Look on any cheese label, and you'll see that the first ingredient is milk. Milk is the absolute foundation of cheese. So, it's no surprise that most cheese makers are pretty particular about their milk. While many farmstead cheese makers work only with milk from their own farms, there are many who search for sources of quality milk, and they're often willing to pay a little more to get what they want. This opens up an opportunity for dairy farmers to provide milk to these cheese makers. (This article relates to cheese made from cow milk, but the same criteria likely applies to goat and sheep cheeses.)
Cooperstown Cheese Co. specializes in Alpine varieties of cheese.
Courtesy of Cooperstown Cheese Co.
One of the first factors many cheese makers consider when purchasing milk is the quality of the dairy operation it comes from. Sharon Tomas Elli, owner of Cooperstown Cheese Co. in Milford, N.Y., says that one of the main reasons she chose to get milk from nearby Sunny Acres Farm was the care that farmer Lester Tyler shows for his animals. "Lester likes cheese and he likes milk, but he just loves his cows," observes Tomaselli. "It's something I can just see in his face when his cows are around. We know he's treating his cows right, they're not just milking machines to him, and that's important to us."
Cathy Morrill, owner of State of Maine Cheese Co. in Rockport, Maine, purchases most of her milk from Springdale Farm in Waldo, Maine, for exactly the same reasons. "We chose them because they have an excellent operation - the cleaner and more well-run the farm, and the more attention the farmer gives to the animals, the better the quality of the milk. When I bought the company, I went to Springdale Farm to meet the Whitcombs and was so impressed by their practices. It just gives us more confidence in the milk we're getting." (Springdale Farm co-owner Walt Whitcomb serves as commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture.)
State of Maine Cheese Co. in Rockport, Maine.
Courtesy of State of Maine Cheese Co.
Sometimes, cheese makers need to work with farms that have specific expertise and equipment, along with a willingness to meet the unique needs of cheese makers. Lourdes Smith, owner and cheese maker at Fiore DiNonno (www.fioredinonno.com) in Somerville, Mass., says she searched for many years before finding the right dairy farm partner - Shy Brothers Farm in Westport, Mass. - to supply milk for her mozzarella cheeses.
"There are multiple reasons why I'm working with Shy Brothers. First of all, they're the ones who could step up to do it," she explains.
For Smith, cheese making is a family tradition. Her grandfather came from Italy, where he had been a farmer and cheese maker, and settled in New Jersey and New York. He had a sibling who owned a dairy farm in New Jersey who was able to supply him with all the milk he needed. Two generations later, Smith has no relatives in the dairy business.
"When I decided I wanted to try my hand at cheese making, I tried to source milk and found out that most dairy farmers at the time  were all stuck in contracts," she explains. "So they couldn't really move their milk out of the contract. I talked to everyone - I talked to the state [of Massachusetts], I talked to organic farmers associations, I talked to the dairy board, but nobody could identify a dairy that was able to get off the contract and start shipping their milk elsewhere."
Smith says it never occurred to her when getting started that procuring milk from a dairy farm would be such a challenge, but notes that the "politics of dairy farming" is now a regular part of any talk she gives on cheese making.
Lacking the capital to purchase pasteurization equipment, Smith was forced to buy mozzarella curd that was already processed from a farm in New York state. "But I never gave up looking for a local source of milk," she adds. By chance, she discovered Shy Brothers Farm (www.shybrothersfarm.com), a third-generation dairy farm, at a chef's collaborative meeting about two years ago. "They had been making their own cheese, and they were trying to increase the percentage of their milk to cheese making because they could get a higher price for it," Smith explains.
Selling milk to Smith and other cheese makers has helped the owners of Shy Brothers increase that percentage (now 20 to 50 percent at any given time, Smith estimates) of milk sold for cheese production, while also giving Smith a more local source of milk. Equally important: As a cheese maker, Shy Brothers understood her needs, and had the pasteurization equipment and the know-how necessary to supply her with a processed curd for her mozzarella. "They were willing to experiment with me. We spent a year and a half coming up with a recipe for the mozzarella curd that was specific to how I wanted it," says Smith.
