Cheese could be slumping dairy industry’s salvation
Scrolling through Instagram, Scott Schroeder sees a picture of Sue Miller posing for a selfie with a block of cheese.
Not too long after, that cheese – handmade and aged in Miller’s Chester County creamery – has traveled an hour east into Philadelphia and ended up at Schroeder’s Queen Village restaurant, Hungry Pigeon. There, the cheese is carved up and served at the rustic, exposed-brick eatery where Schroeder is the owner and chef. One order of cheese is $7. Five is $25. Pricier than Kraft Singles or the goopy Philly tourist novelty, Cheez Whiz? For sure.
But the sale of fancier cheeses, both farmers and artisanal cheesemakers say, has partially offset dipping milk prices in Pennsylvania’s languishing dairy industry and provided some dairy farmers and cheesemakers with the option to transform an increasingly invaluable commodity into one for which restaurateurs and consumers are willing to pay a premium.
“We’re talking about making cheeses that are highly specialized, very unique and hard to find on the market,” said Miller, owner and operator of the Chester Springs-based Birchrun Hills Farm, home to a cheesemaking facility and a herd of around 80 cows that she milks to make her cheeses.
With the help of her family, Miller, 52, makes a naturally rinded blue cheese made out of raw milk called “Birchrun Blue.” Also lining the shelves of her 800-square-foot creamery is an alpine cheese she’s named “Equinox,” an American farmhouse-style raw milk cheese named “Fat Cat,” and a washed-rind cheese dubbed “Red Cat.” (“A little, stinky cheese,” she calls it.)
Miller, president of the Pennsylvania Cheese Guild, considers herself to be one of the fortunate dairy farmers.
Investment: Not only has her dairy farm stood up so far to mounting industry financial pressures, but she’s able to produce cheese because she has space to make it, she said. She currently leases her cheesemaking facility from a nearby farm, but is awaiting a permit to open a 4,800-square-foot cheese production space on her own farm. Not all dairy farmers have those resources, especially when it generally costs between $400,000 to $600,000 to build a creamery, she said.
“It’s a huge upfront investment in many cases,” said Sherry Bunting, a Lancaster County-based agricultural writer for 35 years.
As it stands, most milk production isn’t a booming source of revenue. Farmers in Southeastern Pennsylvania are currently paid around $15 per 100 pounds of milk, Miller said; $13 for 100 pounds on the commodity market. The average price for 100 pounds of milk in Pennsylvania is around $17, she said.
“Part of the issue is that there’s a lot of milk being made nationally and there’s also a lot of consolidation happening,” Bunting said. “Milk is moving into different parts of the country. … And there is – and has been until now – an oversupply of milk.”
With greater production, Bunting said the U.S. has increased its global exports of milk, which has lowered revenue for American farms.
“The lower that it goes, the more we can export because it makes us more globally competitive,” Bunting said. “That’s fine, but we haven’t figured out how to compensate farmers.”
There’s also dwindling numbers of cow-milk drinkers, Miller said, with more consumers choosing to buy plant-based “milks.”
“That’s why these farms are burning through their equity,” Miller said. “They can’t carry through these losses.”
Fancy cheese: And so, for some dairy enthusiasts, fancy cheese is the way to go.
“I think cheese is such a great way to transfer wealth and interest from urban communities to rural ones,” said Stefanie Angstadt, an artisanal cheesemaker who owns and operates Oley, Pa.-based Valley Milkhouse.
Angstadt, a Berks County native, only makes cheese. For milk, she turns to Berks County’s Spring Creeks Farm. There, she said, she buys 100 gallons of certified organic milk on each of the four days she makes cheese each week.
“All the cheeses are very creamy,” Angstadt said. “They kind of coat your mouth.”
At her small cheesemaking facility, she makes a creamy blue that has a “dense, fudgy texture”; a hard-aged gouda that was created using a recipe she learned during a trip to Belgium; a younger, cider-washed gouda; and a blue-gray-colored, pyramid-shaped cheese that gets its hue from being ripened with charcoal ash.
“One thing that’s pretty cool is that cheese made in the United States and specifically in Pennsylvania is getting a lot of buzz right now, even in international food communities,” Angstadt said.
Visibility: The proximity of Angstadt’s creamery to Philadelphia means her cheeses get some visibility in restaurants, like Roots on Frankford Avenue in Kensington, and farmers’ markets around the city.
“Philadelphia is a really special place for the food world,” said Miller, of Birchrun Hills Farm, whose cheeses also appear on the menus at The Love, in Rittenhouse Square, and Talula’s, both of which are owned by restaurateur Aimee Olexy.
“It has some nuances each time and it’s fantastic each time,” said Olexy. “And it’s in such good shape you can serve it on a cheese course or develop a whole recipe around it.”
At his South Fourth Street restaurant, the Hungry Pigeon, Schroeder serves Miller’s Birchrun Blue and a baked version of the Fat Cat.
“You cut into the cheese, you know who made it,” Schroeder said. “There’s a connection there. I see her take a selfie with the cheeses. And then they’re on the menu. And I think that’s really special.”