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Deep South seeing less dairy farms, more interest in ‘local’

Editor’s note: In 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 states— Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — Dairy farm numbers have declined in areas across the nation, but in the milk deficit Deep South, they have become even fewer and farther between as dairy farmers face challenges in weather, infrastructure and pricing.

Louisiana has 79 dairy farms, Mississippi has 65 and Alabama has 30, according to estimates provided by state agriculture and extension officials, who add they expect these numbers will continue to decrease.

Amanda Stone, assistant professor and extension dairy specialist, Mississippi State University, says dairy herds in Mississippi have drastically decreased since the pre-Katrina era. The 2005 hurricane destroyed a lot of dairies, and many decided not to rebuild or went into other types of agriculture.

“The Southeast has lost over 80% of their dairy herds and about 60% of dairy cows since 1992, more than any other region in the U.S.,” Stone says. “Several are in the process of planning for a sell out in coming months, so we will soon be at or below 60 herds in the state.”

Travis Senn, market analyst for Southeast Milk Inc. which represents about 20% of annual milk production in these three states, notes that heat and humidity in these areas continue to challenge producers, as well as the cost of corn and proteins. A lack of dairy infrastructure also has played a significant role, he says.

“One area not often discussed is the sparsity of producers. There are so few producers left in these states, simply assembling full loads of milk can become difficult, causing an increase in transportation costs,” Senn says. “Seasonal production curves also burden producers with many in the neighborhood of 40% production volatility.”

• Dairy support

Louisiana has had a dairy tax credit program in place for more than 10 years that credits farmers during any quarter when the price of production is determined to be greater than the amount received for their milk. Louisiana Department of Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain says this program had been somewhat successful in stabilizing the dairy farms in the state since it was implemented. However, even with this program in place, he notes the state’s dairy farmers have struggled the last two years and the state has lost 1,000 head of dairy cows in the last 12 months.

Strain attributes this loss to dairy farmers in the state aging and retiring and continuing challenges for the state’s small farms to profit under the current federal milk marketing order.

“I think there has to be some fundamental changes to the federal milk marking system and factors to better look at the cost of production,” Strain says. “In the long term, unless the mandatory minimum price of milk improves, there will be a decline in the dairy industry.”

Despite challenges with heat and humidity, Stone notes that Mississippi dairy farms have access to fertile land with a long growing season and easy access to water. Strain says many Louisiana dairies are concentrated in the upper part of Louisiana’s “toe” east of the Mississippi river.

“It’s always been a very unique place for dairy farms,” he says. “There are rolling hills and a lot of water — a really nice area for dairy cattle.”

Stone adds that Mississippi is an agricultural state, with legislators and other government officials who support farmers.

“We are fortunate to have a lot of support for agriculture in Mississippi, including great resources and people working for the Mississippi State University Extension Service, the Mississippi Farm Bureau and other organizations that support agriculture in general,” she says.

• Local products

Louisiana State University runs a food incubator through its ag center for those starting up ice cream, cheese or other food or farmstead businesses, Strain notes.

“At that facility, they help with development, selling, providing a commercial business plan and everything,” he says. “Farmstead is becoming more popular, and people are beginning to process and sell their own products. It’s a way to have value-added income and more net profitability. There is a large demand for locally-produced product.”

The Deep South is almost completely a fluid market, with Borden Dairy facilities in all three states as well as a handful of other processors and smaller farmstead operations. Wisconsin-based Marathon Cheese has a plant in Boonville, Mississippi, and Southeastern Cheese is in Uniontown, Alabama.

Well-known in the artisan cheese world is Belle Chevre, Elkmont, Alabama, which makes goat milk cheeses, cheesecakes and recently-introduced cream cheeses.

“Belle Chevre was founded 30 years ago by Liz Parnell, one of the grandmothers of the American artisan cheese movement,” says Tasia Malakasis, Belle Chevre’s president, who acquired the company in 2007. “She started the business in partnership with a woman who had a goat dairy in Alabama.”

Neither artisan goat milk cheeses nor goat dairies were a big thing in Alabama in the late 1980s, so Parnell sold her cheeses in specialty stores in larger markets like New York City.

“Liz told me at the time, she couldn’t give goat cheese away in Alabama,” Malakasis says. “I found (Belle Chevre) cheese in Dean & DeLuca in New York City. It was from my home state, Alabama, which surprised me — we’re known for barbecue and peanuts, not French-style gourmet cheese.”

Since acquiring the company, Malakasis says she has worked to make Belle Chevre cheeses more approachable and accessible to a wider audience. About five years ago, the company introduced a goat milk cheesecake, which has won international awards. A year ago, the company launched a line of cream cheeses based on Belle Chevre’s original Fromage Blanc recipe, which now is distributed nationally and growing in both specialty and mainstream markets.

Malakasis notes that with Belle Chevre’s growth, she had to work to help grow Alabama’s goat dairies to secure the necessary milk supply.

“Alabama didn’t have a lot of cheesemakers, so there were not a lot of dairies,” Malakasis says. “I spent a lot of time in the beginning with the Department of Agriculture, looking at what Wisconsin did to support its cheesemakers. I would try to get cow’s milk dairies to transition to goat milk. For a long time, I would distribute the goat dairy handbook to people who would show up at the creamery.”

Belle Chevre now sources its milk from a cooperative of goat dairies in the region and works closely with them as its cheese sales and production grow.

Meanwhile, demand for artisan cheese and goat milk cheese also has grown in Alabama, and Belle Chevre no longer has to focus only on selling to big-city markets.

“People here want to participate and have interest in the artisan and specialty cheese movement. Certainly there is interest in specialty cheeses in the state,” Malakasis says. “If you just look at the stores, even the mainstream ones, in the deli and specialty cheese area, there are so many more choices now.”

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