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Missouri, Arkansas look to provide dairy during pandemic

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 — Missouri and Arkansas.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — As the nation begins to move into the first phases of reopening, dairy groups and businesses in Missouri and Arkansas have been working to provide farmers, communities and customers with resources and products.

“It has been very challenging,” says Reagan Bluel, regional dairy specialist, University of Missouri Extension. “We did dump milk down here in Southwest Missouri but have since found a solid home for the milk. It’s been challenging, and a recent topic of many calls.”

The Missouri Dairy Product Association’s annual Spring Meeting was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though the association remained active in serving the industry.

“Since the Missouri Dairy Products Association (MDPA) represents dairy processors, distributors and allied trades, we continue to promote harmonious relations between the several branches of the dairy industry, to cooperate with public officials and others interested in the welfare of the general public and to advance Missouri’s dairy industry,” says Mike Dorrian, MDPA president and Kansas City division sales manager at Hiland Dairy.

Arkansas cheese and specialty grocery shop Sweet Freedom Cheese moved its pairing class online and created a “Pantry Staple Box” available for pickup or curbside delivery.

“Our staples box has been successful, especially as people had trouble getting bread and milk,” says Jessica Keahey, owner, Sweet Freedom Cheese. “It always contains cheese, butter, milk and bread, and then something fun, an accompaniment to go with the items.”

• Missouri dairy

Missouri’s dairy industry is an important part of the state’s economy, with 43 Grade A and manufacturing grade dairy processing plants, 540 Grade A dairy farms and about 200 manufacturing grade herds, according to the Missouri Department of Agriculture and University of Missouri Extension.

“Missouri’s dairy industry contributes significantly to the state’s economy,” Dorrian says. “Missouri has a rich history as a major milk-producing state and continues to be a major employer.”

Missouri has a competitive edge for producers in that land prices are very affordable, making cash flow easier even during periods of low milk prices, Bluel says. Many of the dairies are concentrated in the Southwest region of the state, where there are a number of grazing herds, though the humidity in this area can be challenging.

The University of Missouri Extension offers two dairy specialists to help connect dairy farmers with available resources at the state and federal level. Additionally, Missouri Dairy, a producer-driven organization dedicated to lobbying and education, reorganized under its new identity this past year. On the manufacturing side, MDPA represents dairy processors, distributors and allied trades within Missouri to promote the interests of the state’s dairy industry.

Bluel notes the vast majority of Missouri’s milk is in the Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) co-op, though some also belongs to Prairie Farms and the smaller Central Equity co-op.

“Something noteworthy is our population centers,” Bluel says, pointing to Branson, Springfield, Kansas City and the St. Louis metro area. “Recently there’s been quite a bit of appetite for locally-produced cheese and fluid milk. Small-scale processors have been fairly successful in the merging of rural-urban interface.”

There are plenty of large processors in the state. Aurora Organic Dairy built a new plant in 2019 near Columbia, Missouri. Belfonte Ice Cream is manufactured in Missouri, and DFA, Schreiber Foods and Blue Bell Creameries also have plants in the state.

Prairie Farms and Hiland Dairy are the two largest processors in the state. Hiland Dairy, which began in Springfield, Missouri, in 1938, now is a joint venture between DFA and Prairie Farms. Hiland operates 16 plants and 50 distribution centers across a 10-state area, including two Hiland plants in Missouri. Additionally, Prairie Farms operates three of its own plants in the state.

• Arkansas dairy

Hiland Dairy also is a major milk processor in Arkansas, with plants in Fayetteville, Fort Smith and Little Rock.

Unlike Missouri, Arkansas has a much smaller dairy industry and very little cheese production. According to the Arkansas Farm Bureau, there are 32 licensed dairy herds, and more than 10% of all milk production is devoted to making ice cream. USDA reported an average of 5,000 milk cows in Arkansas in 2019, producing an average of 13,400 pounds of milk per cow — one of the lowest in the nation.

“Arkansas is not a cheesemaking state. We don’t have the historical background of strong dairy or cheesemaking,” Keahey says.

“White River Creamery is the only licensed goat dairy in Arkansas,” she adds. “Two others have popped up in the last couple of years, which are hyper-local. One cow’s milk on the Eastern side, and the other sheep’s milk on the Eastern side.”

Keahey opened her shop, Sweet Freedom Cheese, in 2018 in Bentonville, Arkansas, in the Northwest part of the state. She offers specialty imported and domestic cheeses, including cheese from several regional cheesemakers, such as Green Dirt Farm and Edgewood Creamery in Missouri, Boxcar Cheese in North Carolina, Capriole in Indiana and Sequatchie Cove in Tennessee.

“We’re Arkansas’ only cut-to-order shop,” Keahey says. “When I was getting into the idea of opening a specialty cheese shop, there was virtually nothing in the area. Regional grocery stores were carrying some cheese, but not cut-to-order, specialty and artisanal. We’re able to bring some of that variety that has been lacking.”

Keahey, who has an educational background in engineering, started out training to be a cheesemaker, traveling around the country to take classes. However, finding distribution networks, resources and equipment scarce in her state, she decided to sell cheese instead.

She does still draw on her training in cheesemaking to offer popular Cheese 101 and Mozzarella-making classes, which go into the chemistry and history of different styles. She also partners with wine shops, microbreweries and a nearby culinary college for classes, tastings and pairings. She hopes to serve as a local resource for others who might be interested in cheesemaking.

“We’re kind of coming into our own now, being able to take on new programming, partnerships and different things,” Keahey says. “One of our mongers is going to the culinary college and excited about cheesemaking. It’s been fun to foster that in the region.”

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