Seeking a New Career Path, Some Find Cheese Is the Way

By J.M. Hirsch
Associated Press
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

If curds and whey sound better than corporate ladder climbing, get in line.

Scores of lawyers, engineers and other professionals with back-to-the-land yearnings and a love of good food are taking advantage of a booming market for specialty cheeses to launch second careers as small-scale dairy farmers.

It's a move they'd have been crazy to make just a few years ago. Never mind the long hours and backbreaking labor. Abysmal milk prices have been shuttering family dairies for years, and the corporatization of the dairy world creates tough terrain for small-time operations.

But the era of so-called artisanal cheeses -- which are to processed cheese slices what champagne is to soda pop -- has changed all that.

Just as wine is nuanced by the terroir (geography) of the vineyard, these small-batch, hand-crafted cheeses from goat, sheep and cow milk telegraph flavors from the pastures and plants the animals grazed, making each one -- even each batch of each one -- distinct.

And that has made them sought-after staples of restaurant menus and dairy cases around the country, giving new life to a faltering industry and new jobs to those looking to trade meetings for milk.

"I really enjoyed my former career," says John Putnam, a former lawyer who makes Alpine-style cow's-milk cheeses on his Thistle Hill Farm in North Pomfret, Vt. "But I would say even in the early '90s, I was talking to other lawyers from a cell phone on a tractor."

Consumption of specialty cheeses, a $6.4 billion industry in 2003, increased five times as fast as overall cheese consumption from 1994 to 2004, according to a study by the California Milk Advisory Board. The agricultural community has taken notice.

Cheese-making hubs such as Vermont and Pennsylvania have struggled for years to stem the loss of family dairy farms. Pennsylvania continues to lose them, but state agriculture officials say second-career producers are slowing the rate. In Vermont, they've helped bring it to a standstill.

And in Wisconsin, production of specialty cheeses -- a broad category that includes artisanal cheeses and their close cousin, farmstead cheeses (which are made exclusively from milk produced on site) -- more than doubled between 1994 and 2005.

That success marks the difference between selling milk as a commodity and using it to craft a product. Dairies that sell milk to processors earn a little more than a $1 per 10 pounds (more for organic). Turn that milk into fine cheese and the figure becomes $20 or more.

"When they start doing the numbers, they say, 'Hey! We just made $1,400 worth of cheese from $200 worth of commodity milk,' " Sandra Miller, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Farmstead & Artisan Cheese Alliance, says. "The light bulbs are going on."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company