By Aaron Estes, Cheese Editor
Photo courtesy of newyorkcheese.org

“Change is difficult. If it were easy, then everyone and everything would be perfect…” 

I have heard these words (or some variation) many times throughout my life as I am sure that many of you have as well. Making changes is a way of life for us as we strive to learn, grow, and succeed. Now, you are probably asking yourself why the Cheese Editor is waxing philosophical at the top of a post but I assure you; this speaks directly to the state of New York cheese.

For many years, New York has been one of the top five producers of milk in this country. Beautiful grass makes for happy cows and plenty of good milk. Historically, dairy farming and industrial cheese has been a major factor in the New York dairy-farming industry. Years ago, this was the way of life upstate. Dairy farms produced milk and sold it to large-milk buying cities such as Manhattan. Farming was a way of life by which the men and women could provide for their families and live out a hard-working, yet comfortable life.

A shift began sometime in the 1980s and 1990s. The commodity milk market consolidated. Farmers no longer had a say in what they were paid for their milk. They either stepped in line with the predatory practices of big business (such as Dean Foods who accounts for about 85% of the market) and sold their milk for far less, or they didn’t sell it to anyone. Period. No one else was buying. Big Business convinced the dairy farmers that commodity milk would work if they made a few changes. “Double your herd and you will be fine.” Who wouldn’t want to believe that? Farmers invested more capital and expanded their herd in an effort to keep up.

At the same time, state government began to shift focus on the philosophy of rural development. Having a huge urban center like New York City is an advantage and a disadvantage for the surrounding areas. With such a confluence of people, there are bound to be issues regarding housing and infrastructure. Unfortunately, rather than invest funding into the upstate farming culture, prisons became more and more a necessity to accommodate the population. 

Dairy farms were shoved to the wayside as prisons and prison jobs pushed to the forefront. Farming jobs did not have the draw next to the prisons in the same area paying $30 per hour. Upstate workers and kids from farming families began to escape to the prisons, out to the cities and elsewhere in order to make a living. 

Farming was no longer the viable option that it once was when their grandparents worked the land. As a result, the farms began to close.

Commodity milk and its effect on the farming culture had a similar effect in Vermont, but with a different path. Be it the “back to the land” movement from what can be considered a liberal government, or the comfort lobbying from suburbanites leaving the city to get back in touch with nature, Vermont saw the downfall of commodity milk pricing and began a transition towards other lucrative means such as cheesemaking. Dairy farmers may not have control over milk market pricing, but they could control and regulate milk price per pound in the form of cheese.  

Vermont is clearly smaller and less diverse than New York State, so it only stands to reason that they would feel the aftereffects of these predatory practices before a large state like New York. With the large supply and demand variable of New York City, coupled with the “double your herd” message coming from Big Business, New Yorkdairy farmers held on through the collapse in order to take advantage of the revenue stream opportunity that the city presented. But they held on to no avail. 

Commodity milk paid less and less for milk. Farming culture moved west to the large expanses of cheap land that the Midwest offers, and the culture collapsed. New York didn’t have the same transition period and the foresight to change as their neighbors. They were either stuck in a cycle of depleting return, or they closed.

So this brings us back to the question, “What is the state of New York cheese?”  The answer, according to experts such as Tia Keenan (chef fromager and well-respected authority on all things milk and cheese), is that New York is in a bit of a transition period. Dairy farmers are exploring options, learning about cheesemaking, and finding ways to take advantage of the quality of their grass and milk. We have some really great cheesemakers here in New York State — Old Chatham, 3-Corners Field Farm, Mecox, Nettle Meadow and Rainbeau Ridge to name but a few. 

New York is still evolving and creating an identity when it comes to artisan cheese. The New York Artisan Farmstead & Artisan Cheese Makers Guild lists 36 members, and that number is growing. More and more classes are available for dairy farmers that want to learn. Portable cheesemaking facilities like the CheeseMobile in Sullivan County — a state approved trailer with a certified “make-room” in the back — come directly to the farmer, as opposed to the farmer renting a commercial kitchen and finding a way to transport their milk in a safe manner. 

The resources are becoming more readily available. The financial upswing is evident. More educational venues, along with governmental subsidy, could help the number of cheesemakers in this state grow exponentially.

With the recent devastation from hurricane Irene it is apparent that farming in this state has some difficult times ahead. Farms are underwater, cows have been lost, and lack of winter hay due to flooding only compounds the issue further. 

It is going to be months before some of these farms recover (if at all in some cases). The current state of New York cheese is definitely weathering through some growing pains, but the future remains bright.