Dec. 21 2012 05:00 AM

Dairy industry's optimism soars as the world's largest yogurt plant opens.

A funny thing happened on the way to the new Chobani Greek Yogurt manufacturing plant that the company announced a year ago it would build in Twin Falls, Idaho.
It got a LOT bigger.

By the time the official ribbon-cutting ceremony happened on Monday this week – after a stunningly fast construction time of just 326 days – designers had skipped their initial start-up capacity of 2.0 million pounds of milk per day and jumped to 3.0 million pounds. Instead of 120 employees that were projected at start-up, Chobani already has 300.

Although it is already the biggest yogurt facility in the world, plans are for the plant to get much bigger. The original design called for an ultimate capacity of 6.0 million pounds of milk per day, and there is certainly plenty of room to get there: only 22 acres of Chobani's 200-acre site have been utilized so far (see photo).

For Idaho dairy producers, the plant has been a shot in both the emotional arm and the wallet. The arrival of a huge new milk buyer has drastically increased optimism about the long-term prospects for their industry. More immediately, it translated into higher local producer prices just weeks after the announcement to build was made, as the state's two other largest processors sweetened the way they paid for milk.

Chobani, its owner and its yogurt have taken Idaho by storm, and are right up there with Hewlett-Packard and Albertsons as a darling of the state's economy. In Twin Falls it is already a hometown hero. When construction began, the city's unemployment rate was 8.1 percent. This week it stood at 6.6 percent – and Chobani says it hopes to hire up to 300 more employees by the end of 2013.