Shy Brothers milks mainly Ayrshire cows. "So the butterfat content is higher," says Smith. That's not necessary for mozzarella, "it's just an added bonus!" she jokes. The result is milk, and a cheese, with a slightly more yellow color, and thus requires some education of customers more accustomed to seeing whiter mozzarellas. "You have to explain to people that the type of cow determines the type of milk and that impacts the cheese," Smith explains.
It was also important to Smith that a dairy partner have the supply to keep up with her demand. "Mozzarella season is tomato season," says Smith, so her demand for milk is greatest in the middle of summer. It takes about three hours to process a batch - 200 pounds of curd - but Shy Brothers was able to keep up with her demand. "They were producing two batches a day, six days a week," she explains. Smith says that someday she may purchase her own pasteurization equipment and buy milk directly, but for now working with Shy Brothers Farm is proving to be a "very lovely relationship," she says.
Cooperstown Cheese Co. specializes in "Alpine cheeses," which derive their name from their origins in the Alps, where the cheeses had to be hard enough to roll down off the mountain. "Farmers would follow the cows up the mountain in the spring, and then roll the cheeses down the hill after they were made," explains Tomaselli, owner of Cooperstown Cheese Co. (www.cooperstowncheesecompany.com).
While there are no mountains in the Cooperstown area, there are plenty of dairy farms, she notes. "Oddly enough, we use milk from Brown Swiss cows, which are alpine cows," notes Tomaselli. She says it was serendipitous that she was able to form a relationship with a dairy milking those particular cows. "We're right in the middle of farm country, so we had a number of choices as to where to get our milk," she explains. She settled on a neighboring farm just to the south, Sunny Acres Farm, "We've been working with the farm's owner, Lester Tyler, for four and a half years," says Tomaselli. Sunny Acres uses no growth hormones on its cows, which was an important factor for her in choosing a milk supplier.
State of Maine Cheese Co. doesn't purchase its milk directly from a farm, but was able to enter into an arrangement with a supplier that lets it choose exactly which farms the milk comes from.
Courtesy of State of Maine Cheese Co.
Before she could purchase milk from Sunny Acres Farm, Tomaselli had to talk with the creamery where the farm had been selling all of its milk in order to make an exception to that contract. "We had to talk it through with the creamery. We pay a premium for this milk, and we wanted them to understand that. Because we're willing to pay more for the milk, that's going to help the farmer stay viable," she explains. "Plus, we pick up the raw milk ourselves in a big stainless tank on a trailer that we haul, so it's no hassle at all to the creamery."
Cooperstown Cheese Co. uses between 30,000 and 50,000 pounds of milk each month. Because production fluctuates based on demand and other factors, it's helpful to have an arrangement where milk can be picked up as needed in whatever quantity is needed, says Tomaselli. "Because we're picking it up ourselves, we can go there anytime; we don't need to schedule it in advance," she explains. The only consideration is to be sure to get to Sunny Acres Farm before the creamery truck arrives at the farm and empties the tank.
Tomaselli entered a similar arrangement with another farm about a year ago for milk from grass-fed cows for a special line of cheese. Picking milk up directly from the farm works much better for Cooperstown Cheese Co. than purchasing milk through a creamery. For starters, Tomaselli would have far less control over when the milk arrived, and it would be difficult to ensure that the milk was coming from a single herd, which is important to her. "A lot of the creameries and big cheese companies are getting milk from a lot of different sources, so the milk loses its individuality," she observes. "Not that it's not good - it's still good, healthy milk - it's just not individual to one particular farm."
State of Maine Cheese Co. doesn't purchase its milk directly from a farm, but was able to enter into an arrangement with a supplier that lets it choose exactly which farms the milk comes from. "We get our milk through Oakhurst Dairy [which sources milk from farms in northern New England]. One of the nice things of working with them is that they let us choose the farms that we get our milk from," explains Morrill, owner of State of Maine Cheese Co. (www.cheese-me.com). "The principle farm we get our milk from is the Springdale Farm in Waldo, Maine, which has about 400 Jersey cows. We get all the milk raw. The hauler puts all of the Jersey milk in the back pocket of the tanker, and they unload here first, so we get all of that Jersey milk."
