By J.M. Hirsch
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."
Though some artisan cheese makers buy milk, many prefer to milk their own animals. Such is the case with Miller, who six years ago left her career as a petroleum geologist to make chevre, feta and cultured butter on a Newburg, Pa., farm with a few goats and cows.
She credits the burgeoning opportunities for would-be cheese makers to the evolution of the American palate. Foreign travel and restaurants whose menus brag of artisanal products have shown people there is more to cheese than the yellow and white slices they grew up with.
"Americans are finally getting it," Anita Eisenhauer, professor and executive chef at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., says. "They're getting what is so special about Italy and all those countries Americans want to visit."
But how do people schooled in legal briefs or binary code learn about brie? Cheese school.
In recent years, a handful of private and university programs have grown out of the demand for cheese-making skills, including the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese at the University of Vermont's Burlington campus.
Cathy Donnelly, the program's co-founder, says she is amazed by the backgrounds and education of the several hundred people who have attended the two-year-old program, which offers a six-course cheese-making certificate program as well as specialty classes.
"We all looked at one another last year when a neurosurgeon and eye surgeon were sitting in class," says Donnelly, whose course offerings include cheese ripening and packaging. "We're scratching our heads like, What is going on here?"
While plenty of agricultural colleges offer cheese and dairy programs, most focus on factory-style production in which uniformity is key. Artisanal programs focus on highlighting, even cultivating, subtle variations.
Jonathan White, a 49-year-old former robotics engineer, took a less formal route. For him, cheese making began as a hobby that became a passion that turned into a way of life. "Making cheese just on a personal level was so much more gratifying than engineering," he says.
Now he and his wife, a dancer, produce a dozen cheeses at his Bobolink Dairy in Vernon, N.J., including a raw-milk variety he says has subtle hints of the wild garlic greens his cows graze on. And to help others make the transition from corporate life to cows, he offers internships.
One of his first interns -- selected from hundreds of applicants -- was an investment banker in his fifties. "He spent four months with us, then he sold his apartment on the East Side and the house in the Hamptons and his car and bought a farm in South Africa," White said.
No matter how booming the market, people getting into the field shouldn't expect immediate returns. Cheese making at this level is an art, and most people need years of practice to produce excellent cheeses.
"Don't give up your day job," says Tom Merriman, a 56-year-old cheese maker from Sandwich, N.H. It took the former teacher and carpenter seven years before his cheeses and ice creams were good enough, and business strong enough, for him to quit his jobs.
It was worth the wait. Though he loved teaching, he'd grown up on a farm and longed to get outside. To others considering making the jump, he urges patience. Focus on the cheese, make it as good as possible, and the rest will take care of itself.
The nation's food culture "has changed to make it much easier to do this," he says outside his Sandwich Creamery. "You can't go up against the big companies. You try to make something special and unique and count on people to appreciate that."