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.
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.
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.
In the 1840s, a Wisconsin man named James Picket is believed to have been the first farmer to make cheese from the milk of not only his own animals, but a neighbor’s cows as well. This new concept in dairying was taken a step further in 1851 when the first “modern” cheese factory was built by Jesse Williams in Oneida, N.Y. Williams’s factory is believed to have been the first cheese plant to pool milk from multiple farmers and complete the entire process of cheesemaking in a commercial facility. Other factories quickly sprang up throughout the country. By 1880 there were 3,923 factories nationwide, with a production volume of 216 million pounds of cheese. The family cow was on her way out of the picture.
By the 1920s cheese production had reached 418 million pounds, with most of this still occurring in what would be, by today’s standards, small to moderate-size facilities processing milk from only local dairies as well as their own milk. By the 1930s, cow’s milk cheeses similar in style to most major European cheeses were being made at the industrial level.
The early part of the 1900s also saw the birth and infancy of what would become the modern-day, super-mega, one-stop grocery store. Previously, shopping had been done at specialized stores — the butcher, the baker, the green grocer. But by 1910, many stores began carrying multiple specialty foods under one roof. This consolidation of products led to the building of ever-larger stores, the development of chain stores, and the need for centralized distribution. The competitive drive to promote the cheapness and value of one supermarket over another quickly followed. These factors all contributed to the impetus to produce cheese in greater volume and in the most cost-effective manner possible. Americans began to compromise quality for pocketbook “value.”
The Great Depression of the 1930s brought further woes to the small producer. While many small dairies folded under the economic strain, others survived, in part thanks to the formation of cooperatives, as well as the intervention of creameries that refocused their production to purchase their fluid milk from these struggling small farms.
Following on the unfortunate heels of the Depression, World War II furthered labor and economic issues by its upheaval of the work force (men left farms and factories for the battlefield) and the necessary redistribution of resources and supplies to the war effort. When the conflict finally ended, wartime technological advances transitioned to civilian-oriented purposes. The increased technology available to manufacturing, combined with the demand for cheaper and more modern products (often seen as superior by a population starved for finer goods at an affordable price), spelled trouble for the small handmade-cheese producer.
The re-emergence of the small cheesemaker began in earnest in the 1980s. As with the decline of handmade cheese, the renaissance occurred in response to the influence of movements and trends that occurred in the 20th century. Hippies, back-to-the-landers and gourmets prepared the way for the renaissance of handmade cheese.
Occurring almost simultaneously, and running different but overlapping courses, the hippie and the back-to-the-land movements both peaked in the 1960s through the mid-1970s. Their roots are vastly different, but their influence on the awareness of food quality and its effects on health and happiness are similar. The hippie movement brought an interest in natural and “health” foods, while the back-to-the-landers sought a return to the agrarian and self-sufficient lifestyle of their forebears.
The back-to-the-land movement saw the return of many urban and suburban dwellers to the countryside. The concept of homesteading brought renewed interest in the family milk cow and dairy goat. Beginning in the 1970s — and still going strong today — the magazine MOTHER EARTH NEWS and the Foxfire book series provided guidelines and inspiration for rural living and self-reliance. For many people, the homesteading spirit and lifestyle proved to be a transient state, after the hardships and reality of “living off the land” hit home. But even those who went back to more modern lifestyles did not lose the appreciation for that way of life.
While some parts of our society were interested in reconnecting to the land, a more traditional way of life, and the quality of food that lifestyle offered, another segment was developing a culinary consciousness that included an expanding appreciation of food flavors and quality. Increased and easier travel to Europe, especially France, exposed many to flavors and cooking that had been ignored, for the most part, in the modern American diet. This appreciation was helped immensely by the work of such people as Julia Child, whose book Mastering the Art of French Cooking and television show The French Chef helped many mainstream Americans develop a new interest in the quality of their food, and Alice Waters, chef and proprietor of the Berkeley, Calif., restaurant Chez Panisse and a leader in the Slow Food movement.
