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California dairy legacy built on value-added collaborations

Editor’s note: As part of our series, “From Cow to Curd: A Look Across the Nation,” Cheese Market News takes a look at the cheese and dairy industry across the United States. Each month we examine a different state or region, looking at key facts and evaluating areas of growth, challenges and recent innovations. This month we are pleased to introduce our latest state — California.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wisconsin — The dairy industry in California dates back more than 200 years, when in 1769 Father Junipero Serra began to establish 21 missions along the state’s coastline. The California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB) says Serra introduced dairy cows and cheesemaking, as well as many varieties of fruits and vegetables, including grapes, laying the foundation for California’s agriculture industry.

The state’s cow population reached 100,000 by 1860 following California’s Gold Rush. CMAB also notes that Monterey Jack, developed from old mission recipes, was first marketed in California in 1882; Dry Jack was created in San Francisco in 1915; and California Teleme was developed by Greek immigrants in the 1920s.

Today California is the top milk-producing state in the nation, with 39.8 billion pounds produced by its 1.7 million cows in 2017, and it is No. 2 in cheese production at 2.5 billion pounds in 2017, according to USDA data.

• Adding value

Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese COO Lynn Giacomini Stray, whose family has been dairy farming in Marin County for three generations, says this area was the state’s milkshed before larger dairies started establishing themselves in the valley between Sacramento and Fresno.

“In the 1950s there were about 300 dairies in Marin County,” she says, noting that now the county is down to about 20 dairies. “There’s great soil and moderate temps year-round. It really is set up perfectly for dairy animals.”

The dairies farther south in the Central Valley, which average around 1,000 cows per dairy, today are the main source of fluid milk for California. Marin County meanwhile has become a hub for quality farmstead and artisan cheese products as the smaller dairies looked for ways to add value to their milk and remain economically viable.

“In the late 1990s when we saw conventional dairy prices remain stable but inputs had been increasing, the smaller-size dairies had to look at how to continue to dairy and be sustainable, and also pass along to the next generation,” Stray says.

Stray’s parents, Bob and Dean Giacomini, had been selling fluid milk for 40 years and wanted to bring their four daughters into the family business. They decided to start a cheese business on the farm as it passed on to the next generation.

Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese began making its raw milk Original Blue in 2000 and has since added Point Reyes Toma, Bay Blue and Gouda, all made from pasteurized milk. Stray and her three sisters purchased the business from their parents in 2010.

Dairy farmers in other parts of the state also have worked together to process and market value-added products, some on a very large scale.

In 1984, 12 central California dairy families, seeking to maximize the value of their Jersey cows’ high solids milk, created Hilmar Cheese Co. in Hilmar, California.

“They invested heavily in research, the latest technology and staff excellence,” says Denise Skidmore, director, education and public relations, Hilmar Cheese Co. Inc. “Committed to innovation and sustainability, Hilmar Cheese Co., and our division, Hilmar Ingredients, has grown to serve customers in more than 50 countries.”

Today about 200 dairy farm families directly supply milk to Hilmar Cheese Co.’s manufacturing sites in Hilmar and Turlock, California. The company also now has processing facilities in Texas. Hilmar converts this milk into a variety of cheeses, whey protein, lactose and milk powders.

Meanwhile, 43 percent of California’s milk is produced by the 400 dairy farm members of California Dairies Inc. (CDI), the nation’s second-largest dairy processing cooperative in the United States.

Headquartered in Visalia, California, CDI was formed in 1999 after the merger of three of California’s major cooperatives: California Milk Producers, Danish Creamery and San Joaquin Valley Dairymen, all of which had roots dating back to the turn of the 20th century.

CDI manufactures fluid milk products, butter and milk powders. It manufactures 22 percent of the U.S. butter market share and 42 percent of the nation’s milk powder. CDI has sales of more than $4 billion across all 50 states and in more than 50 foreign countries. Its producers, who ship 17 billion pounds of milk annually, are located from San Diego County in the south to Sacramento County in the north.

