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New York state supports diverse dairies, award-winning cheese

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 state — New York.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — New York may be famous for its Big Apple, but the state also is big on dairy as a top manufacturer, major farming state and renowned research and educational hub for the industry.

Leading the nation in yogurt production, New York manufacturers produced 690.3 million pounds of yogurt in 2018, according to USDA data. New York ranked fifth in cheese production in 2018, and currently the state stands third in cows and fourth in milk production.

New York has approximately 620,000 dairy cows across about 4,000 farms, which are concentrated through the Finger Lakes, western and northern regions of the state, with pockets in eastern New York which is close to the big-city markets, according to Tom Overton, professor and interim chair of Cornell University’s Department of Animal Science and director of the PRO-DAIRY program, which assists the state’s dairy producers.

“Forage quality and availability are pretty good in the Northeast. Generally water availability is another strength,” Overton says. “We continue to have lots of regulation around labor and the environment, but overall, New York is a pretty good place for cows, with both its land base and forage and feed quality.”

• Supporting dairy

New York’s dairy industry enjoys a strong support network through programs directed by staff at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

PRO-DAIRY is a state-funded initiative that started in the mid-1980s and helps New York’s dairy farmers and agribusiness professionals by providing research, educational programs and access to dairy industry specialists and consultants. A couple of PRO-DAIRY’s current programs include its newly expanded Dairy Advancement Program, which helps farms with up to 700 cows engage with private-sector consultants for business planning, development and production techniques, and the Junior Dairy LEADER program that helps direct high-school age youth to careers in agriculture and dairy.

“The PRO-DAIRY program has been long-standing and very effective over time, one our farms really count on having access to,” Overton says. “I’m not aware of anything like it. Other states have dairy extensions, but as far as a cohesive program that runs along different sectors and specialty areas, it is unique.”

On the dairy manufacturing side, faculty and extension staff from the Cornell Department of Food Science and its pilot plant help the industry develop new products, improve quality, devise food safety plans and solve problems.

Dairy businesses also can benefit from the department’s research and an extensive array of workshops held in locations across the state.

“We’re one of about 25 universities in the country with a dairy component, and as a land-grant university, we provide outreach and training to the dairy industry as a whole,” says Rob Ralyea, senior extension associate and pilot plant manager, Cornell Department of Food Science.

Cornell’s dairy plant also has an incubator program for those looking into entering the dairy business who are not sure yet if they want to invest in a plant and equipment. These businesses can sign a year or 18-month contract to help develop a product and get it off the ground.

“We support the dairy industry in New York in just about every way possible,” Ralyea says, adding that the department can help companies with a wide range of products. “In New York, the dairy industry is very diversified, and we carry that expertise across the board.”

New York has a diverse array cheese and dairy manufacturers, from small farmstead operations, to award-winning specialty cheese crafters and affineurs, to leading national and international brands.

There are 360 licensed dairy processors in the state, Ralyea says, estimating that production volume is roughly divided into 30% fluid milk, 30% cheese, 20% yogurt and 20% other dairy products.

Stewart’s and Byrne Dairy are a couple of New York’s largest milk processors. Yogurt giants Chobani and Danone North America are headquartered in the state. Kraft Heinz, Sorrento Lactalis and Great Lakes Cheese are among the major cheese companies with plants in the state, along with well-known specialty brands like Yancey’s Fancy and McCadam Cheese. New York also is home to pioneering sheep and goat milk cheesemakers Old Chatham Creamery and Coach Farm.

• Cheese collaborations

In August, New York cheeses took both Best of Show and Second Best of Show at the American Cheese Society’s 2019 Judging & Competition in Richmond, Virginia.

The top two cheeses both were made by Old Chatham Creamery. The champion Stockinghall is a collaboration with Murray’s Cheese, which matures Old Chatham’s Cheddar in Murray’s Long Island City caves. The first runner-up Professor’s Brie is a collaboration between Old Chatham and Wegmans Food Markets, aged in Wegmans’ Rochester, New York, caves.

Murray’s Cheese, which has been a fixture in New York City’s West Village since 1940, started out selling mostly Italian cheeses and now is known for its high-quality selection of U.S. and imported cheeses. In 2004, Murray’s opened an affinage space in the basement of its retail shop, and in 2014, it expanded its affinage space to its current location at its distribution center in Long Island City.

“Murray’s Cheese has collaborated with over a dozen cheesemakers, both domestic cheesemakers and several producers from France, Switzerland, Spain and Italy,” Steve Millard, senior vice president of merchandising and operations, says of Murray’s affinage partnerships. “Our experience has been very positive with the cheesemakers that we work with.”

New York cheesemakers Old Chatham Creamery and Four Fat Fowl have worked with Murray’s on cave-aged cheeses. Millard notes that Murray’s Cavemaster Reserve Stockinghall is a collaboration resulting in a 100% New York clothbound Cheddar.

“The cheese is made from Old Chatham milk at the Cornell extension pilot plant, sent to our caves in Long Island City and then bandaged and coated in New York state pastured pig lard,” he explains. “It is our intention and our desire to support our local producers, and we are proud of our 80 years selling cheese in New York City and the evolving landscape of cheesemakers in New York state.”

About five years ago, former Cornell University Animal Science Professor and PRO-DAIRY Director David Galton purchased Old Chatham Creamery (which was then named Old Chatham Sheepherding Co.) from its original owners. Prior to acquiring the company, Galton managed the flock for the previous owners.

After 26 years of making cheese in an old Shaker barn retrofitted into a creamery, Old Chatham this summer relocated from its original headquarters in Old Chatham, New York, to a brand new, 40,000-square-foot facility in Groton, New York.

“We finally have the opportunity to scale up new products that have been in development for a while,” says Max Sandvoss, national sales and marketing director, Old Chatham Creamery. “A lot of the market has really matured for artisanal cheese, but there is a limited supply of sheep milk being produced in America and a growing interest in goat milk products.”

• Expanding industry

New York’s cheese industry is expanding, both through new startups and expansions of existing companies, according to Nathan Pistner, president of the New York State Cheese Manufacturers’ Association and plant manager for Great Lakes Cheese in Adams, New York.

New York State Cheese Manufacturers’ Association members, which include both large and small companies and cooperatives, account for more than 90% of New York’s cheese production. The association works to support its members in making and selling high-quality cheese, offering education, promotion and annual spring and fall meetings.

“The New York state cheese industry has seen an influx in artisanal cheese production, especially toward the New York City area. It is one of the association’s goals to assist and support these ventures wholeheartedly,” Pistner says. “In addition, the larger companies continue to reinvest in their facilities and have an excellent working relationship with each other. There have been several large expansions over the past 10 years, including Great Lakes Cheese, Yancey’s Fancy and Upstate Niagara Cooperative to name a few.”

The biggest benefit and advantage for cheese production in New York is the milk supply, Pistner says, noting the quality of milk, dedicated labor force and favorable weather. He adds that the dairy industry has continued to adopt new disciplines in science and farming through periods of hardships and success, and there is a tradition of cooperation among cheese manufacturers.

“The future of the cheese industry in New York state is possible because of our strong history and foundation,” he says. “I would encourage anyone thinking of investing in a cheese factory to consider New York state.”

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