October is American Cheese Month, and to celebrate, I have invited some American cheese luminaries to take over Planet Cheese. Last up: Sue Conley (above left), co-founder with Peggy Smith (above right) of California’s Cowgirl Creamery. This acclaimed company makes Mt. Tam, Red Hawk, Wagon Wheel, clabbered cottage cheese and several seasonal cheeses. I asked Sue to share a cheese-world issue that’s top of mind for her.
“You need great milk to make great cheese” is a trusted cheesemakers’ adage. Sounds simple, but great milk is becoming increasingly difficult to find. Today, small local dairies are threatened by suburban sprawl and escalating costs of operation. These threats have caused consolidation of family farms and the industrialization of dairies.
According to the American Farmland Trust, the nation lost 31 million acres of farmland in the two decades before 2012. In California’s Marin County, where Cowgirl Creamery’s milk suppliers operate, there were 150 dairies in 1960 but only 25 today. Despite our best efforts, the numbers continue to fall.
Depressed milk prices add to the challenge. American dairy farmers have always dealt with fluctuating milk prices unrelated to their cost of doing business. Many farmers transitioned to organic production to get out of the commodity pricing game and capture a higher price for their milk. This strategy improved the bottom line and encouraged ecological farming methods. Our main milk supplier, Straus Family Creamery, continues to be an organic leader.
Ironically, so many farmers made this move that there is a glut of organic milk now, exposing organic dairies to the same price pressures as conventional dairies. Add natural disaster (floods, hurricanes, drought and more) and no wonder dairies are going out of business. But there is hope and there is help.
Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) has slowed the decline of grazing lands in our area by purchasing development rights from farmers. These easements require the land to remain in agriculture in perpetuity. In return, the farmer receives 50 percent of the land’s value. Over the years, farmers have used this money to improve their operations, pay down debt and increase acreage. MALT has saved 50,000 acres of farmland in Marin County and stabilized our agricultural economy.
But farmland preservation is not enough to save the day. Cheesemaking (on and off the farm) has been an excellent avenue for struggling dairies hoping to increase revenue. Our Northern California milkshed has 30 cheesemaking companies today, up from 5 in 1995, and most of these are on-farm producers. You will recognize some of these successful cheese companies (Point Reyes Farmstead, Nicasio Valley Cheese, Bellwether Farms), because their cheeses are distributed nationally.
Currently, Cowgirl Creamery is finishing negotiations with one of our milk suppliers, Bivalve Dairy, to lease our old creamery in Petaluma. This family dairy has been a fantastic milk source for our Red Hawk and fresh cheeses, and now the Taylors are ready to make their own unique Portuguese-style cheeses. They will share the building with Three Twins Ice Cream, a manufacturer that purchases from local dairies and expects to purchase from Bivalve Dairy in the future. These collaborative relationships are typical of our dairy culture in Northern California and contribute to everyone’s success.
Another win for our local ranches is the recent decision by the Interior Department to extend the leases for farmers in the Point Reyes National Seashore. This land, adjacent to our original creamery in Point Reyes Station, was established as parkland in the 1970s with a pastoral zone to accommodate the ranches that have been there since the 1880s. Surrounded by sea and forest, the park supports several sustainably-run dairy and beef cattle operations. It is essential to the fabric of our rural economy and culture.
Across the country, small dairies are an endangered species, but they are worth saving for reasons beyond the great cheese they produce. They provide wholesome, nutritious food to their communities while preserving the pastoral landscape around our towns and cities. —Sue Conley
photos: Nat & Cody (www.natandcody.com)