The likelihood of another large commercial cheese manufacturer coming to the north country is dim but artisanal cheese makers are seeing the value of a fresh product for the local market.
A cheese plant once operated on every rural corner when farmers needed to bring their milk to a manufacturing plant that was as close as possible. Over the years, the industry evolved. While some plants got bigger and modernized, most shut down.
Plants that have thrived include Kraft Foods in Lowville, the worlds largest cream cheese plant; Crowley Foods in LaFargeville, a cottage cheese and yogurt maker; McCadam Cheese in Chateaugay, owned by Agri-Mark dairy cooperative, which also makes Cabot cheese; and Great Lakes Cheese in Adams, which doubled its size and capacity with an $86 million expansion completed in 2010.
Those plants suck up most of the milk that is available for production, leaving little left for major new enterprises.
The door is always open to dairy manufacturing but our milk is pretty much committed, said Jay M. Matteson, agricultural coordinator for Jefferson County.
Since the expansion of Great Lakes, Mr. Matteson said, he has focused his efforts on helping farmers meet local demand.
We do have a milk deficit, said Brent A. Buchanan, an agricultural issues leader with Cornell Cooperative Extension. There isnt any milk going to waste.
The popularity of Greek-style yogurt has increased general demand for milk in the northeast, said St. Lawrence County Farm Bureau President Jon R. Greenwood.
I think the market has been good for milk, he said. Its been healthy.
Even the Amish, who lost their outlet when Heritage Cheese House in Heuvelton shut down in 2008, seem to have stability with Agri-Mark. The cooperative built community milk houses for the Amish and deducts the cost of electricity, which is in Agri-Marks name, from their milk checks.
Milk plants leave
While dairy remains the mainstay of St. Lawrence County agriculture, most major milk manufacturers have left the county behind, often looking for greener pastures in the west where milk was cheaper or on major roads where milk could be shipped in easier.
The plants that were here were smaller, older plants that closed, Mr. Greenwood said.
The only ones remaining are North Country Dairy in North Lawrence, purchased in 2011 by western New York dairy farmers for their growing yogurt business, and Losurdo Foods, Heuvelton, which makes soft cheeses there.
Kraft closed its cheddar cheese-making plant in Canton in 2004 as part of a global restructuring.
The Tubroburg kosher cheese plant in Ogdensburg closed in 2011 after a long-standing dispute with the city over water and sewer services.
The city had taken over the cheese plant in 2008 after ex-owner Ahava Food Corp. went out of business. Although the city had long threatened to cut off water and sewer services to Tubroburg, the end came when National Grid cut power over unpaid bills. The company was also behind on its payments to employees and milk suppliers.
The city and Tubroburgs owners remain locked in a court case while the building sits vacant.
There is some equipment in it, city Manager John M. Pinkerton said. Some of it is owned by the city. Some of it is owned by others. Thats a bone on contention between the former operators and those who have liens on it.
Tubroburgs sister plant, Tubroville, in New Bremen in Lewis County, shut down several weeks after the Ogdensburg plant closed. The state Department of Agriculture and Markets suspended Tubrovilles plant permit because of sanitary code violations.
Most of the equipment in the New Bremen plant is gone, said Richard H. Porter, Lewis County Industrial Development Agency executive director.
big not always better
Big is not always better for homegrown north country cheese makers. A new market catering to those who enjoy a super-fresh local cheese is on the upswing.
North country consumers have long had a love for curd a part of cheese-making before it is pressed and aged that squeaks when eaten at room temperature, a product once more widely available.
River Rat Cheese, the flagship brand of Gold Cup Farms, Clayton, distributes curd and some brick cheese, primarily made by Great Lakes Cheese.
We flavor curds here, said president Mary C. Scudera.
A few homestead farmers have started making curd and other cheeses from milk from their own cows, which allows some larger operations to diversify and keeps others who like being small in business.
Daniel V. Meier, Meiers Artisan Cheese, Route 37, Ft. Covington, started making cheese one day a week three years ago from milk he kept back from shipments to Dairylea, which was mostly headed to Great Lakes Cheese.
Talk about fresh, said Mr. Meier. Milk from the first 65 of the 320 cows we milk goes directly into the cheese vat. If you made cheese off of 65 cows steady, that would be a full-time job. I think you could live off 25 cows. You cannot live off 25 cows and ship to Dairylea.
Meiers makes curd cheese and other types of preservative-free cheese, including a Gruyere. His aged cheeses are made from raw milk, which he cannot sell for at least 60 days to allow the fermenting process to take care of unwanted bacteria.
It makes for a more flavorable cheese, Mr. Meier said.
Melinda J. and Jeffrey J. Bechaz, Riverdale Cheese, Clayton, also divert some of the milk from their hormone-and-BST-free 150-cow herd to make fresh curd at least once a week, shipping the rest to the LaFageville plant.
Years ago, cheese plants were all over this area ... we wanted to bring it back. People are forgetting what it tastes like. People will be in the driveway asking if its ready yet, Mrs. Bechaz said. Mainly we were looking to diversify. We built a whole cheese plant. It took us six, seven months. It was a big investment.
In addition to curd, Mr. and Mrs. Bechaz are trying their hand at other cheeses, such as mozzarella and aged wheels.
Joe P. and Sue G. Shultz, and their son, Bronson J., Lowville, started making cheese in small batches to the increasing demand of customers before they invested about $50,000 in equipment housed in an addition to their milk house. In addition to curd, they make a fresh brick cheese and are aging blocks that will eventually be cheddar.
We milk 50 cows. We wanted to stay the size were at, Mr. Shultz said. Cheese curd is kind of a phenomenon of the north country. ... We can sell it warm right out of the vat.
What milk is not made into cheese goes to Agri-Mark. The farm prides itself on low bacteria and somatic cell counts.
Thats what makes good cheese, Mr. Shultz said.
Patty A. and Mark J. Forbes, Milk Made Farm, County Route 46, Theresa, are adding a cheese operation to their soaps and lotions production from goats and Jersey cows.
Small diversified farms seem to be doing better right now, Mrs. Forbes said. We set the price. We know how much were going to get from month to month. It is a big investment but who doesnt love cheese?
Making cheese on the farm also means producers have to market their product from their homes or in stores rather than see it driven away in a milk truck.
Its time-consuming, Mr. Meier said. If you have to sell your product, it takes some extra effort.
Mr. Matteson agreed farmers should consider everything that is involved before jumping into the homestead cheese vat.
Its not an easy business to get into, he said.
However, as the wine industry grows, that creates a greater market for artisan cheese makers. All they have to do is make sure theyre tied into that wine trail, Mr. Matteson said. People are always looking for those other neat places.
North Country artisan cheese makers include:
n Bechaz Riverdale Cheese, 37851 Deserno Rd., Clayton. 686-5979
nMeiers Artisan Cheese, 3231 Route 37, Ft. Covington. 518-572-1873
nShultz Family Cheese, 79556 Number 3 Road, Lowville. 376-7548