Morrill wanted Jersey milk because of science showing that breed will have more solids in the milk - higher butterfat and higher proteins. "So we end up with more cheese at the end of the day," she explains. State of Maine Cheese Co. produces mostly Monterey Jack, cheddar and small batches of Gouda and mozzarella, and is able to use the same Jersey milk for all of the cheeses. "It's a really good quality milk," she explains. "If you take 10,000 pounds of Holstein milk, you get less than 1,000 pounds of cheese. With Jersey cows, we can commonly get an 11 percent yield. Every way that you can improve your yield will improve your bottom line."
Morrill says that she is in regular contact with Springdale Farm so she knows what's happening with the herd at any given time - lactation cycles, what the cows are being fed, etc. "Those factors do change the makeup of the milk," she explains. "Over time, we've gotten very comfortable with their cycles. But if they're making any major changes, they let us know. We talk with them all the time."
Oakhurst Dairy picks up milk every other day at Springdale Farm, so Morrill just needs to be aware of when it's possible to schedule a delivery at State of Maine Cheese Co. Her demands for milk fluctuate by the season, but over the course of a year she estimates that she buys 300,000 to 500,000 pounds of milk. "We only store milk for at most three days, so we calculate how much we'll need," Morrill explains.
Fellow Maine cheese maker Allison Lakin, owner of Lakin's Gorges Cheese (www.lakinsgorgescheese.com), runs a smaller operation and has been able to develop a relationship directly with a dairy farm for milk for her mold-ripened (aged) cheeses. "I'm still what is classified as a 'micro' cheese maker," she says. Lakin makes around 300 pounds of cheese per week.
"I had wanted to be able to work with a farmer in close proximity to me. Because I'm not a large producer, I don't have a bulk tank, so the milk has to come to me in buckets," she explains. "The smaller, local dairies weren't able to transfer milk to me this way, but I was able to find a slightly larger farm a little further away who delivers the milk to me in 5-gallon buckets in a refrigerated truck."
The diversified farm, Tide Mill Organic Farm (www.tidemillorganicfarm.com) in Edmunds, Maine, delivers milk to Lakin every Tuesday evening.
Finding a farm that could help with the logistics of delivery was only one reason that Lakin chose to work with Tide Mill. "I was looking for a farmer whose cows were making milk with a high butterfat content, basically any of the brown cows. [Tide Mill has a mainly Jersey and Jersey-cross herd.] That was the first requirement for me," she explains. "Another high priority for me was the cows were grass-fed and the farmer wasn't using any rGBH. And my third requirement was to find a farmer who would talk with me about what the cows were eating. For example, if the cows have just come off a field that has a lot of green onion in it, it's helpful to know that so when you're working with the milk you have an understanding that you're probably going to have a pretty strong onion flavor."
Whether its fresh clover or new alfalfa fields, what the cows eat impacts the flavor of the milk and, in turn, the cheese. Similarly, when the grass season ends in Maine and cows begin to be fed grain, there are chemical and flavor changes in the milk. In some cases it may be possible to adjust the cheese making process based on the information, but mostly it's just helpful to have the knowledge, Lakin adds. Tide Mill Organic Farm has been willing to take the time to keep her updated, she says. In fact, the person who delivers the milk is actually the one who milks the cows, so Lakin has an opportunity to talk with him every week.
Lakin says she hopes one day to have her own farm and dairy herd, but as she grows her cheese making company she's happy to have found a farm to partner with. "This is a great way to be able to produce high-quality cheeses with high-quality milk and not have to care for the high-quality animals myself!" she jokes. "I'm so grateful to have found them and been able to make this arrangement."
Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vt. Over the past 10 years, he has covered a wide range of agricultural operations around the Northeast. He is always on the lookout for unusual stories and cutting-edge installations.