Sue and Joe Shultz with some of their fresh-made curd and brick cheese.
Photos by Kara Lynn Dunn unless otherwise noted.
The American Cheese Society (ACS) counted North American farmstead, specialty and artisan cheese makers at 851 in April 2011. More than 214 reported starting their enterprise in the year 2000 or later. In 2012, nearly 150 of 211 cheese makers responding to an ACS survey indicated that they milk their own animals.
In Lowville, N.Y., while other farms were adding cows to produce more milk, Joe and Sue Shultz built a small processing room and began making fresh cheese curd from the milk of their 50 cows. The soft chunks of warm cheese barely get inside local stores before they are sold out.
Customer John Meeks drives 100 miles round-trip to buy the Shultzes' curd fresh from the vat twice a month in warm weather.
"I have eaten curd since I was a boy. Making curd has become a lost art. It is wonderful to see Joe and Sue pursuing family life on a farm and making delicious curd. I can easily eat a whole pound on the way home," Meeks says.
Cheese making has proven to be a perfect value-added enterprise for the Shultzes' dairy farm. The business is the only fresh curd maker in Lewis County.
Joe, Sue and their 12-year-old son, Bronson, operate Ara-Kuh Farms, named for Arabia Township in New York's Delaware County, where Joe's dad bought his first registered Holsteins, and the German word for cow.
They manage 150 acres, some of which are used for intensive grazing.
"Being grazers does not involve as much crop work and allowed us time to explore ideas for adding farm income when the milk prices fell in 2009," Joe explains.
"Our milking and chores schedule provided four or five hours in the middle of the day. We considered bottling, but also began researching cheese making, particularly for making cheese curd," Sue adds. "Our goal was to find a farm-based enterprise that would be manageable and enjoyable."
Joe and Sue Shultz occasionally take their products and samples to local events, such as this North Country market event organized by New York State Assemblywoman Addie Jenne Russell. It's a good way to educate the public about their business and about dairy farming.
Photo by Brian P. Whattam.
Research and development
Cheese curd is a traditional and perennial favorite in New York's North Country.
Joe says, "For us, cheese is its own food group. We eat more cheese than we drink milk, and we could see how popular the commercially made curd was locally."
"People still remember the curd made by the small cheese factories such as Hoffman & Dudo in New Bremen and Queens Farms in Copenhagen, and more and more people want to know where their food comes from and are looking to get back to more natural, fresh products," Sue explains.
The Shultzes visited several cheese makers in New York state and Canada.
"We learned a lot by seeing how others are making cheese, how they package their products," Joe says. "They shared what they were glad they had done and what they might have done differently, so we wouldn't make the same mistakes."
Back on the farm, Joe and Sue began forming a business plan, and Sue expanded her stovetop cheese making for family and friends.
"I started with a 3-gallon batch that took six to eight hours to make, then went to 10-gallon batches twice a week. We were giving it all as gifts and still ending up with nothing for ourselves," she recalls.
Once they decided to build a cheese room for commercial production, they began looking for financing.
"Our only business history was producing milk, with all our equity in the farm. The bank was supportive, but could not find any statistics to show that local cheese making could be viable. The $50,000 start-up loan was based on the equity of the farm, our track record of production per cow, and our good credit rating. All that added up to the farm being able to withstand an investment in a new venture," Joe explains.
Making and marketing cheese
"Before the processing equipment arrived [for the 20-square-foot cheese room], we thought hard about setting it up right. Our Agriculture & Markets inspector gave us good advice about buying a new rather than used processing vat, and how to design the room with concrete floors, drains, stainless steel fixtures and other features to make cleaning easy," Joe says.
By July of 2011, the Shultzes were ready to make their first batch of cheese curd.
Joe says, "We started small, followed recommendations, and really did not have any bad batches, and as we made bigger batches our quality remained consistent."
At first they made cheese two days a week. At 2:30 a.m., Joe starts the oil-fired boiler to heat the water for the temperature-controlled vat, then he goes back to bed until it's time to start chores at 4:30 a.m. By 5:30, Sue is adding the starter to get the cheese making process under way.
To meet consumer demand, their cheese making schedule gradually increased to three days a week through the fall season, and to four and five days by Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The processing uses one-third of the fluid milk produced on the farm; 95 percent of that becomes curd, and 5 percent is made into brick cheddar.
The Shultzes selected bright red, yellow and green colors for their packaging and worked with their Ag & Markets inspector to develop the required product labeling. They chose "Curds Our Whey" as a slogan.
Early on, they brought their fresh curd to local farmers' markets.
"When we went to our first market, I was nervous. I wondered, 'What if the people don't like our products?' We really didn't expect how well it would sell," Sue says.
Once the story of the new enterprise hit the local media and agricultural press, demand exploded. Soon the 250-gallon tub had to be replaced by a 460-gallon vat.
"In the fall of 2012, we almost doubled the size of our batches so we could get back to making cheese just two days a week," Joe notes.
While the Shultzes still travel to a few markets because they know it's a great opportunity to educate the public about what they do, they had to calculate the cost. "We would finish chores, pack the cheese into the car, drive to the market, unload and sell. Sometimes we had to hire a part-time milker while we were at the market. We find that working with local retailers really works the best for us," Joe explains.
The Shultzes sell to 10 retailers within a 20-mile radius of the farm. Most of the retailers pick up product on the farm.
