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Fresno State selected to manage $24 million in USDA dairy innovation funding

A Fresno State student prepares cheese samples for a research project at the campus creamery lab.
Geoff Thurner 2022
California State University, Fresno
A Fresno State student prepares cheese samples for a research project at the campus creamery lab.

California State University, Fresno, was chosen as the Pacific coast host of the Dairy Business Innovation Initiative, which provides grant funding to small dairy processors and aims to improve training and consulting opportunities to the industry.

Read the full transcript of the interview below.

ELIZABETH ARAKELIAN, HOST: If you’ve ever had a cone of Fresno State ice cream on a sticky summer day, you’re lucky – it’s one of only a few U.S. universities to have its own working creamery. That’s one reason the school was chosen out of the entire west coast to manage a $24 million USDA fund for dairy innovation. To learn more about this, KVPR’s Kerry Klein spoke about Fresno State’s dairy program with food science and nutrition professor Carmen Licon-Cano.

CARMEN LICON-CANO: We have dairy processing classes. The students will learn how to make dairy products, how to receive the milk, how to analyze the milk and how to make the products and make sure they are done and made in a safe way with the quality that is required.

Carmen Licon-Cano is an assistant professor of food science and nutrition at Fresno State.
Geoff Thurner 2017
California State University, Fresno
Carmen Licon-Cano is an assistant professor of food science and nutrition at Fresno State.

KERRY KLEIN: And then there's also an on-campus creamery.


KLEIN: Where students get to work.

LICON-CANO: Yes, so they can have experience, they can get to work and get paid for it, and plus learn how to make all these products.

KLEIN: And I know that one of the flagship products is ice cream. What's your favorite flavor?

LICON-CANO: My favorite is the chocolate chip almond coconut one. I just love it.

KLEIN: Oh, yeah. That sounds amazing. I love the Bulldog Tracks.

LICON-CANO: Mmm. It's just back. Yeah, it was off and then it's back to the market. So you can try it for the summer.

KLEIN: Okay, great. Definitely. Okay, so Fresno State is a leader in dairy education, it sounds like, and so that is one reason why you were selected to manage this new funding opportunity from the USDA. So tell me about this Dairy Business Innovation Initiative.

LICON-CANO: So the dairy business innovation initiative is a program from the USDA and this funding is to provide service to dairy businesses to diversify their products, to improve marketing strategies, just to support the dairy industry. So now Fresno State manages the initiative for the Pacific coast. So it's California, Oregon and Washington, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico as well.

KLEIN: And so how much money are we talking? What's involved in this initiative?

LICON-CANO: So far, we've received funding for a total of $24.3 million for this initiative. So until now we have funding until 2026. So these $24.3 million are divided into several pots of money, we can say, and the biggest one that we have is to provide grants to dairy processing businesses, for new technology, and for innovation, for diversification of products. And these grants as you mentioned, we have different categories, and we can go up to $50k up to $1 million.

KLEIN: Well, so you've already awarded the first round of projects with this funding. Can you give me a few examples of what's already been supported?

LICON-CANO: Yes, so we funded eight projects for a total of $200,000. And a very good example is a company in Madera, California, who would like to develop a new beverage using a new technology. So they actually want to use colostrum from the cows instead of the milk.


LICON-CANO: Because it has a lot of very good properties, health properties, and there's a niche market for that. It's still small, but there is a market for that so they want to to develop that idea.

KLEIN: Colostrum being the fluid that a cow produces prior to giving birth, correct?

LICON-CANO: Yes, well after it starts to get milked. Right away, before it produces the milk.

KLEIN: Right right, very interesting.

LICON-CANO: And then we also funded, for example, a new butter churn for a company located in Salinas or to develop a new recipe for drinkable yogurt to a company, Blue Silo Creamery in Oregon. These are examples of products that we can fund. As you can see they're very different. Some of them are very new and innovative, some of them are kind of products that we already know that exist but for that company will represent a big innovation in their operation.

KLEIN: Okay, and so, some might think of the dairy industry as being represented by these big giant corporations like Kraft or Land O'Lakes and they might think you know, why does the dairy industry need more money? How would you answer that question as it relates to this this funding?

LICON-CANO: It's true that here in California particularly we have big companies. But we also have very small dairies, or creameries and dairies together, that need support. So it's a very different business model, right? The big companies, they do commodity based products, but the artisanal cheese makers, they have very small productions. Their revenues are also smaller, of course, so they need support to bring technology and to bring innovation to their facilities because it's not easy for them to reach sometimes grants or some funding. So we have a lot of those companies along the Pacific coast, not only here in California, but also in Oregon and Washington.

KLEIN: So that's the grant side of this initiative, tell me about how the rest of the funding is being used.

LICON-CANO: So the rest of the funding is being used to provide technical assistance and consultancies to dairy businesses as well. So they will have access to consultants without necessarily spending the money. We also are providing opportunities for training, including workshops and short courses. We're also providing opportunities for students to do more internships so they can expand their network because at the end we'll need to train them to get into the workforce. That's also one of the important aspects of the grant, to train the workforce, because we see a shortage of educated people to get in and start working on the dairy processing businesses. And we're also supporting other higher education institutions, laboratories, by providing equipment and personnel to run the creameries.

KLEIN: Yeah, and workforce development: Before this call you and I were talking about how there are only two universities [edited to add: on the west coast] that actually have creameries where students can actually get their hands dirty. So, of course, there'd be not a large pipeline of workers going into the dairy field.

LICON-CANO: Yes, and well, some of them pull from other food industries, that they can still work in the dairy industry. But I think it will be best if we can provide the skills to the students from the very beginning because dairy is a little bit special in certain areas like food safety and certain equipment that's used. We're trying to train the students from their undergrad level so we can develop that pipeline.

KLEIN: And so what's some other kind of misconception or something else that the average person might get wrong about the dairy industry or you know about production or processing?

LICON-CANO: Hmm. That's a good question. I just think that the population in general needs to be more aware of the difficulties of the industry and all the different steps that it takes to get a piece of cheese in your counter, right? It is extremely complicated and labor intensive to just make a wheel of cheese. You need to have the cows, right, and managed properly, and milk them properly and clean in a certain way, and then you need to transport the milk from one side to another.

Sometimes it's very very far away. So you need to have the proper equipment in a tanker because milk is a product that goes through a lot of regulations. Just by its nature it can go bad very fast if you don't take care of it properly, so we need to follow the law. We need to follow a lot of rules. Then the creamery will receive it and that's when the process starts. And you require a lot of equipment just to make a piece of cheese. You need a pasteurizer and a tank and the separator, plus all the cheese making tools and technology, plus the labor.

You need a person who actually knows how to run the equipment and knows how to do it. So I just bring this awareness to the people, the population, the consumers, that every time they have a piece of cheese in their hands, it's just a lot of work. Even if it's not the best cheese they can get it takes the same amount of work to make it happen compared to like a superstar cheese.

So just be thankful I guess. We should just say thank you to all the dairy processors who are there, especially because during these last years during the pandemic they suffered a lot.

KLEIN: Okay, Carmen Licon-Cano is a professor in the food science and nutrition program at Fresno State. Thank you so much for speaking with me today.

LICON-CANO: Thank you very much.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.