As all of these influences converged, a market for artisan, American-made cheese began to develop and a new wave of pioneers rose to meet the call. Cheesemakers, authors, educators and visionaries have all had a hand in the current success of handmade cheese in the United States. Here are just a few of these pioneering farmstead cheesemaker innovators and leaders:
(Of these, Capriole and Sally Jackson remain farmstead operations.)
Authors such as Laura Werlin (who has been writing about cheese in articles and books since 1999) and Max McCalman (whose books and speaking engagements have helped elevate the role of cheese in fine dining and the status of cheesemongers and maître fromagers) have greatly increased the public’s awareness and appreciation of cheese, as well as its makers. Educators and visionaries include Ricki Carroll, author and co-founder of New England Cheesemaking Supply in 1978, who continues to provide supplies and education to cheesemakers — home, hobby and professionals alike; Frank V. Kosikowski, founder of the American Cheese Society in 1983 and author of Cheese and Fermented Milk Foods; and Paul Kindstedt, co-author with the Vermont Cheese Council of American Farmstead Cheese and an original member of ACS. It is thanks to these leaders, as well as many others, that the way has been paved for the many new cheesemakers who are experiencing such success today.
Now that you know some history of farmstead cheesemaking in the United States, let’s talk about some definitions, motivations and qualifications.
The term “artisan” applies to any product (food or otherwise) that is made in limited quantities by a skilled craftsman, usually by hand. The term is not legally defined for business use, however, and is becoming another buzzword that’s meaning is being diluted by overuse. The American Cheese Society does define “artisan” when applied to cheese. “Artisan” and “artisanal” (interchangeable terms) imply — but do not guarantee — high-quality products!
“Farmstead” is a term applied to cheese made only from the milk of the farmer’s own animals. The term “farmhouse” is sometimes used interchangeably, but it is not as common. The production size of a farmstead cheese business is not limited or defined. In consumers’ minds, however, it is often assumed that the facility is small and not highly mechanized. The farmstead cheesemaker is usually the smallest size of cheese producer, but not always. One very successful farmstead creamery in Wisconsin milks (according to its website) a herd of 950 Holstein cows, whose production level allows it to make approximately 3 million pounds of cheese annually. Many other existing cow dairies have value-added cheese plants in which they produce their own farmstead cheese. Cheese is saving many a family farm in this fashion.
Another term you will see is “specialty” cheese. Specialty cheese is produced by large-scale, industrial cheese companies as a value-added product of higher quality and in a limited quantity as compared with their other cheese products. According to the Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute, a specialty cheese cannot exceed an annual nationwide volume of more than 40 million — yes, million! — pounds. Both artisan and farmstead cheeses sometimes fall under the category of specialty cheese when being discussed in industry trade papers.
Farmstead cheesemakers are usually a unique blend of farmer, artist, animal lover, independent spirit and masochistic laborer. Very few choose this life with monetary goals as their No. 1 motivator. Instead, it is a passion for the animals and for a way of life, the desire to create a value-added product on an existing farm, or the desire to leave a prior profession or lifestyle for the pursuit of a more rural way of living. There are also people who enter the business with purely entrepreneurial motivations — those for whom the growing prestige and market potential of artisan cheese is the magnet (not unlike the motivation that draws some to plant a vineyard or build a winery). But, for the most part, the farmstead cheesemaker is first and foremost a herdsman. Let’s take a look at some of the most common reasons for building a farmstead creamery, along with the assets and pitfalls that each motivation brings to the mix.
Hobby to Profession
Those who start out with a couple of dairy goats or a milk cow to feed a growing family, or a desire to live a more self-sustaining lifestyle, often find themselves with more milk than they know what to do with. Learning to make cheese is a logical progression that becomes a gratifying hobby for many. The decision to “go pro” is sometimes seen as an elaboration of the hobby, when in fact it is truly a full-fledged transformation. The change from avocation to profession brings new dimensions that can wear out even the most passionate hobbyist.
