The rural communities in the rolling hills of Sullivan County were historically connected to the New York City economy through the railroad “Milk Cars” that provided a daily supplying of fresh milk, cream and butter. Today these dairy farms are often too small to support their families–unless you can make farmstead cheeses. There is a growing demand for artisanal cheeses, and this NE SARE project has now begun to re-connect these communities with those markets.
Between the milking, chores, and crops, very little time remained for the family farms to explore the regulations and finances of an on-farm cheese industry. Several farmers turned to the County Agricultural Economic Developer and Cooperative Extension to show what it takes to turn their high quality milk into an appropriate return.
With the funding provided, the agencies and farmers worked together to design and build an affordable, functional, inspected, modular cheese plant to transport between several farms to train the farmers in the art of cheesemaking. Because of the interest in the project and the concerns over the total weight/mobility of the unit, several farmers came to group training at the Tonjes Farm Dairy site the first year of operations instead of moving and re-licensing the plant immediately as we had originally proposed.
With the 12’ x 36’ trailer containing the 8’ cooler, 6’ boiler/utility room and 22’ make room, a practical and workable facility had been developed. The same floorplan and equipment was re-engineered into a factory built unit that Stebbins Engineering in Watertown NY could produce with 3-A approval for use in all 50 states. This stimulated the need for formation of the Sullivan County Agricultural Local Development Corporation for the ownership of the unit and Service Mark and for the development of the www.thecheesemobile.com web site.
Initially the planning phase of the project required a profile of the farm including the milking herd, the family structure, the market and the proposed schedule for a projected volume of products. The Equipment requirements needed to be selected and scaled to meet the goals of the farmers and the NY State regulatory requirements. Equally important in each “case study” was assessing market demand which was guided by chefs and a leading NYC cheese retailer who visited the farm.
The construction of the facility was a collaborative effort between three farmers, the County, cheesemaking consultants and the State Milk Control Inspector. The challenges were documented, but overcome, and NY Plant # 36-8446 became operational.
Within this process, the first prototype of a 200 gallon, “Tri-Vat” was created. When the instruction began it was a joint training participating farmers. Soon, the Tonjes Farm Dairy began marketing mozzarella, ricotta and Yogurt in the NYC Greenmarket. The Cornell Cooperative Extension, 3-County Dairy Tour brought in the interested dairymen from surrounding region and spawned the term “cheesemobile” for the unit.
The inquiries about the project were numerous, from both the region and 10 other states. This interest was primarily dairy farms, and agricultural professionals, however the team from Stebbins Engineering analyzed the unit and re-designed an improved modular plant.
With pending orders for several of these new units, the New York State Assembly created a line item in the 2004 budget to fund the building of the first factory-built “cheesemobile.” Ultimately, when the budget allows, there will be a pre-approved cheesemaking training unit available and affordable to small farmers in the Northeast.
All of the equipment, regulatory, instructor, and economic data needed to be made available to the public in a simple format. Besides numerous mailings to inquires, this outreach is also accomplished at the website for the project, www.thecheesemobile.com.
Demonstrations that lead to 4 successful value-added dairy enterprises.
One dairy farm producing 3 product categories, (natural rind aged raw milk cheese, fresh milk cheeses, and yogurt) and direct marketing them in New York City.
One dairy farm is holding out for the new cheesemobile to make waxed cheddar types and bottle whole milk for sale on the farm that is diversifying into agri-tourism.
One small dairy operated by a single woman who wants to partner with a renowned cheesemaker who has already purchased a home near her farm and filed the DBA as the Cochecton Cheese Company.
Two other regional operations are pending, a winery/dairy in the Finger Lakes that wants the wine and cheese combination for sale at the farm store; and a sheep dairy in the Hudson Valley that could use this sized unit for cheese production from their herd.
At least 3 individuals will have acquired the technical and financial expertise to support transition of local dairies to this type of enterprise.
Two individuals with the technical expertise, (Tim Tonjes & Evelyn Weissman); one with the financial expertise (Rick Bishop).
