Sunday, March 14, 2010

Local Entrepreneurs: Pampered Cows Make Delicious Milk and Cheese

Cheese and full-fat dairy is something I usually eat in moderation or even avoid all together largely as a weight-control strategy. But, when I do eat dairy, I want it to be high quality and fresh. For the past two weeks it seems that I’ve spent a lot of time with artisanal local milk producers and farmstead cheese makers and hearing about their businesses and tasting delicious products. Perhaps because it’s still winter and the choice of fruits and vegetable this time of year is slim for a locavore so my eye is focused on animal products, or maybe it’s because I L-O-V-E dairy and especially cheese –the stinkier the better, of course.

In the Northeast, the fluid milk/dairy industry has been in crisis for many years. The historically low prices have pushed many dairy farmers out of business. And, New York dairies have been especially hard hit. But, there are several farmers who are making lemonade out of lemons or better said they are making curd and whey (and cheese and yogurt and ice cream and butter) out of milk and making more money. According to several farmers, in many instances the demand for high quality products exceeds supply. With a little creativity and a lot of capital – which seems to be the biggest challenge -- those with an entrepreneurial spirit are surviving the negative market trends. Or, at least for the time being.

Two weeks ago, I attended the Cheese Tasting 101 class at Murray’s Cheese and indulged in a half a pound of local, farmstead cheeses, one from Maryland the another from New Hampshire, and imported cheeses. (You don't need dinner after one of Murray's events.)

And, on top of my regular weekly milk and butter purchases, I bought several pints of Ronnybrook’s super premium (read high fat) ice cream – Columbia Country Coffee, Chocolate Chip and Vanilla -- for family and friends and tried a few New York-made farmstead cheeses.

On Wednesday, I attended New Seed Advisors Agriculture 2.0 Evening hosted by Janice Yorio featuring a panel of dairy farmers, including certified organic Milk Thistle Farms, a financial advisor and a representative from the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets.

"Prospects, Pitfalls and Prodigies: The Hudson Valley Dairy Industry" panelists touched on a range of topics including:
  • the need for value-added products such as cheese to make dairy farming a viable business model,
  • the challenges of raising capital for herd, product variety and distribution expansion,
  • the difference in working with large and small investment firms, angel investors and venture capitalists,
  • profitability of wholesale versus direct to consumer marketing,
  • human and animal resources needed to properly steward the land and protect animal welfare,
  • the importance of community to help New York maintain its strong agriculture industry,
  • land preservation and land access by young farmers,
  • and finally a lively discussion about the taste of grass- and organically- fed cows versus conventional milk.
Here are some links to award winning and tasty products and specialty retailers:

Cherry Glen Monteray Ash, Maryland Goat cheese, Aged for 3-5 weeks, bloomy rind and clean flavor. Found at Murray's Cheese. Check out the photos of their lovely goats on the Cherry Glen Farms site.

Landaff Creamery’s "Landaff" is a Welsh-style Caerphilly, made from raw cow's milk, New Hampshire, aged 2-4 months. Read more about Landaff Creamery at
New Hampshire Farms Network Profiles.

Ardith Mae “Henry” cheese is a natural rind, raw milk goat cheese with an earthy flavor and semi-soft texture. Ardith Mae sells several goat cheeses and can be found on Sundays at 77th and Columbus and Columbia University’s farmers markets and Anne Saxelby Cheesemongers at the Essex Market in lower Manhattan.

Ronnybrook Farms, Hudson Valley, NY – has been selling whole and reduced and low fat milk at NYC’s farmers markets for over 20 years -- they have delicious butter (I love the garlic butter), super premium ice cream in seasonal flavors, and several yogurt products. Ronnybrook is also available at Fresh Direct, Whole Foods and other NYC retail outlets, including Chelsea Market.

Milk Thistle Farm skim and whole milk is found at NYC Greenmarkets, and Whole Foods. Dante Hesse is eager to buy production equipment at a cost of $850,000 and expand his product line. Read the transcript about the challenges of raising capital on NPR's All Things Considered segment "Wary of Wall Street: Invest in a Dairy Farm"

Old Chatham Sheepherding Company is the largest sheep farm in the US for cheesemaking -- I’m partial to their award winning, creamy camembert cheese with a fluffy rind and made from a mixture of cow and sheep milk.


Murray’s Cheese Shops
For a list of cheeses made in the USA, many in the Northeast and Mid Atlantic region click here.

Anne Saxelby Cheesemongers
Focused exclusively on small farm and farmstead cheeses, primarily from the northeast, Anne Saxelby features several artisanal dozen cow, sheep and goat cheeses.

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