Assets: Existing animal management skills, awareness of the rigors of farm life, some cheesemaking skills.
Pitfalls: Often a lack of business management training, possible lack of investment capital.
For many dairy people, adding a cheese facility to the dairy farm provides a value-added product that increases the prospects for survival of the farm. The growing popularity and public perception of cheese is helping retain and bring back generations of family that may not have previously stayed on the farm.
Assets: Existing animal management skills, awareness of the rigors of farm life, existing business structure, existing infrastructure (buildings, systems, etc.).
Pitfalls: Possible lack of cheesemaking skills and a lack of time to leave the farm for training.
Career and Lifestyle Change
Whether a long-contemplated dream or a recent revelation, more and more people are launching farmstead creameries after leaving their previous careers. Often these careers had little to do with the day-to-day operations of a farm, but maybe they brought them into contact with fine cheese or a rural, agrarian way of living. As often as not, the career change is a return to roots or a family history after experiencing the “regular” work world.
Assets: Possible business skills, investment capital and/or a retirement income.
Pitfalls: Possible lack of animal experience, possible lack of physical stamina related to age at retirement.
For investors building an artisan cheese business, the need for a reliable source of the highest-quality milk often leads them to the farmstead solution. The size and scale of these operations is medium to large. Usually both herd managers and cheesemakers are employed to handle these parts of the operation.
Assets: Financial resources, business skills.
Pitfalls: Lack of animal management expertise. (Cheesemaking experience, I believe, is more readily learned than animal husbandry — educational opportunities and professional expertise are easier to find than an in-depth animal husbandry education.)
Many farmstead cheesemakers are a mixture of some or all of the above motivations. People entering the industry with a varied background and multiple inspirations often bring a mix of qualifications that promote success in ways that cannot be anticipated by simply analyzing their credentials. There is no way to accurately categorize this type of person, but it is still important for them to attempt to analyze their skill set and job suitability based on information gained while researching the industry.
It seems like being a farmstead cheesemaker would be fun and fulfilling, but after you take a good, hard look at the realities of setting up and running your own creamery, you need to decide whether it is the right move for you. Here is a little quiz, devised with the help of cheesemakers from across the country, to help set the stage for what you will be in for should you bravely go where others have gone before (despite their warnings!).
Let’s look at these questions in more detail. If it seems a bit discouraging, try to remember that many of these issues will not seem as daunting after you learn more. The knowledge and skills you will gain by reading this book and educating yourself through other opportunities will give you the tools you need to deal with each of these issues, should you choose to become a farmstead cheesemaker.
Are the hours really that bad?
There are times throughout the year when most farmstead cheesemakers find themselves going to bed just about in time to get up again. Kidding/lambing/calving season is a prime example — and this is also the time that most farmers markets start their season. Milk is flowing, cheese must be made, and babies won’t wait for your bedtime schedule. It is often nonstop work, and you feel like you’re never caught up. When you choose to become a farmstead cheesemaker, you are choosing not just a job, but a way of life. If you have a spouse or partner, you will need to consider very carefully whether this way of life will be fulfilling for both of you, together.
How about a good head for business?
When the hobby farmer-cheesemaker turns pro, everything changes. In reality you are now operating two businesses — a dairy farm and a cheese business. Any inefficiency in either aspect will likely evolve into a liability, both financially and, in the end, emotionally. If you know you will not be able to develop a sound business plan, maintain accurate and up-to-date financial books, complete invoices, and follow up on orders and billing — and you still want to go into the business — then consider taking classes, or even hiring a bookkeeper and office manager.
Why would I need to be creative or artistic?
Remember there is “art” in “artisan.” Not only will being creative give you an edge in producing visually appealing products, but it will help with designing packaging, labels and promotional materials. As the number of producers grows and the volume of farmstead cheeses increases, it will be the little things, such as irresistible packaging and mouthwatering product presentation, that will help give your business an edge.
