by Sally Colby
Anyone who has been to the North Carolina State Fair has probably tried Howling Cow™ ice cream. Traditionally, the fair has been one of the few places to get the well-known dairy treat, but that’s about to change. North Carolina State University is poised to establish a state-of-the-art dairy processing system that begins at the university’s own dairy farm and ends at an educational center designed to show how dairy products go from the barn to the plate — or dish.
Gary Cartwright, director of the dairy enterprise system at the university, says although North Carolina State has both a working dairy farm and a food science department, there was almost no coordination of the two. “Several years ago, the dairy industry in North Carolina wanted to expand our capabilities,” he said. “For years, we processed on campus, and sold products to other state agencies such as mental health hospitals and prisons.”
Cartwright says the North Carolina dairy industry approached the state legislature and obtained a specific exemption allowing dairy products produced in the university facility to be sold from the North Carolina State campus to the general public. “The revenue must come back to this department,” said Cartwright. “They closed that loop. That started us in the process of planning the facility.”
The project includes a new two-story addition that will be constructed adjacent to Schaub Hall, the food science building. The addition will include a dedicated training center for dairy and food-related short courses. Cartwright says the entire facility will be open and accessible, with education as the focus. Plans for the project have been in the works for several years, but no taxpayer dollars have gone toward the project. The Feldmeier Dairy Processing Lab in Schaub Hall is currently used to teach a popular farmstead cheese course and will soon offer an ice cream curriculum similar to Penn State’s well-known ice cream short course.
“If we don’t integrate education of students and the industry and outreach to the public about what dairying and dairy foods are about, we’re sidestepping our mission,” said Cartwright. Plans also include a live video feed of the processing plant so that visitors can see what’s going on there without compromising food safety and biosecurity.
Cartwright says with the Howling Cow™ branding in place, the next step was to involve the campus graphics department to develop a logo. Although no academic dollars will go toward the operation, the entire facility will be available for research. The plan includes upgrades to the dairy farm include a new milking parlor and a renovated freestall barn, with plans for a visitors’ center, museum and classroom.
Students who take classes at the Feldmeier Dairy Processing Lab start their education with a thorough education in biosecurity and proper sanitation for a food processing facility. “With the quality control lab, staff and students can test for residual antibiotics and microbes,” said Cartwright. “The ice-cream making section of the lab is relatively small, but well-equipped. With this equipment, we can do a tremendous number of flavors.”
Cartwright pointed to low-fat half pints that are for the state prison system, and noted that when state institutions switched to skim and low-fat dairy products, there was a surplus of milk fat. “That’s what drove the whole new business model,” he said. “We can make more value-added products such as cheeses, yogurts and ice cream, and students can learn a lot more. We want student teams to drive product development, labeling, marketing, design and packaging. Students are doing this work in a real-world environment.”
Cartwright noted that microwave technology developed at the food science lab is being used to make products such as sweet potato puree at commercial plants. “We developed the microwave technology at this lab with the utility support of the dairy,” said Cartwright. “So it isn’t just dairy — food science is integrated.” Cartwright added that only way for the lab to remain stable is to be self-supporting — then there’s no worry about legislative budgets and the economy.
One section of the lab is used by graduate students who are working on cheese whey research. Cartwright noted that university professor and researcher Dr. MaryAnne Drake, an expert on whey proteins, off-flavors and bleached whey, conducts research there and works with students in the lab. The room is also used to teach the farmstead cheese short course. “We didn’t start it,” said Cartwright, discussing the popularity of farmstead cheeses. “We saw that it was growing and we jumped in. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture had an agribusiness development attitude and helped the cheesemakers learn how to make cheese, and how to make it safely.” Cartwright noted that a significant portion of the state’s population has disposable income that they’re willing to spend on food products such as farmstead cheese and other farm dairy products.
As the lab was being sanitized after a full day of production, Carl Hollifield, pilot plant business manager, was taste-testing some freshly made peach ice cream made with peaches from a university research farm. Hollifield says the university isn’t in the business of fruit sales or processing, but due to the Umstead Act, which prohibits North Carolina governmental agencies from competing with private commercial activities of the citizens of North Carolina, peaches from the research station aren’t sent to market during peach season. This means another opportunity for the dairy plant to include component from other agriculture enterprises to be used in products. “We did a flash steam to remove skins,” said Hollifield. “Then we diced and pitted the peaches, and used a proprietary microwave system to pasteurize. We used strained juice as flavor base and the diced peaches as an inclusion and this is what we got.”
The result? Outstanding peach ice cream that’s one of almost 20 flavors. More importantly, students were involved, and soon, the public will have an opportunity to learn along with them.
Watch the progress of the Howling Cow™ ice cream and the educational center at North Carolina State University at www.ncsu.edu/foodscience/dairy/howlingcow.
by Sally Colby