Farmstead cheese industry: Cheese makers share experience during 2010 dairy seminars

By DairyBusiness Staff

TULARE, Calif. – Three farmstead and artisan cheese makers shared their challenges and rewards during a panel discussion at the 2010 Dairy Profit Seminars at World Ag Expo.

John Fiscalini of Fiscalini Farms in Modesto, Marisa Simoes of Three Sisters Farmstead Cheese in Lindsay, and Bill Boersma of Bravo Farms in Traver, provided an inside view of the ups and downs of the cheese-making business through what most dairy producers will call the toughest economic times they have ever experienced.

Following are some excerpts from their presentations and discussions. Moderator was Harold Petersen, director of Industry and Producer Relations, who coordinates all special events for California Milk Advisory Board.

PETERSEN: Please tell us about yourselves and your business.

BOERSMA: I’m owner of Bravo Farms with facilities in Traver, Calif. Started as a farmstead cheese producer in 1995 and have been making cheese for the last 15 years. No longer own a cow, but still enjoy producing cheese.

FISCALINI: I’m a dairy farmer in Modesto and we’ve been on the same property for 98 years. My grandfather started farming in there in 1912. I started making cheese in 2000 after attending a meeting where Bill Boersma was speaking about the cheese business. We’ve been making a number of different cheeses for the last nine years. We recently installed a methane digester on our dairy so I’m not sure where my fame comes from these days – as a cheese maker or going up against the Air Board and escaping with my hide.

SIMOES: I’m the daughter of a dairy farmer and we make cheese at our dairy just east of here in Lindsay. I’ve been making cheese for about 10 years. I started right out of high school when my Dad convinced me to attend a farmstead cheese making short course at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but that was where I fell in love with the idea of  cheese making. At that time our family was actually renting Bill Boersma’s dairy and Bill was gracious and let us  use his facilities to experiment with cheese making and making cheese with him. From there we grew into a rented facility in Tulare and when our new dairy was ready do go we started making cheese on our own facility. That’s been about six years.

PETERSEN: Why Cheese? Why did you get into it and what were some of the really good things and what didn’t work so well?

BOERSMA: First of all, was at a WUD convention 1990 and Stanford Institute research study at the convention talked about how dairymen needed to get involved in their marketing…They had a good point and something we should be doing…I saw early on that the only way to survive was to grow like crazy and if you look back 20 years, that’s exactly what happened in the dairy industry. However, growth went the way of commodities which was great. I decided to go with a specialty. I didn’t realize how small the market was and a specialty was perceived to be anything but American made. European was the top of the line at that time. I dove into it without knowing what I was doing in the way of marketing. Happy to say that 20 years later, people are recognizing that cheeses that once were the mainstay of the European Style and that’s how I went into it.

Another major problem was the marketing factor. People were thinking we couldn’t produce enough. I just recently I had a company tell me that was more than they could handle. I’m proud to say that we busted down the doors pretty well.

FISCALINI: I actually went to a CMAB “So You Want To Become A Cheese Maker,” seminar 12 years ago or so. And the CMAB implied that the California cheese industry – at least the boutique/farmstead part – was where California wines had been 20 years earlier, and that we needed to follow the wine industry and be able to slide along on their coattails and bring the American consumer up to speed with cheese like they had been with their appreciation for California wines. Given that, and I always thought I would get rich quick, because we all know the middle man was an evil SOB that steals all the money between the dairy farm where the cheese is produced and the store where it gets sold. I’ve now become the middle man and I don’t think he’s evil and he sure as heck doesn’t get rich. My perception was I’m going to do the value added and cut out a couple steps where someone took a piece of the pie. I didn’t realize just how difficult it would be to get to that point and how much addition money I’d spend to in labeling issues and advertise and get my cheese into stores. I must be honest with you, I expected to make more money than I had made.

