Assessing market demand for Finger Lakes specialty cheese

2014 Annual Report for ONE13-192

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2013: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Monika Roth
Cornell Cooperative Extension Tompkins County

Assessing market demand for Finger Lakes specialty cheese


The goal of this project is to assess current and potential marketing options for Finger Lakes artisan cheese producers. Members are the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail (12 producers) are the target audience for this research, however there is a total of 26 artisan cheese makers in the Finger Lakes who are also part of the study area. Research is focused on current marketing, potential additional outlets and capacity to increase production, distribution logistics, and wholesale pricing. The end product will be a marketing plan for the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail, with benchmarks that will benefit small artisan cheese producers in general.

During the past year, activities included: addressing challenges of scale of operation and distribution, as well as liability concerns among trail members – how this impacts cooperative marketing; FL Cheese trail open weekends and Cheese Festival as a key marketing strategies to increase sales – evaluate impact vs effort; new promotional brochure to increase outreach and awareness; survey and business/marketing profiles were completed for Cheese trail members and for a few non-trail producers to date; identification of producers and outlets used in other parts of NY state—what is the viability of these for the Finger Lakes.

The balance of the time remaining on this project which ends April 30, 2015, will be focused on gathering more robust data in order to write a useful marketing plan. A key challenge is the variety of types, volume and pricing that makes it hard to quantify both retail and wholesale price points for determining target margins. Scale of operation also factors heavily on price.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Primary Research via survey/interviews

-developed survey questionnaire

-followed up with modifications (original survey was too cumbersome) and sent an email questionnaire to all FL Cheesemakers

-minimal email returns; followed by phone or in person interviews

-met with two key Finger Lakes distributors (Artisan Foods & Regional Access) to review services and outlets they provide to area cheese producers

-obtained info on FL and statewide artisan cheese producers from NYS Dept. of Ag & Markets, Div of Milk Control in order to quantify the overall level of activity of artisan cheese making in NYS

 Summary of data:

-prepared profiles of individual producers (18 so far)

-analyzing data provided by producers in terms of volume, prices, outlets (analysis to be completed in Jan. 2015)

-impact of current marketing efforts including group events like FL Cheese Trail Open House weekends and the Cheese Festival (now operating since 2012) –

Trail open house attendance has been decreasing since started in 2010 owing to a number of reasons—the concept of the cheese trail is no longer new…additional promotional strategies may be needed

FL Cheese Festival, as a onetime event, in July 2014, attracted 3,500, doubling attendance since its inception…this may be drawing some visitors away from the open house weekends. Additionally because this event is in one convenient location, producers at the far ends of the trail are not at a location disadvantage. Several producers indicated they had more sales at this event, than they do all year at their farmstead.

Trail members have also become very active marketing at winery events which has some very distinct benefits in that all they need to do is show up vs do all the work that is involved in promotion and marketing of an event like the festival.

Trail brochure and website are two additional marketing tools being used.

Through this project, we are attempting to analyze cost and returns associated with the above events so that producers can decide where to place their limited time and marketing efforts.



This project was restarted in 2014 after a consultant hired in 2013 left to take on another position. This required us to re-budget and figure out how to accomplish the work with current staff (primarily, Monika Roth-Ag team leader (Cheese trail co-founder), Avram Miner-CCE Local foods assistant who is also employed by one of the Cheese companies, and Elizabeth Spoth-work study student). Upon approval of the grant extension, the following timeline was proposed:

 January-March 2014

Planned: Meet with the trail members/project steering committee to discuss data-gathering and outcomes they would like to see for the project. Gather baseline data and summarize.


-Sent survey instrument to FL Cheese Trail members to gather data from those that had not completed the survey in 2013.

-Revised survey to make it easier to complete – questions instead of template. A few more people responded to email requests for info. Need to follow up with calls!

-Cheese Trail Summit meeting held on March 7, 2014 at CCETC – key focus was on value of trail membership, increasing memberships, input on market study needs, and liability issues associate with cooperative marketing (this turned out to be a bigger issue than expected and resulted in one of the original trail members leaving the trail for 2014). For the purpose of this study however, that producer is still considered to be part of the project and has provided marketing data and project direction.


April – June 2014

Planned: Research marketing outlets in the Finger Lakes.


-Trail open house held on May 24 (one day) – positive feedback on attendance and sales; surveys indicated new customers were present. The two most distant (near the PA border farms) reported having 50 people while others hosted anywhere from 100-350 visitors. Sales ranged from around $500 to $5000 depending on the farm location.

-Updated trail brochure for improved marketing.

-Met with both key distributors – Regional Access and Artisan Foods to identify outlets where they distribute products (some proprietary resistance to sharing info about all buyers).

