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Tradition of innovation helps boost dairy in the Netherlands

Editor’s note: Passport to Cheese is Cheese Market News’ feature series exploring the dairy industries of nations around the world. Each month this series takes an in-depth look at various nations/regions’ dairy industries with coverage of their milk and cheese statistics and key issues affecting them. The nations’ interplay with the United States also is explored. We are pleased to introduce our latest country — The Netherlands.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — The Netherlands is a small Western European country that is known worldwide for its picturesque windmills, colorful tulips, Golden Age painters and quality Gouda. The dairy industry has particularly benefited from Holland’s tradition of agricultural innovations and is an important part of the country’s economy.

“Dairy is a strong economic sector,” the Dutch Dairy Association (Nederlandse Zuivel Organisatie or NZO) says in its 2015 “Engine of the Economy” report. “Dairy farming and the dairy industry mean tens of thousands of jobs and billions in revenue. Even in times of economic crisis, the sector grows and companies invest.”

NZO reports that the country’s 18,000 dairy farms and 1.6 million cows produce 12.7 billion kilograms (28 billion pounds) of milk per year. The Netherlands accounts for 8 percent of Europe’s milk production — fifth behind Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Poland. Twenty-eight companies and 52 factories in the Netherlands process most of the country’s cheese, butter, pasteurized milk and milk powder, as well as produce high-grade proteins from whey for products like baby food and sports drinks.

The dairy sector comprises about one-sixth of the total Dutch food industry, and NZO says the sector’s growth has been robust despite the country’s recent economic challenges.

“The Dutch dairy sector is in relatively excellent condition: the country’s climate and soil are good for dairy cows and for the grass they eat, the Netherlands is strategically located in Europe, with good access to potential markets, and the logistics infrastructure here is first-rate,” NZO says in its report. “For the Netherlands, dairy is a logical choice.”

• Gouda quality

The most prevalent cheeses made in the Netherlands are Gouda and Edam, traditionally eaten in cheese sandwiches or in cubes. The International Dairy Federation reported in 2015 that annual cheese consumption in Holland was 20.1 kilograms (44.3 pounds) per capita.

“It’s always very simple. They have a sandwich, put butter on it and slices of cheese, and take it to work,” says Marieke Penterman, who grew up on a 60-cow dairy farm in Holland and now makes her signature “Marieke Gouda” in Thorp, Wisconsin. She and her husband Rolf, both dairy farmers, founded Holland’s Family Cheese in 2006.

“They eat a lot of cheese,” Penterman says. “They will cut up meat and cubes of cheeses to be passed along to visitors. As a child, I remember my mom would always have cubes of cheese in the living room.”

Creameries in Holland have started making their own signature cheeses, using different approaches to the traditional Gouda recipe, and these varieties often are enjoyed in the evening with a glass of wine, Penterman says. She adds that the U.S. specialty cheese movement has had some influence in Holland as well.

“People are starting to look a little differently at cheeses now,” she says. “They come experience the cheese world here in America, how people just live and breathe cheese. Cheesemongers are amazing at telling the stories, and people are so passionate about cheese. I think that has come a little more in Holland, too.”

A recent Euromonitor report on cheese in the Netherlands says the cheese category has been under pressure in 2016 as Dutch breakfast and lunch habits are changing.

“Cheese sandwiches used to be a staple for most households, but bread consumption is under pressure as consumers become more interested in alternatives to bread,” Euromonitor says, adding that there are, however, areas of growth.

“Cheese which is consumed as a snack between meals and cheese consumed as tapas or a bar snack both recorded growth. Another area of growth is cheese used for cooking. Goat cheese and Mozzarella are two types of cheese which performed well due to this trend.”

Gouda Holland, which is registered as a PGI (protected geographical indication) cheese that can be made only in the Netherlands, has origins that stretch back to the Middle Ages and reached maturity as early as the 17th century “Golden Age,” according to its official PGI application. The name “Gouda” came from the town where this cheese was sold, and it later came to be associated with all full-fat cheeses produced in Holland and shaped like a flattened cylinder.

Today, Beemster is the No. 1 Gouda brand in Holland, the company says, as well as the official supplier to the country’s royal court. Beemster, which offers traditional aged and flavored Gouda varieties, also carries the PDO (protected designation of origin) label for North Holland Gouda, which is prepared from milk from the province of North Holland.

The CONO Kaasmakers cooperative, which supplies milk to Beemster, consists of 460 small dairy farms with an average of 100 cows per farm. The farmers graze their cows on the Beemster Polder, an area of land in North Holland that was reclaimed from the ocean in the early 1600s through the use of windmills and creating a land plan of fields, canals and dikes.

“There is a unique slate-blue clay in that area that is so incredibly mineral rich,” says a spokesman from Beemster. “The breeze from the North Sea carries salty air and leaves salt deposits on the grass, which adds more minerals. It makes for a very tender, high-mineral grass that ends up giving the milk and cheese its ‘terroir.’”

