How Cheese Is Leading the Charge in the Artisan Food Movement

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.

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 by-products. 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, New York. 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 (see sidebar).

Following on the unfortunate heels of the Depression, World War II furthered labor and economic issues by its upheaval of the workforce (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 twentieth century. Hippies, back-to-the-landers, and gourmets (see sidebar) 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 inter¬est 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, once 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 cook¬ing 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, California, restaurant Chez Panisse and a leader in the Slow Food movement (see sidebar).

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: Laura Chenel, Laura Chenel’s Chèvre, California, 1979; Sally Jackson, Sally Jackson Cheese, Washington, 1979; Allison Hooper and Bob Reese, Vermont Butter and Cheese, Vermont, 1984; Judy Schad, Capriole, Indiana, 1988; and Jennifer Bice, Redwood Hill Farm, California, 1988. (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 visionar¬ies include Ricki Carroll, author and cofounder of New England Cheesemaking Supply in 1978, who continues to provide supplies and education to cheesemak¬ers—home, hobby, and professionals alike; Frank V. Kosikowski, founder of the American Cheese Society (see sidebar on next page) in 1983 and author of Cheese and Fermented Milk Foods; and Paul Kindstedt, coauthor 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.

Defining the Small, Farmstead Cheesemaker

Now that you know some history of farmstead cheesemaking in the United States, let’s talk about some definitions, motivations, and qualifications.

“Artisan,” “Farmstead,” and Production Size

The term “artisan” is applied 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 whose meaning is being diluted by overuse. The American Cheese Society does define “artisan” when applied to cheese (see sidebar). “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 to 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.

This book focuses on the small and very small cheese business. Table 1-1 defines the size of a creamery based on its annual production of cheese. I am providing these definitions to help give prospective cheesemakers some idea of the size and scope they will be looking at in order to meet their production goals. At this time, the American Cheese Society has not formally defined these terms. Also, keep in mind that the production data are based on estimates and averages only. Actual yields will vary greatly based on breed, management, type of cheese, and individual animal differences. Remember, these numbers are just to give you an idea of what size dairy you might want to consider. When you are considering the size of your business, both the number of animals as well as the production volume of cheese must be considered when formulating your business plan.


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