Secondary Performance target: A “Case Studies” SARE Bulletin
These are slowly emerging from the project. The timeline is delayed because of the data turnover rate with the minimum of 4 months required to ripen the aged cheeses. It is in progress and will be given a minimal treatment on the website.
During the design phase, the concerns included the ability to complete a facility and conduct the training within the budget. The County Office of General Services assured that all purchasing was free and open to competition and audited. The equipment and construction needed prior approval and the design recommendations of a cheesemaker.
It was important that this project set an example by selecting and designing the best equipment for farmstead cheesemaking. The capacity and type of storage and handling equipment needed to be optimum for the cheeses that were to be produced.
INSTRUCTORS: The majority of the instruction and design assistance came from Peter Dixon, dairy foods consultant from Putney, Vermont. He continues to be one of the most important assets to the project as it evolves into the next phase with the SARE application for “Cheesemaking Training for Farmers and Extension.”
Kathy Biss, a formally educated cheese maker from Scotland, has introduced many unique cheeses and processes in here annual instructional sessions. Her compliment was that the cheesemobile was “a great idea and it provides real experience.”
Margaret Morris of Glengarry Cheesemaking was the last instructor secured for the project to provide another perspective and instruction in making additional products.
TRAILER: The total weight of the equipment – filled with milk and cheese was calculated, we ordered a 200 lb / square foot capacity, (2” x 6” steel Joists – 16” OC.).
Other specifications included a 50 amp service panel, recessed lighting, washable wall and ceilings, 2 axels, one keyed entry door and a set of two 32” latch doors for equipment.
FLOOR: Materials considered for the floor surface ranged from epoxy coated wood to Stainless Steel diamond plate, acrylic membrane, and even Rhino liner. The final choice was to use pitched concrete for a floor; it was affordable, practical, but heavy.
BOILER: First the decision to use a hot water boiler instead of steam, because we were doing the plumbing, and it is easier to work with hot water. Secondly the size of the boiler was caculated: to heat 200 gallons of milk and 150 gallons of hot water, (approximately 3000 lbs. of liquid) to be heated approximately 100 degrees in one hour requires 300,000 BTUs. We added 10% for error and 10% for wash-up water capacity and arrived at a 375,000 BTU Boiler which works very well. It is easy for a farmer to service and maintain but is much heavier than the engineer’s recommendation of an on-demand propane hot water heater which also requires no chimney.
COOLER: The standard cooler units that are available would utilize high velocity fans for the evaporator blowers. These air speeds will dry out the cheese too much and crack the rind. We were well advised to special order an 1,100 cubic feet per minute (cfm) unit instead of using the normal 1,600 cfm fans. Where necessary in the trailer, foam insulation was installed for a total R value of 30; this was covered with Fiberglas board.
VAT: The single most important and expensive item in the project became the pasteurizer. The use of one unit for both pasteurizing and cheesemaking saves equipment costs and conserves space. This idea was first implemented with the retro-fitting of an ice bank milk tank into the Duo-Vat, which is accepted as a pasteurizer in many States.
New York State will no longer accept the use of a Duo Vat because of the possibility of cold corners (more than 1 degree F variation) during pasteurizing. The demand for a unit that could be sold in all 50 states for farmstead cheesemaking convinced Tank Specialties, a Division of Stebbins Engineering, to design and build the first ever 3-A Combination Vat for use in this project. We have continued to collaborate to improve on this central piece of equipment; this important innovation will benefit small farmers around the World as Stebbins has plants in Queensland, Johannesburg and London.
STEAM GENERATOR: When using hot water for pasteurizing, a separate source of steam must be made to heat the airspace above the milk. We used a propane burner to heat a pressure cooker that supplies steam through a stainless hose, into the pasteurizer.
