Home Cheesemaking: From Hobby to Business

Artisan cheesemakers who aspire to make their passion a profession will face many challenges on the way to establishing a successful business. Find out what to consider before taking the leap.


| November 8, 2010



Artisan Cheesemaking

The term “artisan” applies to any product (food or otherwise) that is made in limited quantities by a skilled craftsman, usually by hand.


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The following is an excerpt from The Farmstead Creamery Advisor: The Complete Guide to Building and Running a Small, Farm-Based Cheese Business by Gianaclis Caldwell (Chelsea Green, 2010). In this authoritative and thorough guide, Caldwell draws from her own and other home cheesemakers’ experiences to walk readers through the many facets of forging a career in the burgeoning artisan cheesemaking business. This excerpt is from Chapter 1, “What’s So Special About Farmstead Cheese?” 

The United States is experiencing a food-quality renaissance. An increase in the number of farmers markets and “eat local” campaigns, a growing awareness of food quality, and a desire to appreciate the story behind the product are all influencing the way Americans are buying and consuming food. While we are still largely a nation of fast-food addicts and all-you-can-eat buffet aficionados, more and more people today are starting to care less about the size of the serving than about the quality and story of its ingredients. This awakening is not limited to those who can afford the luxury of finer foods. It extends — and indeed originates — from a basic need to reconnect with health, history, and the awareness of nutrition’s role in our very existence.

The History of Cheesemaking in the United States

Bernard Nantet, in his book Cheeses of the World, maintains that the United States, unlike Europe, does not have a strong tradition of artisan cheesemaking. It could be argued that it is this lack of an embedded culinary-cultural background, in part, that allowed the unfettered mechanization that all but extinguished the manufacture of handcrafted artisan cheeses in the U.S. by the mid-1900s. The current revival, which began in earnest in the late 1970s, occurred thanks to a combination of factors that increased the American public’s appreciation not only of food but also of the way of life that the farmer-cheesemaker leads.

Rise and Fall 

Although goats, sheep and cows traveled to the Antilles (Caribbean islands) with Christopher Columbus in the late 1400s, it wasn’t until the early 1600s that milk cows — and along with them, cheesemaking — arrived at European settlements on the shores of what is now the United States of America. Cheeses were part of the provisions stocked on board ships traveling to the Americas, and as with all foods packed for the difficult voyages, cheese was a sustenance food, not a luxury. Cheese, both on board the ships and in the new settlements, was simply the best way to preserve excess milk and extend the availability of a valuable food.

European immigrants adapted to the hardships of life in the New World while continuing to practice the food traditions of their native cultures. Over time and through continued waves of immigration, cheese produced in America gradually began to reflect regional influences: In the northeast part of the country, an English influence created an early Cheddar industry; in Wisconsin, Swiss and Danish traditions included Gouda and alpine styles; and in California and the West, Spanish and French cultures influenced the kinds of cheeses made there, including the development of an American original, Monterey Jack cheese. By the mid-1800s most rural families had a milk cow or goats for dairy, meat and byproducts. Cheese was produced on the farm or at home, and cheesemaking was a normal part of a homemaker’s repertoire. The seeds of change, for all of agriculture and eating, came with the American Industrial Revolution in the 1850s. Mechanization increased the ability of farmers to grow more feed, raise more animals, and subsequently harvest ever-increasing quantities of milk. For the cheesemaker, equipment could be manufactured to process larger volumes of milk into cheese to feed a growing population.

