New England supports various farms, growing cheese crafters

Editor’s note: As part of 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 — Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island may not have as many dairies as some of their more rural Northeast neighbors, but these New England states have worked to retain the farms they have and to maintain a healthy number of both small and large processors.

According to USDA data, in 2018 there were 130 licensed dairy herds in Massachusetts, 110 in Connecticut and 10 in Rhode Island, though numbers continue to decline along with national dairy trends.

Photo courtesy of Calabro Cheese Co.
TIN CAN RICOTTA — Calabro Cheese was founded in the 1950s and grew significantly after the introduction of its hand-dipped Ricotta in 3-pound tins in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The business, based in East Haven, Connecticut, distributes its line of Italian cheeses across the United States.

Agri-Mark Inc. is a major cooperative in this region with just more than 900 members throughout New England and New York. This co-op represents about half of the dairy farms in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, and its headquarters office is in Andover, Massachusetts. Agri-Mark owns a butter and powder processing plant in West Springfield, Massachusetts, which recently completed a $21 million expansion to increase its capacity. Agri-Mark also owns two cheese plants in Vermont and one in New York that process members’ milk into Cabot and McCadam brand cheeses.

“In this region, compared to Maine, Vermont and New York where there is more rural land, our biggest challenge is also our biggest asset — the population and the land competition,” says Catherine DeRonde, senior economist, Agri-Mark.

“There are a lot of issues dealing with land competition and access to land. A lot of farmers will rent land for growing their crops. As it gets sold off to development, there is increased financial pressure,” she says. “But this also is an advantage. A lot of farms can do value-added cheese and other products, diversifying their income. Agritourism is huge in this region. In more rural regions, they don’t have that access to consumers or to diversify income streams.”

Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), has approximately 50 member farms in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island averaging slightly fewer than 200 cows per farm. DFA owns Guida’s Dairy, a major regional fluid milk processor based in New Britain, Connecticut. Karen Cartier, DFA senior director of membership, notes that dairies in this region have access to a number of fluid, cheese and yogurt plants in the Northeast.

“In those states, there is excellent land, access to water, and also manufacturing facilities,” Cartier says. “Most are family farms, historically well-ingrained farms that have been part of the community for some time.”

She notes that while farm decline in New England is consistent with national trends, the supporting infrastructure has taken a hard hit.

“What happens, when you start out with fewer numbers than other dairy-producing states, when farms exit the local infrastructure becomes less prevalent,” Cartier says, explaining the decline has led to fewer supporting businesses such as tractor dealers and banks that specifically cater to farms.

DeRonde notes that Connecticut and Massachusetts both offer support programs for dairy farms where farmers are compensated if milk prices dip below a trigger point. If it were not for these programs, she believes farm losses could be much worse than the national average.

“Those two states are fairly affluent and have a very limited number of farms,” DeRonde says. “They have a small group of farms that they very much value as far as economic contributions, and they want to support them. A lot of farms say if it were not for these state programs, they would not be in business.”

• New England Cheese

In addition to about 12 fluid milk processing facilities in Massachusetts, four in Connecticut and three in Rhode Island, New England is home to several award-winning cheesemakers. One of these is Italian specialty pioneer Calabro Cheese, which helped introduce hand-dipped Ricotta and Fresh Mozzarella to the U.S. market.

“It was founded by my grandfather and uncle in 1953 in Stratford, Connecticut. They were selling to mom-and-pop stores, delis and door-to-door — cheese, sausage, ice cream and a wide variety of products,” says Frank Angeloni, president and CEO of Calabro Cheese, which now runs a 55,000-square-foot cheese production and distribution facility in East Haven, Connecticut.

Angeloni says the company, which distributes both specialty and commodity Italian cheeses across the United States to foodservice and retail, really started to take off in the late 1980s and early 1990s with its award-winning Ricotta and Fresh Mozzarella.

“We were the first company to really come out with hand-dipped Ricotta in our 3-pound tin. That began to be a very vibrant mover in New York,” Angeloni says. “We were the second company to introduce Fresh Mozzarella in the late ’80s, and in the 1990s, it really took off.”

Calabro Cheese continues to innovate, two years ago introducing buffalo milk varieties of its Burrata, smoked Mozzarella and Ricotta. It is rolling out a new goat milk line which currently includes Chevre and Ricotta. Goat milk Mozzarella is about to start trials. The company also will be expanding into a mini and snack line, which it plans to introduce in the next six to eight months.

Massachusetts has an active cheese guild that was formed in 2013 by about a dozen cheesemakers interested in promoting and protecting the interests of artisan and farmstead cheesemakers in the state. Now the Massachusetts Cheese Guild has 23 artisan cheesemaker members and about 200 overall members, which range from general cheese enthusiasts to corporate supporters.

“There are a lot of new young cheesemakers who are really excited and doing unbelievable things, really cool funky new cheeses. Then there are folks who have been doing this for 40 years,” says Janet K. Zwolinski,
executive director, Massachusetts Cheese Guild.

The cheese guild hosts the Massachusetts Cheese Festival every year in November, which includes cheese sampling and selling, educational classes and entertainment. Zwolinski says the last few festivals have sold out at about 800 people with waiting lists of 100, so the guild is looking to expand this event.

The Massachusetts Cheese Guild does some lobbying for legislation that benefits family dairy farms and participates at the annual Massachusetts Ag Day at the statehouse. It also acts as a resource for new cheesemakers and those interested in cheesemaking.

“What’s wonderful is because of the broad section of people in cheesemaking careers, we can match up newer cheesemakers with veteran cheesemakers for questions about building codes, health and safety, and have an intergenerational passing on of information,” Zwolinski says.

Though the guild mainly relies on fundraising, membership and profits from its annual festival, it also receives funding through the state agriculture department for promotional materials to help promote its members’ cheeses.

“We work with dairies to help get a larger market for their product, asking what their goals are for working with distributors and how to get their product to market,” Zwolinski says. “We’re also building on the larger brand of Massachusetts cheese. There’s a program called ‘Great Cheeses of Massachusetts’ and we can go into a store or supermarket and set up a display that promotes Massachusetts cheese.”

Massachusetts cheesemakers produce more than 100 different types of cheese and have won more awards per capita than any other states, Zwolinski says. She highlights Westfield Farm of Hubbardston, Massachusetts, which has won more than 50 awards at the American Cheese Society contest, including Best of Show for two of its cheeses.

Of the Massachusetts Cheese Guild’s 23 members, all but two are farmstead processors.

“Our farmers are just a tenacious group that are very dedicated to their art and their craft,” Zwolinski says, adding that she sees a growing number of farmstead creameries emerging in the state.

“It has a lot to do with younger folks seriously considering farming as a career and as a lifestyle. They also see farming as a way to preserve land,” she says. “We’ve had a serious decline in Massachusetts’ number of dairy farms in general over the last 25 years. It’s great to see younger folks coming in, picking up the mantle and saying, ‘this is important, this is what I want to do.’”



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