AIR HANDLER: It is required that the air be changed 6-10 times per hour in the “make room” to remove humidity. This air must be filtered as it typically comes in from a barnyard environment. Although not strictly required, we decided to install a HEPA Filtration unit to eliminate dust, odors, and bacteria. The 2,000 cubic feet of air in the make room space is changed 9 times per hour with a 300 cfm Lifebreath HEPA Filtration unit and Lifebreath heat exchanger. The farmers and regulators are satisfied with this system, and we were granted an open-capping exemption for yogurt primarily because of the performance of the air handler.
CIP: Because of the elevation and proximity of the trailer to the milk room, we were able to install two 1- ½ inch stainless milk pipe lines with a 1% pitch back towards the barn and thus they can be cleaned from the CIP in the milk room.
UV WATER TREATMENT: To avoid the constant threat of contamination from the water supply, a 110 Volt UV water treatment unit was installed in the ¾ inch supply line.
MILK HANDLING REGULATIONS
Once each year, the state requires a training class for the person responsible for the pasteurization of the milk–the licensed, Processing Plant Superintendent (PPS). Each batch of milk is required to be checked with an antibiotic test kits; this is a simple, inexpensive procedure that must be performed.
The measuring stick used to gauge the milk used in each batch must be calibrated and approved by the Ag & Markets, weights and measures person.
The milk Dealer’s License Application has an initial license fee of $100.
The farmers needs to apply to the Milk Market administrator to be designated as a produce-handler. The Dairy Promotion assessments bust be paid directly by the farmer each month – $0.10 / cwt State and $0.05 / cwt National Dairy Promotion order.
NOTE: These reports, applications and licenses are required, but are not tedious for the farmer. It is the pre-conceived hassle of these regulations that stop many farmers from proceeding; once they are understood, it becomes routine.
WASTE MANAGEMENT: Both the floor water and whey are drained by gravity to the manure spreader for field application. The nutrient impact of whey from each 200 gallon batch of cheese is 1.7 cow equivalent / week; 2 batches = 3.4 cow equivalents, etc.
MARKETING: Fresh cheeses needed a separate storage from the raw-milk aged cheeses so a 6’ free-standing, cooler unit was installed in the make room for pasteurized products.
A market-driven instruction curriculum was designed around what would sell well and combined with what would create an immediate cash flow. One instructor, Kathy Biss, was actually taken through the Greenmarket and Murray’s Cheeses in Manhattan. It was vital that the best product be produced with the resources available, and that this product be in demand. A renowned chef, Colin Aleveras, who uses only American Cheeses at Manhattan’s “Tasting Room,” advised the farmers even before the unit was operational.
Design and equipment recommendations developed with cheesemakers.
Pilot farmers needs and goals profiled for the “”Case Studies” and project design.
NY Ag & Markets Milk Control Division meeting for review of first design draft.
Sullivan County Legislature established $79,000 operating account for project.
Market demands and opportunities evaluated.
Preliminary economic analysis of product categories completed.
Obtained final design approval.
Equipment and services bids completed by County General Services.
Networking with other farmstead cheesemakers / consumers to for NY State Guild.
Constructed the unit over the winter with the farmers. NOTE: because the budget was limited, and the project a one-of-a-kind endeavor; the County authorized the Ag Economic Developer to work on structural, plumbing, electric, heating, and air handling.
Obtained inspection from NY State for Plant # 36-8446, beginning production in April.
Ongoing dissemination of information packets to interested parties.
Several cheesemakers conducted multi-day, on-site training with the farmers.
The Manhattan Greenmarket in Union Square was the test market for the cheeses.
NOTE: The demand for raw-milk aged cheeses far exceeded the fresh milk cheeses.
Ongoing dissemination of information packets to interested parties.
The conversion of the cooler space to racked, 52 degree fresh rind cheese aging.
Negotiations with Stebbins engineering to build another prototype cheesemobile.
The second pilot farm was being trained with the Tonjes, waiting for prototype II.
After several 3-month aging cycles the 3 aged cheeses were perfected.
The unit started to be used for up to 5 days / week to make 7 different products.
