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South Atlantic states draw attention for artisan cheeses

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 states — Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — Scenic mountains, sunny beaches, historic tourist towns and big cities draw visitors to the South Atlantic states of Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Also drawing the attention of both locals and visitors to this region are artisan and farmstead cheesemakers, a fairly recent arrival to the landscape.

“There’s not a long history of cheesemaking in the South, since there was no way to keep it cool before refrigeration,” says Jessica Little, owner of Sweet Grass Dairy, Thomasville, Georgia.

When Little’s parents Al and Desiree Wehner started making cheese at Sweet Grass Dairy using milk from their pasture-fed Jersey-based herd in 2000, they were one of the first commercial cheesemakers in the state and one of only a handful in the South. Jessica and her husband Jeremy Little purchased the creamery in 2005. In 2017, Sweet Grass Dairy won the Small Business Rock Star award from the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

Sweet Grass Dairy makes a variety of European-style cheeses, such as its Camembert-style Green Hill, natural-rinded Asher Blue and semi-soft Thomasville Tomme. Little notes that there isn’t a lot of Cheddar made in the South with the higher costs of cooling, so cheesemakers in this region need to think outside of the box and embrace different styles.

“At ACS (American Cheese Society) conferences, it has been so inspiring to me to look around and see how many more creameries there are now in the South,” Little says. “The depth and breadth of cheesemakers now, and just the quality of cheeses coming out of the South are so inspiring. I think we’ll only continue to see more of that, and everyone having their own unique stories.”

• Cheese trails

This Sunday, the Western North Carolina (WNC) Cheese Trail is hosting its 4th Annual Carolina Mountain Cheese Fest at Highland Brewing Co. in Asheville, North Carolina. Festival organizers expect around 1,500 attendees, including many from out of state. The festival will feature 20 cheesemakers from North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as other local food vendors, workshops, pairings and tastings, chef cook-offs and family-friendly activities.

The festival is the main annual fundraiser and promotional event for the WNC Cheese Trail, which was created in 2012 by a group of cheesemakers in Western North Carolina to help build community and encourage customers to buy directly from small, independent creameries and dairies. The trail’s mission is to support the production of cheese products, facilitate consumer education and promote tourism to the region. The WNC Cheese Trail currently is comprised of 10 cheesemakers and 25 associate members. The majority of the cheesemakers on the trail are small, farmstead creameries, and they make cow, goat and sheep milk cheeses.

“It’s a mountainous area, but the mountains here are pretty fertile, so there is a lot of really wonderful farmland that these animals are living in, eating grasses and grains and producing great milk,” says Katie Moore, executive director, WNC Cheese Trail.

The region around Asheville also is an ideal place for these cheesemakers to thrive.

“Asheville has a history of tourism that goes back to the late 1800s, when people suffering from TB came to get the fresh mountain air,” Moore explains. “Not only artisan cheese and food, but a lot of traditional woodworking and other crafts are a strong part of the Appalachian history in Western North Carolina. In the last few years, the food part of it really has blossomed. In downtown Asheville, I am amazed at the caliber of food and restaurants in a city with under 100,000 people.”

A second and separate group started the North Carolina Cheese Trail in 2014 to help draw attention to small cheesemakers in other parts of the state. The 13 North Carolina Cheese Trail cheesemakers range from tiny ma-and-pa operations to nationally-distributed cheesemakers like Boxcarr Handmade Cheese of Cedar Grove, North Carolina, and Goat Lady Dairy of Climax, North Carolina.

Robin Blakely, owner of Buffalo Creek Farmstead Goat Dairy in Germanton, North Carolina, started the North Carolina Cheese Trail with the owners of Paradox Farm Creamery, West End, North Carolina, as a way to let people know about the cheeses available in the Piedmont and coastal region of the state. Blakely, who has owned a goat farm with her husband for more than 20 years, milks a maximum of 20 goats and started making cheese six years ago.

“There was a trail in the Western part of the state, but we thought it would be good to let people know about cheesemaking, for our sales and for others here,” she says. “We have so many people come by and say, ‘I didn’t know you made cheese there.’ I don’t know what they were expecting, like some big Kraft Foods building. People are not aware there is cheese to be purchased in their own county.”

The North Carolina Cheese Trail includes cow, goat, sheep and even one water buffalo milk cheesemaker. With the current movement for local foods, Blakely says the trail has drawn the attention of both tourists and local residents.

“People will take a day off and decide they’re going to visit two or three cheesemakers, buy cheese from them, and make a mini-vacation,” she says.

In addition to its printed brochure, the North Carolina Cheese Trail also hosts two cheese festivals a year — one in May and one in October. Its upcoming festival May 6 will be held in Gibsonville, North Carolina, at Grove Winery & Vineyards, a supporting member of the cheese trail. The free event will feature cheese samples, music, food trucks, giveaways and a mobile milking parlor to demonstrate the process from cow to finished product.

“It’s low key and laid back. We just want people to have fun, eat cheese and talk to the cheesemakers there,” Blakely says.

• Dairy farming

While cheesemaking in the South Atlantic states is gaining ground, dairy farm numbers in this region have declined as farms continue to face milk pricing challenges and older farmers retire without younger generations taking their place.

“Right now overall numbers in dairy are slowly reducing,” says Eric Fors, assistant director of farmer relations for The Dairy Alliance, an Atlanta-based checkoff organization for farmers in nine Southeast states including Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. “Based on the most recent history, I think what we’re going to see is more contraction, and consolidation, where the average size of farms will inch up.”

The South Atlantic states include farms of all sizes, Fors notes, from those milking 25-30 cows to others with 7,500 or more between multiple herds. The larger operations tend to use freestall barns to better monitor the cows’ health, while many smaller operations have moved toward grass-based production.

“One of the benefits of the warmer weather is that you can plant winter crops, or if you’re a total pasture operation, you can do that all year round,” Fors says. “You do have a lot more operations moving more toward that grass-based.”

Kevin Satterwhite, a fourth-generation dairy farmer, milks 1,500 Holsteins at Satterwhite Farms LLC in Newberry, South Carolina.

“The people of South Carolina, I think they really appreciate dairy farms and the hard work we do to produce milk,” he says. “I feel like all the dairy farmers in South Carolina are pretty close-knit. We all know each other and try to work together no matter what co-op we ship to. We have one goal — trying to keep South Carolina dairy alive.”

South Carolina averaged 15,000 milk cows producing a total of 247.0 million pounds of milk in 2017, according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. North Carolina averaged 45,000 milk cows producing 952.0 million pounds of milk, and Georgia averaged 84,000 milk cows and produced 1.84 billion pounds of milk in 2017.

“There will be fewer farms, but I think the long-term prospect is positive,” Fors says. “I think our farmers in the Southeast are just fabulous, hard-working people, among the best at what they do. They produce some of the best, most wholesome products people can buy.”

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