"Making our own cheese with the fresh milk produced right here on the farm gives us a tremendous advantage, in that we can make a fresh product and sell it fresh. At some of the stores nearest to us, the product sells both fresh and still warm," Sue says.
Joe delivers to Nolt's Country Store, just five minutes from the farm in Lowville. Store owner Elaine Nolt says, "Our customers very much like Shultz's cheese. It is perfectly salted, and they like it warm, as soon as it is delivered. We can sell 80 to 100 pounds in a day or two during the summer and holiday seasons."
Sue and Joe Shultz in the barn with some of the 50 Holsteins that produce the milk that is used to make their farmstead cheese.
Colleen Wheeler, owner of Colleen's Creekside convenience store and gas station in the rural hamlet of Barnes Corners, says, "We have people coming from all over to buy Shultz's cheese curd, and some will not buy any other brand. We stock 10 to 30 pounds a week throughout the year and sell out every week."
The Shultzes currently sell cheese in three flavors (roasted garlic, Italian and jalapeno) and enjoy educating people about the seasonal differences found with fresh-made cheese. For example, Sue says, "People are interested to learn that summer-made cheese tends to be sweeter."
The Shultzes also sell direct from the farm with two refrigerator-size coolers in a small entryway just off the cheese room.
"We tell people [that] if the lights are on they can stop to buy cheese on the farm," Joe says.
Tips for aspiring cheese makers
Bernadette Logozar, a northern New York regional and local foods specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Franklin County, says that as a result of a series of farmstead cheese making classes offered in 2010, six new cheese makers created approximately nine new employment opportunities across the region.
An advocate of business planning and market assessment, Logozar says, "A cheese making venture can be integrated into any-sized dairy, but should function as a separate business on the farm. In most cases, the cheese plant purchases the milk from the dairy at a flat rate, unless the market price for milk is higher. This way, the cheese plant knows what its expenses are for the milk, and the dairy gets a steady income from the milk sold to the cheese plant."
She adds, "The percentage of milk that can be sold to the cheese plant depends on the dairy's milk contract with their cooperative. The farm should look into this before investing in a cheese plant. A value-added venture can be a way to stabilize farm income, in the sense that you as the dairy farmer are setting your price for the milk, but the farmer/cheese maker is taking on more risk. These factors have to be balanced and weighed for any value-added venture. The successful farms are those that make an exceptional product, market it well, and know their bottom line at all times."
Another planning consideration is what to do with the whey left after cheese making. The Shultzes have an Amish neighbor who picks up the whey at the farm to feed to his livestock and reduce grain costs.
Cheese makers responding to the 2012 ACS Cheese Maker Industry Survey reported that 72 percent of their expense was in raw materials (such as milk and rennet), labor and facility costs. Another 8 percent was attributed to equipment, 7 percent to insurance, 5 percent to advertising and marketing, and 3 percent to research and development.
The survey indicated that most of the North American artisan, farmstead and specialty cheese makers sold their cheeses directly to retailers (84 percent), restaurants (73 percent) and consumers via farmers' markets (74 percent). A little more than half (53 percent) of the survey participants sold through distributors; 47 percent had their own stores; and 42 percent sold via a website.
According to the American Cheese Society, the following cheeses may be made with any type of milk and may include various flavoring.
Artisanal- A cheese produced primarily by hand in small batches, using as little mechanization as possible, with attention to the traditional cheese maker's art.
Blue- Cheese with a distinctive blue-green veining from the Penicillium roqueforti mold, such as Roquefort, Gorgonzola and Danish blue.
Farmstead- A cheese that must be made with milk from the farmer's own herd or flock, on the farm where the animals are raised.
Firm/hard- A broad category including various tastes, from very mild to pungent, and textures from elastic at room temperature to those that can be grated. Examples include most cheddars, Gouda and Gruyère.
Fresh- Cheese that has not been aged or is only very slightly cured; it should be consumed before the expiration date on the package. Examples are ricotta, feta and cottage cheese.
Natural rind- Aged cheeses with a self-formed rind, such as Tomme de Savoie.
Pasta filata- A family of cooked and kneaded cheeses, mostly of Italian origin, including Italian mozzarella, provolone and scamorza.
Processed- Cheese byproducts made for mass market consumption by combining natural cheese and added ingredients such as stabilizers, emulsifiers and flavor enhancers; for example, American cheese and processed spreads.
Semisoft- Cheese with a smooth, generally creamy interior with little or no rind, such as blue cheese, Colby and Monterey Jack.
Soft-ripened- Cheeses that are ripened from the outside in with an edible rind, like Brie and Camembert.
Washed rind- Cheeses that are surface-ripened by washing with brine, beer, brandy, wine or a mix of ingredients throughout the aging process, such as some tomme-style cheeses and triple-crème.
Specialty- A cheese of limited production, made with attention to natural flavor and texture profiles.
Peggy Murray, CCE Lewis County farm business management educator, says, "Joe and Sue Shultz are an amazing example of individuals putting their minds to work to improve the overall productivity and profit of their farm. Shultz Family Cheese is the result of hard work, determination, knowing their market, and a good plan that set them up for success and is flexible enough to change as the business grows."
Joe and Sue are now carefully considering building a larger cheese room with additional retail space. See photos and follow the Shultz family cheese making story on their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/ShultzFamilyCheese.
Kara Lynn Dunn is a longtime contributor who keeps horses and sheep on a 100- acre farm in Mannsville, N.Y.