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Texas dairy ranges from large farms to local cheese artisans

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 — Texas.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — Texas has a reputation for going big, and its dairy industry is no exception. It’s the fifth-largest dairy state in the nation, with nearly 600,000 dairy cows on about 400 farms (385 permitted producer dairies and 35 permitted to sell raw milk directly for retail, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services).

Texas also is home to 45 Grade A milk plants and 56 plants that make non-Grade A products such as cheese.

Among these is a large Hilmar Cheese Co. plant in Dalhart, Texas, and a state-of-the-art dairy ingredients plant built in 2017 by Lone Star Milk Producers in Canyon, Texas. Both of these are in the Texas Panhandle, a growing dairy region in the northern part of the state.

Dairies in Texas used to be concentrated in the central part of the state about 30 years ago, but now this area accounts for only 10-11% of the milk, according to Darren Turley, executive director of Texas Association of Dairymen, which represents three of the state’s four dairy cooperatives. Now about 80% of milk production in Texas is in the Panhandle region, while the rest is scattered in other areas.

“We continue to see interest in the Panhandle,” Turley says. “There’s a lot of open farmland, big blocks of land with no neighbors.

There’s a large feedlot industry in the Panhandle, so it’s used to large agricultural operations. In general, it was an easy fit for people to come in there — good climate, lots of feed and not many neighbors.”

While the number of dairies in Texas continues to shrink, the average number of cows per farm is increasing.

Turley estimates the average dairy size is about 1,200 head and that will continue to grow. He notes the dairies in the Panhandle tend to be 3,000-5,000 cow operations.

One challenge the Texas dairy industry has been facing is shortage of labor.

“We’ve always been blessed in our location near the border to have relatively cheap labor. In the last few years since the election, that’s tightened up,” he says. “This change has led producers to look for much higher-cost robots. They feel it will pay off in the future much more than before.”

The Texas Association of Dairymen’s members include Dairy Farmers of America, Select Milk Producers and Hilmar Cheese cooperatives, representing most of the state’s dairy farmers. The Texas Association of Dairymen started in 1991 to help represent its members in environmental issues, and it continues to work for the interest and benefit of Texas dairy farmers on issues including the environment, animal welfare, food safety and regulatory policies.

“When we were started, things weren’t real friendly for dairy,” Turley says. “That’s changed — we have a good positive marketplace, and in legislation and rulemaking, we’ve had a really good atmosphere for dairy. Texas is a good state to dairy in, and has gotten a lot better. Hopefully we’ll continue that.”

He adds that the growing population in Texas also has provided a good market for dairy.

“A big thing that makes it work in Texas is we have a growing market. It’s been predicted we’ll have 1,000 people a day moving to Texas,” Turley says. “We’re continuing to see growth in the state, and continuing to see the market grow from that.”

• Specialty cheese

With the growing market comes increased demand for cheese, particularly locally-produced cheeses. Houston-based specialty cheese shop Houston Dairymaids opened 13 years ago, focusing on Texas-made products.

“We launched at the Houston farmers’ market, and part of their restrictions were that you could only sell Texas products,” says owner Lindsey Schechter. “We always knew we wanted to be Texas-focused and hone in on producers here.”

Texas Dairymaids currently carries cheeses from eight Texas cheesemakers, comprising about a third of its sales. Another third of its sales are other domestic artisan cheeses, and imported cheeses make up the last third.

“Texans love to support Texas product — maybe even more so in this state than others,” Schechter says.

“It’s been a wonderful group of people to work with,” she says of Texas cheesemakers. “I so admire what the cheesemakers do and how hard they work. Fortunately Texas has a great group of cheesemakers who have the right goals, admirable approaches of how they make their cheese and raise their animals. I feel fortunate to be part of what they do.”

Among the first Texas artisan cheese companies Schechter partnered with and continues to carry are goat’s milk farmstead cheesemakers Pure Luck Dairy, cow’s milk farmstead cheesemakers Velhuizen Dairy, and early U.S. artisan cheese pioneer Mozzarella Co.

Paula Lambert founded the Mozzarella Co. in 1982 after falling in love with Fresh Mozzarella when she was living in Italy. She started making cheese by hand in a tiny factory in downtown Dallas. The Mozzarella Co. now produces almost 200,000 pounds of cheese a year and more than 40 different products, all still made completely by hand and using local milk and other ingredients. Varieties range from Mozzarella and Mexican cheeses to aged goat’s and cow’s milk varieties.

“Most of our cheeses have won awards at some point and have garnered top cheeses in the world, such as our Deep Ellum Blue Cheese,” says Ross Adami, vice president of the Mozzarella Co. “Our goat cheese is kind of renowned. We buy our goat’s milk from a local dairy and supply literally tons of goat cheeses to everyone.”

The Mozzarella Co. sells its cheeses all over the continental United States, but primarily in Texas, using local and national distributors to service its wholesale and retail customers. Adami notes that chefs especially appreciate the company’s cheeses, though currently the foodservice sector has been struggling due shutdowns and the recent COVID-19 resurgence in Texas.

“The restaurants and hotels, those pretty much have been closed down since March. It’s tough,” Adami says, adding that the Mozzarella Co. also has had to cancel several of its popular cheesemaking classes.

“We were able to have classes in June; however, we have decided to cancel classes going forward until we see improvement in the COVID-19 situation in Texas and Dallas specifically,” he says. “We’re just sick about it because we love having these classes, and all our customers love coming and learning.”

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