Northern Meadows Cheese Quality Improvement

Final Report for FNC03-485

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2003: $13,960.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $175,500.00
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information

Summary:

BACKGROUND
This project is submitted by Valerie Adamski, a member/manager of the Wisconsin Dairy Graziers Cooperative, a group of five dairy farms that all milk between 75 and 150 cows. Our farms are all of similar size, between 200 and 300 acres. We all use intensive rotational grazing and have begun to make cheese from milk from our pasture-fed cows’ milk. Before the grant, we all used managed grazing as a sustainable practice. The earliest adopter started 15 years prior to the grant, the most recent, three years prior.

We wanted to make and market cheese from our pasture-based animals as a way to capture a premium from our high quality, nutrient dense milk. We wanted to establish that milk from sustainable grazing operations should demand a higher price. We wanted to encourage more grazing on more farms by boosting the milk price graziers receive. We had five new grass-based producers ship milk with our Coop in 2003. They received $16.00 cwt. for their milk.

Before the grant, we made and marketed one type of cheese. In order to grow our company we determined that we needed a wider product range. We also needed to improve some qualities of our original cheddar. The purpose of the grant was mainly to help develop new products and improve our current cheddar.

DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
1. Goals of the project were: 1) to research and develop two new types of cheese for our cooperative, 2) improve our current cheddar recipe, 3) build a “grazing guild” of dairy producers who make specialty products for market.

2. Description. Planning Process. We researched new cheeses to make by contacting specialists in the cheese field and doing typical background research. We also consulted about consumer and grocer trends. We had a dialogue among Coop members about the desired characteristics of new products we wanted to develop that would be true to our ideals of quality and purity. We chose a gouda and a cold pack as our new cheese products. We listed our important characteristics for all three products: gouda, cold pack, and new cheddar for the staff at The Center for Dairy Research (CDR) in Madison, WI. We met with CDR staff several times. We left the technical details up to the trained staff. We made them find new ways to make product – for instance cold pack without anhydrous milkfat – to fit our needs.

PEOPLE
Wisconsin Dairy Graziers Cooperative members: creative force behind the new products

Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research (CDR: technical implementation staff

Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board: funding and interested observer

Valerie Adamski- WDGC project manager, coordinated and oversaw most aspects of new product making, initiated grazing guild conversations

Bob Wills – Cedar Grove Cheese: our cheese maker, collaborated with CDR staff, learned and implemented new techniques

Mark Laack – U.S. Specialty Cheese; contracted as cold pack maker; collaborated with CDR staff, learned and implemented new techniques

Dan Carter – Consultant, provided important industry background information

Kristi Williams – salaried marketing assistant

Paul Nerhring – GrassWorks; collaborated on grazing guild

Greg Hines – Glacierland Resource Conservation District (USDA); helped with education and outreach.

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
Goal #1: Create two new types of cheese. The results of the project are mixed. We had one “failure” and one great success.

a) “Graminae Gouda” – a new type of cheese. We sent milk in to the Center for Dairy Research to create a new cheese. We created a hard gouda that was intended to age at least six months. We had eight variations of cheese created. We had evaluations by both expert panelists and by lay people as well as by Cooperative members on the taste and texture of the new type of cheese. The cheese was created in the fall of 2003 but could not be fully evaluated until June of 2004. We had diverse opinions about which variation of the cheese was the best but the general consensus was that the cheese was really great and would do very well in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, we never took the cheese into production. The reasons were not due to the research or the quality of the product created – but were economic. The main reason we never produced the cheese was that our Cooperative was under-capitalized and we could not afford to make cheese in 2004. We were experiencing worse than expected sales of our 2001, 02 cheddar and did not have sufficient income to put money into this new cheese production. Also our Coop members experienced horrible grazing weather in 2004. First we had record rain and flooding from May thru June. Then we had a very severe drought from July through the end of the 2004 growing season. We felt we did not have good enough milk to produce cheese. We also did not have enough personal farm income to be able to divert milk from our regular milk cooperative to put into our own cheese – this would have meant delayed payments on milk which we could not afford.

Another reason we did not produce this cheese was because we were making the new cold pack cheese. That product used up a lot of “time” resources of the Coop manager from creating new labels to getting the product into distributors. Small manufacturers with limited staff should plan on introducing only one new product every six months because of the time commitment needed to launch it.

The gouda recipe created for the Wisconsin Dairy Graziers was a successful outcome of the grant. The cheese was never produced for sale because of economic reasons.

b) Cold Pack cheese. This new cheese product was created, also by the Center for Dairy Research. It was intended to use up our cheddar that had not aged well and had developed some bitter qualities. The benefit of creating this product was that we already had the base product – cheddar from 2001 in storage and we’d not have to spend a lot of money to build inventory – the economic downfall of the gouda cheese (above).

Our Northern Meadows Cold pack cheese main ingredients are; block cheddar cheese, BGH-free whey powder, cream, and maple syrup. We made three varieties, plain, maple and cranberry. The cranberry product was wildly successful. It won “best of class” at the World Cheese Championships in the spring of 2004! This cheese has been our best seller and really had a terrific impact on sales. It was a success also because it took our “bitter” cheddar that was not saleable, and turned it into a wonderful, great selling product. This is clearly an example of turning lemons into lemonade.