Farmer began to design and plan for the new cheesemaking cellar.
Sullivan County created an Agricultural Local Development Corporation to own the “cheesemobile” and the Service Mark.
Economic analysis of the project completed.
Website design contracted for.
Very recently the data for the website has begun to be provided to the web designer for the site at www.thecheesemobile.com. This will contain the project history, design, costs, consultants, manufacturers lists, regulatory requirements, farm case studies and an economic analysis for farmers to take to the bank. Upon completion this will be an important reference for years to come for the numerous farm families who are seeking the fundamental information we had to gather to make this NE SARE project a success.
Impacts of Results/Outcomes
Regional dairy farmers have been very curious about the farmstead cheese business. They are very observant about the financial benefits to the farmer, (new baler, new truck etc.) and have been convinced it is possible to make cheese from their milk too. Across the State, people have referred to the fact that “they are doing it in Sullivan County.”
Mainstream Economic Developers have bought into the value of the farmstead cheese industry as a Tourism promotion engine and another piece of the gourmet food cluster.
The NYC Food/Art community a.k.a. “foodies,” have followed the project and support at local farmers markets and retail chains has been very strong. It is very good cheese too.
The manufacturers of the vat now have an example to point to for interested farmers. The majority of interested farmers would never use a modular unit but have benefited from the lists of the sources and costs of equipment that we have distributed. The floorplan has also been useful to many farmers, and numerous inquiries were directed at the milk reporting and licensing requirements.
The marketing experience from the project is specific in many cases to the geographic location for sales. A general market assessment that has proven true, came from a NYC Chef who reminded us that “the entire State of Vermont has built the farmstead cheese industry around producing a good Tomme”, which continues to be our most profitable and practical type of cheese to make.
The hardworking, frugal farmer knows now how to build a cheese plant for under $100,000 that can convert $1,500 worth of milk into $5,000 worth of cheese weekly.
Interested parties can order a turn-key cheese plant from Stebbins Engineering.
The farmers now realize there is a slow learning curve in the art of with aged cheeses.
Very few farmers were interested in a mobile unit; conversely, most agency people were. The self-contained, 53’ highway trailer / mobile cheese plant, or “Cheese on Wheels” technology was perfected in 2004 by Darlington Dairy Supply Co., Darlington, WI with a price tag of $250,000. This would serve as a demonstration unit for County or State Fairs, Dairy Demonstration Days, or for an Cooperative Extension training circuit.
The Sullivan County “Cheesemobile”, Prototype II is not as readily moved and set up but would work as a regional training unit as well. The benefit of our 12’ wide unit is that it is proven to be large enough to produce a significant volume of cheese for a start-up cows-milk cheese operation, and is suitable for processing all of the milk from a typical sheep or goat herd. The cost for the “cheesemobile II” has been quoted at $169,800, but is expected to go down by 15-20% if four or more units are built simultaneously.
Financial institutions need to understand the cash flow challenges with producing aged cheeses. One farmstead cheese operation we visited had over 28,000 lbs of cheese in inventory with a retail value of over $400,000. Some cheeses need 8 to 10 months to reach maturity and their peak flavor and value. As was the case with the Tonjes Farm Dairy, it is important to keep cash on hand with the fresh cheese line while “banking” shelves full of the aged cheeses. The fresh cheeses return around $600 per 1,000 lbs of milk with more labor than the aged cheeses which average around $800 per $1,000. Yogurt has also proven to be an excellent product for immediate return on the milk and it grosses over $1,000 per 1,000 lb of milk when direct marketed in pints. If a plant is designed for only raw milk aged cheeses, the capital equipment savings will be significant but the returns and the slow learning curve will require adequate capital be available for holding the cheeses as the improve with age.
Areas needing additional study
Cheese is profitable on a small scale and the market for American, signature farmstead cheeses of quality will continue to strengthen for years to come. It is uncharted territory for nearly all farmers and ag educators, validating the need for all of the networks and exchanges that we can possibly encourage.