The Hometown Creamery Revival
The Hometown Creamery Revival (HCR) was conceived of to support the revitalization of small-scale dairies and rural economies in the South through creation of unique, ecologically produced dairy products to be offered in local and regional outlets. The Southeast region of the United States continues to be the area losing the most dairies – down 42.3% since 1992 and down 6.9% from 1999, according to Hoard’s Dairyman (October 25, 2000).
The objectives of the Hometown Creamery Revival project are to:
1.) conduct necessary processing and market research
2) encourage cooperation and information exchange between formerly isolated dairy farmers and provide educational resources and opportunities for participating farmers
3) emphasize soil and water quality improvement, humane animal treatment and food safety as essential elements of sustainable dairying;
4) design and oversee construction of low-cost facilities
5) begin production, develop shared marketing tactics and begin trial marketing within the local region
6) involve end-users by eliciting direct feedback from them
7) document and disseminate all of the above.
The project has integrated elements of all of these objectives into our activities. It is particularly pleasing to see the increasing interaction between dairy farmers through attendance at pasture walks, workshops and conferences, as well as through e-mail discussion groups and print media. Hundreds of farmers and homestead cheesemakers have contacted the HCR office and individual participants, and many have become involved in regional activities for the first time as a result of the information they received. We’ve found that the market for many farmstead dairy products is ample, and are encouraged by consumer trends toward fresher and more unique foods.
Some outreach activities of the Hometown Creamery Revival project include: a continually updated Web site, cheesemaking classes and pasture walks, participation and co-sponsorship of e-mail discussion groups, lending materials from our library, writing columns and articles for existing publications, and publishing a quarterly newsletter for small-scale dairies.
In 2000 The Small Dairy Resource Book was published by the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) early in the year, and sold out of its first printing of 1000 copies by mid-year. Multiple copies of the Resource Book are often requested by farmers and universities for distribution at field days and workshops.
Through all of these avenues, we have provided assistance and information to a number of individuals and groups interested in starting their own small dairy businesses. The project has established working relationships with other organizations, including the Western North Carolina Nature Center, the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, the Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG), the Virginia Forage and Grasslands Council, the American Cheese Society, the Vermont Cheese Council, the Jacksonville Center (a local tourist center), New River Community Partners (a regional rural development group) and Slow Food (an international consumer group).
We have collected most of the information for a descriptive booklet on value-adding facilities; this will be combined with other information in a “Getting Started in Dairy Processing” manual, to be completed and published as the final work of the project in early 2001. This book has been delayed because (1) the information to be collected and distilled has proved to be much greater in volume and scope than expected; (2) several people who were supposed to be contributing to this work have not had any time to do so; and (3) CreamLine and cheesemaking workshops, as well as other commitments, have kept me really busy this year. However, I’ve set aside a period of time between December 2000 and February 2001 for getting this publication finished.
As the project has progressed and widened its influence, the challenges of small-scale value-adding for dairies have become clearer.
The #1 issue for most small dairies is the “stainless steel wall:” the legal requirements for equipment and facilities that make entry into dairy processing so expensive and risky. While there are ways to reduce costs, it is very difficult to get started in cheesemaking for less than $40,000 in capital outlay and/or other assets (such as an existing building and a thriving herd of animals); bottling the milk of 100 cows on-farm can require a quarter million dollars or more.
Once the initial investment is made, however, the challenges may become even more daunting: maintaining shelf space in crowded dairy cases, estimating and keeping pace with consumer demand, finding good employees, and keeping up with new regulations are just some of the daily trials small dairy processors face.
On a broader scale, the entire U.S. artisanal cheese industry, still in its infancy, is threatened by the possibility that the FDA will make pasteurization mandatory, or will require such an extended aging period that many cheeses would be well past their prime if aged that long. Furthermore, an almost irrational expansion of huge dairies and cheese plants in the West threatens to further depress prices in markets already suffering from cheap food policies and overproduction.
On the bright side, growing numbers of consumers seem to be recognizing the value of keeping small-scale farmers on the farm. They encourage small farmers by spending their food dollars at proliferating farmers’ markets, CSA farms, and other direct marketing avenues. Farmers and their farms are realizing substantial benefit from new grazing practices that reduce costs and increase environmental stewardship. Increasingly, farmers are coming out of their former isolation to learn from others and share their experiences.