This product required a large amount of coop manager time in the late summer and early fall of 2003 to put into production. New labels were needed, a manufacturer had to be found, ingredients had to be sourced, product had to be sampled and gotten into distributors. The grant allowed us to create the product and make a first batch, but the Coop still put in a great deal of work and financial resources into bringing the new product to market. The grant paid for $2,900 to develop this cold pack while matching funds contributed over $14,000 to bring the product to market during the grant period.

Goal #2: Improve our cheddar recipe. This goal was accomplished by sending milk to the Center for Dairy Research and working with Bob Wills at Cedar Grove Cheese company to make a better cheddar. The results are that we did make improvements to the recipe that made a better cheese. We were able to implement the new recipe immediately in the fall of 2003 with production of the new cheddar. The new cheddar has aged very well and the cheese has been preferred by our customers by a wide margin. In fact, we have sold out of all the cheese we made in 2003.

Goal # 3: Create a grazing guild for cohesive marketing of grass-based products by different farmer-marketers. This goal was worked on, but not accomplished, per se. Forming a guild turned out to be a lower priority goal for the project because of my time limitations. It was not a high priority for the Coop in marketing our cheese.

In March of 2004, I attended the first “grass-fed” marketing conference in Kansas (the conference was partly sponsored by a USDA grant). It was interesting to meet a national cross-section of grass-fed producers and get their views on marketing. I was pleased to bring a Wisconsin dairy perspective to the conference. It was apparent that regional (climate) and product (beef, dairy product) differences make a national guild impossible.

I held a meeting at the 2004 Wisconsin Grazing Conference to help Wisconsin producers define “grass-fed” for marketing purposes as part of a possible new USDA rule defining grass-fed. The meeting was well attended and a good discussion resulted. It was difficult to find the correct person in Washington D.C. to forward the discussion summary.

Throughout the 2003-04 grant period, time was spent by me, Valerie Adamski, organizing a group through e-mail to work on the goal of forming a guild. The group never formally came together. However, discussions boiled down to one common theme – the need to educate consumers about what it truly means to produce food from grass-fed animals. This resulted in the idea to produce a short “video” informational piece on grass-fed foods. This video is still in progress. Some footage has been shot, other sources of video footage are available to contribute to the project, and a new sponsor group – Town & Country Resource Conservation District – is ready to continue this project. I continue to work on a narrative script and production should be finished by November of 2006.

So, although a guild was never created, it was really a secondary goal of the grant. A video explaining grass-fed foods to consumers will be produced as a result of the goal.

OUTREACH
Mainly as a result of the World Champion Cold Pack cheese that was created as part of this grant, we received a tremendous amount of media exposure. Our Cold Pack was featured in many trade publications like “What’s New from Wisconsin” – a Milk Marketing Board Publication. We’ve shipped the new products to many chefs and food editors like the food critic from the N.Y. Times – we didn’t make the paper, but we are part of a group of products that is heightening awareness of grass-fed products.

Our Coop members (and our products) have been featured in the Wisconsin State Farmer, and Wisconsin Agriculturist newspapers as well as “Graze” monthly magazine. There have been many stories in our local papers as well. Northern Meadows has been on radio shows ranging from Wisconsin Public Radio to the Mad Dog & Marilyn local talk show.

Through the University of Wisconsin Center for Integrated Ag Systems, we hosted a group of about 20 journalists from 20 different cities in the Northern U.S. and Canada. They visited our farm, ate our cheese and cold pack, and learned about management intensive grazing. They reported the information to readers in articles in their newspapers from Chicago to Portland, OR to Quebec. Some even ordered cheese to be sent to their homes.

We’ve maintained a web-site that helped educate consumers about grass-fed dairy products. The web-site is viewed by people from around the world. We have gotten customer orders from places ranging from Key West, Florida to Nome, Alaska.

We held pasture walks on all five of the farms involved in the Wisconsin Dairy Graziers Cooperative each year since the grant ensued. We typically host about 20-25 farmers per pasture walk. As a result of promotion of grass-fed products, one of our group – Wayne & Kay Craig have opened an on-farm store for meat, milk, eggs, and cheese. They interact with hundreds of consumers each month and gross thousands of dollars each week from store sales. The Krusenbaum farm hosted international visitors as part of the American Cheese Society Conference in 2004. They educated an “overflow” crowd about pasturing and the cheese produced from pasture-based milk.

A google search of Northern Meadows Cheese or Wisconsin Dairy Graziers Cooperative will likely turn up hundreds of media references to our products and our grazing story.

We developed a brochure to tell the story of our cheese, including the cold pack.

CONCLUSIONS
The SARE producer grant helped fund our Cooperative’s efforts to expand our product lines. Having more than one product to sell is indeed important in a successful business. We were not able to make the gouda cheese and that did hurt our business. We were not able to make as much cheddar with the improved recipe as we would have liked. The fact that we ran out of 2003 cheddar shows that sales were good and people loved it. The cold pack was a fortuitous addition to our product line. It expanded the number of products offered while taking care of a “problem” of bitter cull cheese and shred left over from cut & wrap operations. It was a nice high profit product.

The SARE grant helped fund the new projects but it was really a relatively small contribution compared to the in-kind contributions of the Wis. Center for Dairy Research and the Wis Dairy Graziers Cooperative. Our Cooperative has been under-capitalized for the whole duration of the project mainly because members wanted to limit their risks. This less than full commitment, while totally understandable, hamstrung the new product manufacture that could have put Northern Meadows cheeses “on the map”.

We have some great products and we are proud to have blazed a trail for grass-fed dairy products. We are very appreciative of the financial help we received from the SARE program.

Research

Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.