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Pennsylvania looks to promote local cheese, stabilize farms

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 — Pennsylvania.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — Pennsylvania is one of the nation’s top 10 dairy states, ranking seventh in total milk production, sixth in total dairy cows and second in dairy farms, according to USDA data. The state also is one of the top producers of butter, hard and soft ice cream, and Swiss cheese.

Like other regions of the country, Pennsylvania dairy farm numbers have declined, though milk production remains fairly stable. Over the past decade, the number of dairy farms in Pennsylvania has decreased by 19% and the number of cows by 5%, notes a recent study on Pennsylvania’s dairy industry prepared for the state’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee. According to the latest USDA numbers, there are 5,730 dairy farms in Pennsylvania.

“We’ve fallen about 470 farms in the last few years,” says Jayne Sebright, executive director for the Center for Dairy Excellence, a public-private nonprofit organization that aims to strengthen Pennsylvania’s dairy industry.

Poor weather conditions and forages hurt the state’s dairy farmers in 2019 in addition to ongoing low milk prices, Sebright notes. However, up until recent weeks, this year was starting to look more positive with production per cow and total milk production both back up.

“We’ll continue to see some decline in farm numbers, and hopefully will stabilize cow numbers, as milk production per cow continues to increase. There are a lot of opportunities,” Sebright says, adding that the Center for Dairy Excellence currently is collaborating with producers and processors to keep milk going to various marketplaces and stabilize the market through the current COVID-19 crisis.

“Farms are definitely spending a lot of time looking for solutions,” she says. “The center is continuing to supply resources, support in business planning, contingency planning and mental health and wellness. It will be a stressful time, but we’re finding solutions and working through it.”

Dairy farms in Pennsylvania are on the small side, with an average of 84 head per farm, which increases farmers’ cost of production per cow. Land values and labor costs also are higher. The state does have a favorable climate and strong infrastructure for dairy, Sebright says.

“The seasonality makes it very ideal for dairy cows,” she says. “We have a strong infrastructure to support our farms, and there is a positive image in our communities and support for the dairy farm industry in Pennsylvania.”

Pennsylvania is unique in that its Milk Marketing Law, enacted in 1937, establishes minimum prices for milk transactions within Pennsylvania’s borders that apply to the state’s producers, processors and retailers. It also sets over-order premiums based on fluid milk sales. The law is administered by the state’s Milk Marketing Board.

“They also provide bonding for milk processors. If you purchase milk in Pennsylvania, and something would happen where you would not be able to pay the farmers, that bond is in place,” Sebright says. “Its mission is to stabilize the milk supply and ensure a profitable price for producers and processors.”

• Processing facilities

There are a number of large dairy plants in Pennsylvania as well as several independent processors and dozens of smaller operations, including raw milk bottlers and cheesemakers.

“Our state is fortunate to have quite a few independent, family-owned fluid milk processors, comprising about 50% of our fluid milk business,” Sebright says. “We’re seeing more on-farm processors, cheese as well as fluid dairy farmers, bottling and selling milk.”

Dairy Farmers of America has four plants in the state. Also among the larger, USDA-licensed cheese processors in Pennsylvania are Fairview Swiss Cheese in Fredonia, Leprino Foods in South Waverly, Schreiber Foods Inc. in Shippensburg, and Savencia Cheese USA, with both a cream cheese factory and its headquarters in New Holland, Pennsylvania.

“The factory, which started as an Amish cooperative in the early 1900s, was at one time a cottage cheese factory, but it was converted to cream cheese in the 1980s. All products are now cream cheese based, including our flagship product, Alouette Garlic and Herb spread,” says Steve Schalow, director of research and development, Savencia Cheese USA.

Many full truckloads of milk and cream, the milk mainly produced in the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, area, arrive at the plant each day, and production at the facility has grown over the years Schalow says. The site also includes the headquarters for Savencia Cheese USA and its sister company, AFP Advanced Food Products LLC. The entire complex employs around 400 people.