jessica gruebner
9/25/2013 6:49:24 AM

This article doesn't even BEGIN to touch on the realities of opening your own creamery and simultaneously running it while also running a dairy farm. I've been looking into getting my small goat dairy licensed for Grade A production. While that goal is actually achievable (really all I need to do is run some water and a separate septic. There is a used dairy equipment place about a half hour from here, so even stuff like bulk tanks and cooling units wouldn't be too terribly expensive ... in context). But you also need to meet health department requirements, do your own marketing, maintenance. Both ventures: dairy farm and creamery, are horribly labor intensive. Realizing that I would have to either hire someone to run the farm or run the creamery was a little daunting and neither of those are a position to offer minimum wage for. This article makes it sound like all you have to do is have a few dairy animals, some elbow grease, a little investment and you're good to go. MAKING the cheese and producing the milk is the relatively easy part. Marketing, selling, transport, packaging, etc... isn't even touched on in the article. The best advice that I can give is to go to your state's agricultural and/or food regulation website and look at the laws and regulations for your state. Michigan is not even one of the worst. We have great cottage food industry laws and a dairy commission that is trying to encourage small scale dairies and dairy laws that aren't too horrible to meet (ie the milkhouse must have bathroom access but the law is written so that as long as the residence on the farm has plumbing and isn't too far from the milkhouse, it qualifies). Again, if anyone reading this article is seriously considering opening their own creamery: research, research, research. And understand that milking and cheesemaking is the least of the process.


birgit
2/14/2013 6:33:20 PM

This is dreadful. I am so sorry Richard that this happened to you guys. But I expected an experience like that posted here after reading articles on NaturalNews.com about other creameries ransacked by the FDA. This happy "Just do it" article above is clearly outdated, it doesn't take into account the reality we face today. Only question is how do we turn back that big corporate wheel of misfortune. Don't have answers, but maybe one tiny step would be to transform our kids into "makers" again, not blind consumers that twiddle their time away on electronic gadgets while they munch processed food they think of as yummy. Parents, sign up your kids with https://diy.org/ a California based free website for "hacker scouts" i.e. kids 8-14 (approx) who make stuff with their own hands and who figure stuff out. Watch the cool hymn! :) Kid gets an online badge (like scouts) for every skill they accomplish. Only alias names are used, for privacy. Check out their cool skill library: https://diy.org/skills. They have beekeeping, might as well have cheese making. PS: we have a community garden project here where they have a plastic cow with "milkable" plastic udders, to show those city slicker kids that milk doesn't grow in cardboard containers... Educate the kids! This has gone too far. They are the ones that will turn this whole thing around, me thinks


richard thornton
2/13/2013 4:52:14 PM

I started one of the first licensed goat cheese operations in the United States. We actually applied for a license about the same time as Laura Chenel. However, it took the State of North Carolina over a year to decide what the standards were for issuing a license. LOL Know first as Glen Crannoc Farm in North Carolina and later as Shenandoah Chevre in Virginia, we eventually became extremely successful - well on our way to becoming very affluent. We had a large, state of the art farmstead plant, which USDA officials enjoyed showing to foreign dignitaries visiting Washington. State economic development officials were very supportive. State inspection agencies were could be downright hostile. They openly stated that they wished we were not in business, because we were just one more small operation for them to inspect. Then a Mafia food conglomerate in New Jersey decided it wanted to go into the goat cheese business. It made us a ridiculous offer. When we refused, US Army soldiers were hired to repeatedly vandalize our farm and kill our animals at night. That was stupid. I am Creek Indian. They got their tails whipped. Then the Virginia Department of Agriculture issued a "stop order" in the peak of production season - claiming that there was penicillin in our milk. We didn't even use penicillin on the farm. The stop order was maintained long enough to force us to dry up the 125 milking goats. Then the state lab sent us a letter stating that there had been "an error made in their lab," Our milk had been fine all along. We never produced cheese again. The Mafia food conglomerate eventually picked up our $100,000 in equipment for about 7 cents on the dollar. That is the reality of America today.


kamia at heart's haven
11/12/2010 7:27:29 PM

The only thing that concerns me about this discussion is that it appears that state governments, the USDA and the FDA are doing their level best to eliminate small home cheese-making businesses and anything similar. Here in my state, several farm-based cheese makers who have never had any complaint of illness coming from their product are facing being told they must destroy all their current inventory. That will pretty much put them out of business, while the giganto corporate egg factory that got many seriously ill was allowed to start-up business again with a slap on the wrist. And they wonder why tea party people are beginning to come together?






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