My family were cheese makers from 1705 to 1886 in Switzerland until my great grandfather moved over here and settled  at the dairy that is now the Cal Poly Dairy, where he made cheese for another 20 years. My grandfather moved to Modesto and stopped making cheese, so I kind of wanted to get back into that tradition. Lastly, I have three children, two daughters and a son. My daughters, I couldn’t see them truly taking over a part of the dairy. They like being girls…and don’t like wearing rubber boots and they don’t like getting their hands dirty. If I’m going to keep them in the family business maybe there is something else I could do like getting into the cheese-making business. Consequently, I have all three of my kids involved in the dairy farm and cheese plant.

SIMOES: That sounds like my story. I knew I wanted to do something in the dairy industry or general agriculture. But probably something within the family business. I probably felt a lot like John’s daughters. Milking, feeding and breeding didn’t interest me.   As far as the cow side of things that didn’t interest me either, but once cheese making was laid before me thought maybe this was a good alternative and something I could branch off from the dairy and could be my own under taking too, that was a big motivation for me.

PETERSEN: How did you choose your first cheese? Why, and are you still making it?

BOERSMA: My first cheese was kind of happenstance, I think…I wanted something really special. Also know that making cheddar especially with the non-standardized milk my cows at the time didn’t not understand the term standardization. Nor did I have a computer to make cheese with. Cheddar is not the easiest cheese in the world to produce if you do the actual hand cheddar milk curd kind of cheese. I thought, let me start with that and I’ll have some good practice and once I have that down I can go on to my real speciality cheese. As it turned out this was the first farmstead made cheddar east of the Alleghenies and I thought “hurrah,” I have a speciality. The other side of it is, cheddar is closely related to the commodity cheddar in name only. People would see my cheddar up against Land O’Lakes and Tillamook and see the price of mine and flinch, and then move on to the other cheddars. That was the problem of it, but that was the start of our specialty cheese.

Now comes the marketing part. Since that time in 1996, we came up with Chipotle. In those days no one knew how to pronounce it and nobody was making any cheese like that. So we did that and had no idea how popular it would be…when only 2 % of all specialty cheeses was flavored. It’s a little embarrassing that I’m not the greatest lover of jalapenos, but Chipotle is 50% of our total sales. We do the Al Capone thing and sell what people want.

FISCALINI: Our first cheese was San Joaquin Gold…the reason why I made it was because it is a mistake. I didn’t mean to make it, but it turned out to be an extraordinary cheese. Year-in and year-out it represents about 50 to 55% of all our sales. I made cheese with another cheese maker who had just come to work for me. The first day we made cheese, I wanted to make cheeses that I liked because if we couldn’t sell them, at least I could eat them. I didn’t like fresh cheeses, so I wanted to make cheddar and other hard cheeses.

We got a recipe for a Fontina cheese and the cheese maker said that this recipe is so simple even we can’t screw it up…needless to say, we screwed it up. A few months later, I was introduced to Mariano Gonzalez through the CMAB who became my head cheese maker.

He tasted our cheese and asked what kind it was. I said it was Fontina and he said, no it’s not Fontina. Anyone who knows Fontina knows this is not Fontina, but it’s too good to throw away. So he refined it and made it what it is today – the winner of two gold medals at the London World Cheese Awards.

SIMOES: We still only make two cheeses. One is Serena and the reason we decided to make it was what we could make with limited storage facility and with the equipment we had. Wanted to make a Romano-type cheese and had to age it at least 60 days. Serena is an aged Italian style cheese, fashioned after Parmigiano, but the cultures that we used turned it into something different – a real rich, nutty, earthy kind of cheese with a bandage wrapped with a natural rind, which cures naturally through the aging facility we have.

Our second cheese was a mistake too. When we were making cheese one day, our water heater went out and we couldn’t cook the curd like we normally do for Serena – a hard cheese that we have to cook to a pretty high temperature. We thought we could throw it away now, or keep making it and see what happens and throw it away later. So we made it like we would have made Serena, and ended up with a completely different cheese that was good in and of itself, but wasn’t Serena. We gave it a name of its own and a market and that’s how Serenita was born. To this day, these two cheeses are Three Sisters Farmstead Cheese specialties.

For the complete panel discussion via podcast, please visit www.DairyLine.com and click on “Dairy Profit Seminars” in the header. Then click on “WDB Seminar #7: Cheese Making.”

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