“We have been a business presence in Pennsylvania as a unit of Savencia Fromage and Dairy and have enjoyed a long and prosperous relationship with the New Holland borough,” Schalow says.

• Promoting Pennsylvania cheese

The Pennsylvania Cheese Guild (PACG) — which has about 30 members or around half of the state’s total cheesemakers, the guild estimates — was formed in 2015 to help provide technical support and other services. The volunteer-run organization holds an annual meeting and works with the state’s agriculture department on testing, raw milk and other regulations impacting cheesemakers. It also works to connect Pennsylvania’s cheesemakers with technical training, bringing in experts and working with local universities and extension programs.

PACG recently received a state grant to help establish October as Pennsylvania Cheese Month, providing funding to create more visibility and outreach opportunities to promote local cheeses. The funding also will allow for a market study and the creation of a Pennsylvania cheese map.

“We’ll utilize individual networks, social media and reach out to wholesale customers to put cheese on menus and bring it to cheese counters,” says Alexandra Jones, project manager for the Pennsylvania Cheese Month grant. “We’ll have a cheese dinner with beverage pairing, classes and other events to get more cheese in people’s mouths. Let them know where they can buy it or eat it at a restaurant, so they learn more about what’s going on in the community with cheese.”

Jones says she’s seen lots of support for Pennsylvania’s cheese industry, from restaurants, supermarkets and consumers. For example, Giant, a national supermarket chain that is based in Pennsylvania, has committed to stocking 30% local brands among its cheese offerings in Pennsylvania stores.

Cheesemakers in the state range from the large producers mentioned earlier to Amish and Mennonite farmers to small, independent businesses started by those who have retired from other careers.

PACG board President Sue Miller, cheesemaker and owner of Birchrun Hills Farm, Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, has been dairy farming with her husband Ken for 30 years. They started making cheese in 2006 to help add value to their milk and offset the volatility of the milk market and rising costs.

“We live in the outskirts of Philadelphia and have the greatest markets at our fingertips with Philadelphia, New York and D.C.,” Miller says. “Our community had been transitioning from farm to suburbanized because areas outside Philadelphia had been hard-hit for development. Farming had a ‘get bigger or get out’ attitude. For me, we had to do something because we did not have that multigenerational equity in our land.”

The Millers milk about 85 cows, using some for cheese production and shipping the rest to a small cooperative. They built a new cheesemaking and aging facility last year and have brought their two grown sons into the business.

Miller started making Blue cheese, and the creamery is mostly known in the region for its Birchrun Blue. She also makes a rustic farmstead-style Fat Cat, a washed rind Red Cat and the alpine style Equinox. The cheeses are predominantly made from raw milk, but with the new facility, she also has started making pasteurized bloomy rind and Fromage Blanc cheeses.

“We just started to work on expanding distribution since February, about a month before the coronavirus started,” Miller says. “We started working with a really great small distributor in the region who works mainly with vegetable farmers and works with restaurants in Washington, D.C. But now people are pulling back. When things are ready and back to normal, we will be ready to bring the cheeses to them.”

Cheesemakers in Pennsylvania are fortunate to have a lot of consumers at their fingertips, Miller adds, and PACG will continue to talk about Pennsylvania cheeses, farmers and their land, and provide education for its members.

“We’re just here educating folks, trying to do the best we can to provide tools for cheesemakers and guide them to the tools. We would like to start a mentorship program, pairing up seasoned cheesemakers with new members,” Miller says.

Jones adds that the Pennsylvania Cheese Month initiative will help to build more community between the industry, its restaurant and retail partners, and consumers.

“We’ll implement it and hopefully grow the program for 2021. We don’t want this to be boring — it shouldn’t be a chore to learn about cheese,” Jones says. “Our goal is to bring people together around this amazing food, see the dimensions of why it is important, and learn about our cheesemakers and their amazing traditions.”

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