• Educating consumers

For both large commodity processors and smaller farmstead operations, California cheese companies find value in special events, visitor centers and other opportunities to interact with consumers, promote their products and to provide education about the dairy industry.

“California has the benefit of almost 40 million consumers,” Skidmore says. “The challenge is the population is less connected with food sources and helping them understand the importance and contributions of agriculture.”

Hilmar Cheese is a wholesale manufacturer, so while its guests can’t purchase its brand in local stores, its visitor center in Hilmar, California, is focused on education and enjoying cheese. Hilmar also recently added an escape room focused on dairy to immerse visitors in the dairy experience.

“Our gift shop offers our Hilmar labeled cheese, along with a large selection of California farmstead cheeses and international cheeses,” Skidmore says. “The visitor center hosts about 17,000 students on school tours and another 140,000 guests each year to learn about the importance of the dairy industry.”

Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese, which milks about 450 cows — primarily Holsteins — holds several educational programs at its on-site culinary center, The Fork. Wine dinners, cooking classes and cheesemaking classes are among the events that typically will sell out in less than an hour after they are announced on the company’s website.

“Every event starts with a tour of our dairy, the milk barn, nutrition for our cows and renewable energy programs,” Stray explains. “Then they go into the creamery and see how we take the raw material and make cheese. We go back into the culinary center, connecting the dots of what’s happening out on the farm to the plate, and appreciating those flavors.”

The creamery’s cheeses have won national and international acclaim, including at the most recent World Cheese Awards and Good Food Awards. But Stray also credits interest from the surrounding communities as part of what has made Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese so successful.

“There are definitely foodies in our backyard,” she says. “I don’t know if we would have been as successful if we weren’t in the Bay Area from the beginning.”

She adds that there also is a tremendous camaraderie of cheesemakers and other businesses in the area, including the wine and beer industries and groups like the California Artisan Cheese Guild.

“Not every state has a guild, so we’re fortunate to have enough cheesemakers to support that,” Stray says.

• Expanded opportunities

CMAB, which is funded by California’s dairy farm families, also helps the state’s cheesemakers and other dairy processors with marketing and promotional activities throughout the United States and internationally.

Jennifer Giambroni, director of communications, CMAB, notes that several of the state’s cheese manufacturers are in expansion mode, including Greenberg Cheese, California Artisan Products Inc. (formerly Peluso Cheese), Valley Ford Cheese and Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese.

Valley Ford Cheese & Creamery, a farmstead cheese operation in Sonoma County, California, will open a new 5,000-square-foot retail shop in February near its dairy. The shop will feature its company’s products, as well as other local items, a gift shop and bakery, and a private tasting room. The new space also will offer customers viewing of an aging room of its flagship product, Estero Gold Reserve, as well as a brand new cut and wrap room. The company’s shipping and distribution also will be moved to this facility.

“We have nearly doubled production over the past year and are in the process of launching our first line of pasteurized fresh cheeses, so opening a brand new avenue of sales growth couldn’t have come at a better time,” says Joe Moreda Jr., vice president and plant manager, Valley Ford Cheese & Creamery.

“We plan on hosting special events at the new facility, group tours, occasional live music, and also acting as a meeting place for industry and community gatherings.”

He adds that the new facility, located on the rural north coast of Sonoma County on Highway 1, is an ideal location for tourists as well as local clientele.

Earlier this year, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese opened a new processing facility in Petaluma, California, that doubles its cheesemaking capacity. It continues to make its Original Blue from the raw milk of its own herd at the Point Reyes creamery, while its pasteurized Bay Blue, Point Reyes Toma and Gouda production have moved to the new facility in Petaluma, which sources milk from local dairies.

Stray adds some new products also are in the works at the new plant.

“We’ve solved one of our challenges by adding the second creamery, where we are able to expand and get closer to our customers,” Stray says. “In Petaluma, we’re right next to the 101 freeway, which is closer to customers and better for freight. We’re always looking at how to serve our customers better.”

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