In addition to the terroir from mineral-rich grasses, Beemster cheeses are handcrafted and then aged in historic stone warehouses, some 300-400 years old, which impart unique flavor and aroma characteristics.

“The stirring of the curds is done by hand, and cheese masters every few minutes will squeeze the curds to see how far along they are,” the spokesman says. “What Beemster is most famous for, besides its intensity and uniqueness of flavor, is that it’s very creamy ... at higher ages, when the flavor is most robust, many Goudas tend to be drier, but ours is creamier.”

• World class

Beemster is one of a number of diverse national and multi-national companies with a large presence in the Netherlands and abroad. NZO notes that FrieslandCampina, a cooperative of 19,000 member dairy farms and one of the world’s five largest companies in the dairy industry, is headquartered in Holland. France’s Danone, Switzerland’s Nestlé, Denmark’s Arla and Japan’s Yakult also have a large presence in the Netherlands. In addition to Beemster/CONO and FrieslandCampina, other major cheesemakers include Bel Leerdammer, DOC Kaas, De Graafstroom and A-ware Food Group.

Euromonitor reports that in 2015, the Netherlands exported $6.87 billion worth of dairy products. NZO notes that around half of the country’s dairy exports are cheese and that the Dutch dairy sector trades with more than 150 countries around the world. With 29 percent of product value traded outside of Europe (2014), NZO adds that the Netherlands is the largest dairy exporter of dairy products from inside the European Union to outside the EU.

According to data from USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, the United States imported 15,987 metric tons (35.2 million pounds) of cheese, valued at $89.2 million, from the Netherlands in 2015 — up 38 percent by volume and 18 percent by value compared to 2011.

Penterman says she has seen a large increase in Gouda’s popularity since she came to the United States 13 years ago.

“I remember when I told my neighbors I was thinking about starting to make Gouda, I had to explain Gouda to them because some were not familiar with it,” she says.

“They asked, ‘Do you have enough Dutch people around who will eat this?’”

Now, she says, Gouda is so familiar in the United States that it’s even showing up on fast-food burgers.

“I’ve seen Gouda really expand, getting name recognition a little more,” she says.

Gouda varieties from the Netherlands and the United States have received plenty of recognition at cheese contests in recent years. FrieslandCampina’s Vermeer, a reduced-fat, reduced-salt mature Gouda made in Steenderen, Netherlands, won top prize at the World Championship Cheese Contest in 2012. The following year, Penterman’s Wisconsin-made Marieke Mature Gouda won the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest. And in this year’s World Championship Cheese Contest, FrieslandCampina’s North Holland Gouda Extra Special Old was named second runner-up overall.

Penterman, who worked as a farm inspector in Holland before moving to the United States, notes that Holland has very strict rules for farms and milk quality, such as a lower somatic cell count limit than there is in the United States. Additionally, she says, milk that is older than two or three days is not allowed to be used in cheesemaking.

“Holland has a top-quality product. They really have made the most of it, and it really has put them on the map,” Penterman says.

• Supportive climate

Penterman and her husband moved to the United States to start dairy farming because many of the regulations as well as limited farmland made it difficult for dairies to expand in Holland. However, she says Holland has a great climate and infrastructure to support the dairy industry.

“Winters are not as cold. The seasons are milder, so they can grow grass and feed,” she says. “It’s a very progressive country, and they have very good technology and infrastructure for dairy.”

NZO notes that one drawback of the Dutch dairy sector is the relatively high price and cost of producing milk. In the future, NZO says, Dutch dairy companies will need to be cost efficient and offer high added value.

NZO also says the Dutch dairy sector has room to grow, and that between 2013 and 2015, the dairy industry invested 2 billion euros (US$2.1 billion) in new factories and expansions of existing factories. In 2013, FrieslandCampina and Danone both opened new centers for innovation in the Netherlands. Beemster also recently opened a new dairy facility about two years ago to help increase its efficiency.

“The new dairy is the greenest, most sustainable dairy in the world. It uses renewable energy and materials,” Beemster’s spokesman says, adding that the company needed special permission to build on the Beemster Polder, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. “The new dairy has a slightly greater capacity, but not dramatically so. We find if you go to massive production, quality gets compromised, and that’s the one thing you don’t want to happen.”

Other entities that help support Holland’s dairy infrastructure and growth are top dairy research institutions, such as Wageningen University and Research Centre and Utrecht University, as well as financial institutions, notably Rabobank, which also contributes research to the dairy and ag sectors. NZO notes that in 2013, Rabobank loaned almost 12 billion euros (US$12.7 billion) to Dutch dairy farms.

“The Netherlands is a small country, but it has an excellent reputation in the field of agriculture and food production,” Rabobank says. “The Netherlands is considered to be one of the most productive and most efficient food producers in the world and often takes the lead in innovation.”

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