Is there really a lot of dishwashing and repetitive labor?
Oh my, yes! After all of your cheese recipes have been refined and perfected, it becomes the great cheesemaker’s job to keep making them, as identically as possible, over and over. Keeping the passion and inspiration evident in each batch and wheel can become a challenge. As to dishwashing, there is a standard saying that cheesemaking is 90 percent cleanup. Sanitation and cleanliness in a licensed creamery cannot be treated casually. It is not in the least bit glamorous or inspiring, but you will spend a good deal of time doing it.
How could I be too tired to enjoy my animals?
For most farmstead cheesemakers, the animals are usually the reason they make cheese, not the other way around. After you are licensed, however, selling your cheese becomes a priority that can take away time with the animals and drain your patience and energy to deal with their needs, as well as the challenges that caring for them brings. It’s not hard for the pressures of the cheesemaking side to leach the joy out of the original reason for starting the business — the animals.
What kinds of problems can crop up?
The farmstead creamery, no matter how well-administered, will face an ever-changing set of challenges. Dealing with equipment failure that leads to lost production or lost product; animal health issues that lead to lost milk, animal deaths and culling decisions; and the possibility of liability lawsuits, product recall and inspection violations — all of these and more bring a facet to the lifestyle that can be unduly stressful. To be successful, you must be prepared to face these challenges without letting them overwhelm you.
What about money?
Even if your cheese sells at the high end of the price spectrum, the number of hours you will work to create that product could mean that your average income will be somewhere below minimum wage. I am not kidding. If you do not have the investment capital to survive the first few years or another source of income to make ends meet, then you would be wise to reconsider starting a cheesemaking business (or any small business, for that matter). Even after several good years, you will probably not become wealthy making cheese — but you will have a priceless quality of life and hopefully be able to pay the bills!
Some of these questions may seem extreme, but the reality of the lifestyle of a farmstead cheesemaker is at times very difficult and intense. If you answered yes, even if it was a somewhat reluctant affirmative, to all of the questions in the quiz, then you are quite likely well-suited to the profession of farmstead cheesemaker. But if you have any hesitation in embracing these conditions as a huge part of your life, then I would encourage you to enjoy this book, tour cheese farms, eat farmstead cheese, make your own cheese at home — as a hobby — and have a life!
So where do you learn how to make cheese? Most start learning when inundated with pails and pails of milk — in other words, out of necessity. But when the hobby is about to become a profession, other resources should be explored. Learning the art of cheesemaking — as well as the science and safety behind the process — through experienced teachers will help ensure your success as a business.
There are several venues in which to learn both the art and the science of cheesemaking:
In most states, a business can be a licensed cheesemaking facility without the proprietor having special training as a cheesemaker, but in some there are standardized requirements. For example, in order to obtain a cheesemaker license in the state of Wisconsin, special training regulations apply, including up to 18 months of on-the-job work as a cheesemaker assistant. Be sure to investigate your state’s laws in this regard.
Many cheesemakers continually seek to expand their knowledge and mastery of the craft long after obtaining a license. Entering competitions, seeking technical reviews of their cheese, taking courses, subscribing to professional publications, and communing with other cheesemakers are all viable routes for continuing education. Keeping your knowledge expanding and your awareness of the process growing will help ensure the quality of your products as well as your own personal and professional gratification.
Being a part of a growing culinary tradition is exciting! Thanks to the perseverance of a handful of America’s original artisan cheesemaking companies, the groundbreaking forays of the cheesemaker pioneers of the artisan revival, and the increased awareness and admiration of the life of the small farmer, it is now easier than ever to build a thriving farmstead cheese business.
Reprinted with permission from The Farmstead Creamery Advisor: The Complete Guide to Building and Running a Small, Farm-Based Cheese Business, published by Chelsea Green, 2010.
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