking way.

If the old dairy bar was homey, this one feels clean and contemporary. Food sold will include the plant’s ice cream, pudding, fluid dairy products, cider, and also standard cafe items such as soups, sandwiches and coffee. The ingredients will focus on local foods, sourced by Cornell Dining, the on-campus food service group.

The public space on the first floor will feature tables and chairs, and a retail store that will highlight products of the facility, such as Big Red cheddar cheese and wines from the winery. Upstairs, an observation gallery allows for the public to intersect with the dairy plant, serving the school and Extension’s outreach mission. The gallery offers a full view of the processing equipment, and a wall of video terminals will tell the story of milk from grass to glass and cow to cone, with live videos from the farm and plant, photos and informational slide shows.

The processing facility supports the teaching, research and Extension activities of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. This support takes on many shapes, through hands-on experience for student interns and members of the public who are looking to develop a product or skill — say artisan cheesemaking — and also financially, by manufacturing dairy products sold at the dairy bar and elsewhere on campus.

The college is currently developing a dairy undergrad major; right now, students can earn one or two credits through an internship at the plant, working side by side with staff. Students at the graduate and undergraduate level also work on product development, studying microbiological challenges and hurdles dairy producers face, such as how to maintain milk quality and extend shelf life of fluid milk and other milk products.

One notable achievement of the program has been extending the shelf life of cottage cheese products by identifying microbial growth in the curd dressing, and coming up with a solution — the use of carbon dioxide in the dressing — to stabilize the dressing and curb spoilage.

A full time team of seven people does all the work in the plant, bringing in raw milk, processing it into various products and packaging and distributing those products on campus. One and a half million gallons of milk from Cornell’s two farms — a small farm on campus and a research farm 15 miles away — become 20,000 gallons of ice cream a year along with lots of other dairy goods. The plant also pasteurizes 30,000 gallons of apple cider from Cornell orchards.

The dairy plant has a lot of different types of equipment, from extended holding tubes offering continuous pasteurization, and batch tanks. A fruit feeder injects chips, nuts and candies, and variegate pumps inject sauces into the 19- to 21-degree ice cream exiting the continuous freezer. A human machine interface shows how all the automated systems operate.

The new facility contains a conference center and food science classrooms, where, for example, students can take apart small-scale equipment to understand their functions.

The new dairy plant is controlled by an automated system. Web-based software available in the classrooms breaks down the processes involved, showing how the software monitors temperatures when the tanks are empty or full and other variables.

The new building incorporates the food processing development lab built in 1989. This is a flexible space for applied research where a faculty member can investigate production methods or staff can work on contract products from clients. The lab will take a concept developed on a kitchen counter and build the recipe and process for commercial production, from food safety issues to scaling up amounts for factory scale. The plant can manufacture samples of the product for consumer testing at Cornell or in a marketing trial.

“Today, they’re making Big Red cheddar,” said Huck as he showed the lab. “Cornell had made cheddar in the past. With the growing interest in artisan cheesemaking, there was an impetus to bring that operation back into the facility.”

Now, people can come in and work side by side as the cheese is made, learning in private workshops. Mostly the lab works with companies in state and in the Northeast, but people have come from as far as Minnesota to study dairy processing.

“We get calls looking for technical assistance,” Huck said. “ I have a dairy farm and I’d like to process my own milk — what’s it going to take?’ Or farmers look for advice on getting into value-added production.”

The plant is permitted by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and can package samples for customers. They are not a long-term option for processing, though, but can do a limited number of runs to help an operation start up.

“Our goal is to support industry with cutting-edge research and practical outreach,” said Huck.

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