-Visited a few outlets in the region to compare prices and products (wineries, restaurants, and retail stores – mostly near Ithaca).


July – September 2014

Planned: Research into buyers and outlets beyond the Finger Lakes.


-Obtained the NYS Dept. of Ag & Markets Cheese producer list to identify producers beyond the region

-Visited websites of these producers to assess their marketing strategies

-Discussed with Regional Access (distribute throughout NYS) to identify their prime cheese buyers and what expectations and challenges they experience in moving NYS cheeses. Key among them are the opportunity to sample, obtain volume on a regular basis and find a price point that works for the various outlets (mostly small retailers).

-FL Cheese Festival held on July 26 – much trail member effort went into this event with good results.

Three cheese producers indicated they sold out of their entire supply; several indicated sales were higher for this event than for the entire year. 3,500 attendance, has more than doubled since the inception of the event.

-Sept. 17, held a cheese trail meeting and provided an update on the grant progress to date.


October – December 2014

Planned: Review findings to date with producers.


-Shared results at Sept. 17 meeting –  No additional meeting was held before year end.

-Worked with Elizabeth Spoth, work study student, to complete profile info on producers (18 completed) – required further phone calls and emails to extract info from producers.

-Follow up with distributors to identify potential outlets not currently served by producers.


January – April 2015

Planned: Final findings and marketing plan.  

To do:

-Identify data gaps and hustle to get info

-Prepare summaries of findings (from mostly raw data)

-Meet with cheese trail members to share findings

-Prepare marketing plan

-Project ends 4/30/2015

-Final project report due no later than 6/30/2015


Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Farm profiles reveal that a variety of marketing strategies are being used by small scale cheese makers in the Finger Lakes. It reveals that there is a high level of effort devoted to marketing, the question remains, which channels are producing the best returns for the effort made. Most producers are engaged in their own marketing and distribution to local outlets such as farm markets (operated by other farmers) or small specialty stores in their own communities…(20-30 mile distribution routes), and those with sufficient volume are distributing via the two regional distributors (Regional Access & Artisan Foods). There is clearly not common marketing strategy but most variety of direct marketing strategies. Producers sell at their farms – via self-serve stands to full serve shops with daily hours. Many sell at farmers markets. A few have CSA or club schemes; a few utilize on line sales. Wineries and restaurants are the next most common channel beyond stores and farm markets. In addition, cheese trail events are an important sales vehicle. The Cheese Festival is a significant venue generating the highest annual sales per day. Other events like the open house (2 held in 2014) and winery events help generate additional exposure and sales.

The Cheese Trail has addressed some of the inefficiencies through joint promotion via the website, brochure, marketing and event coordination. It seems that some efficiency could be gained through great coordination and collaboration in local and regional distribution. Improved branding via all outlets would also raise the overall profile of the trail and its members.

Pricing among producers does not vary hugely suggesting an upper price barrier around $20/lb and a range of $8 to $28 per pound at retail. Wholesale price discounts are hard to understand and need more cost/return analysis by the producers.

                A more thorough analysis of information gathered to date and gaps in data is scheduled during the final phase of this project so that we can make effective recommendations for producers in a marketing plan.


Rose Belforti
Finger Lakes Dexter Creamery LLC
1835 Black Rock Rd.
King Ferry, NY 13081
Office Phone: 3153643581
Matthew LeRoux
Ag Marketing Specialist
Cornell Cooperative Extension Tompkins County
615 Willow Ave
Ithaca, NY 14850
Office Phone: 6072722292
Sarah VanOrden
Vanillen Dairy
6762 Log City Rd.
Ovid, NY 14521
Office Phone: 6073270363
Tom Murray
Muranda Cheese Co
3075 State Route 96 south
Waterloo , NY 13165
Office Phone: 3155391103
Keeley McGarr-O'brien
Keeley's Cheese Company
539 Rt. 34B
King Ferry, NY 13081
Office Phone: 3157306872
Carmella Hoffman
Sunset View Creamery
4970 County Rd. 14
Odessa, NY 14869
Office Phone: 6075942095
Nancy Richards
Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese Co.
5491 Bergen Rd.
Trumansburg, NY 14886
Office Phone: 6073873108
Fay Benson
Small Farm Specialist/Small Dairies
Cornell Cooperative Extension/CU Small Farms Program
60 Central Ave.
Cortland , NY 14850
Office Phone: 6077535213
Steve Messmer
Lively Run Goat Dairy
8979 County Rd. 142
Interlaken, NY 14847
Office Phone: 6075324647
Lorin Hostetler
Shtayburne Farm
2909 Chase Rd.
Rock Stream, NY 14878
Office Phone: 3152702249
Lisa Engelbert
Engelbert Farms
182 Sunnyside Rd.
Nichols, NY 13812
Office Phone: 6076993775