As the price of milk languishes, dairy farmers try to understand the complexities of milk pricing and find new solutions to the problem. One of the potential solutions is adding value to, and marketing, your own dairy products. 

You can process the milk you produce into fluid, cheese, gourmet butter, or other products. And, you can cut out the “middle man,” and consequently reap the justly deserved rewards. However, most of us overlook the impending cost involved in making the leap from dairy farmer to processor.  As a newcomer into the value-added-product arena, I have a new appreciation for the regularity of the milk check that arrives twice monthly from my creamery. 

Ventured into cheese-making
I started making cheese almost three years ago.  I considered myself a successful businessman, and the cheese-making venture seemed to be a logical extension of the dairy business. Making a good-quality, tasty cheese turned out to be no more difficult than the management of a 1,000-cow herd.

  After we started to divert a small amount of milk into cheese, I learned that cheese-making was a more costly process than I had initially thought. But it also has its rewards. I gain a great deal of satisfaction in watching the enchanting process of taking raw milk and transforming it into cheese in a few intensive hours. As the cheese ages and develops flavors, that satisfaction turns to pleasure. Finally, when my own label was affixed to the packaging, this pleasure became pride. I looked at the completed product — ready for sale — and not only appreciated the meticulous work involved in production, but also all of the hurdles that had been met and overcome to bring this cheese to market. 

As we won awards and medals for our cheese, I knew that the product was outstanding. The largest hurdle I encountered was how to communicate the value of the cheese to consumers. Yes, the store customer makes the final decision. But others, such as the deli manager, help influence the decision by pointing out that the cheese is something special. And the buyer for the store must be convinced that the cheese is worth stocking before the deli manager can merchandise it.

A new type of communication
Marketing cheese is a challenge. A vast amount of time must be spent with store personnel, educating them as to why my cheese should be on their shelf.

Yet, as I waited for these relationships to develop, the milk check from my creamery arrived every two weeks. The seemingly effortless arrival of creamery checks was something I grew to appreciate — in contrast to the time and effort spent in selling my cheese. While I struggled to estimate how much milk to process into cheese a full year before I could sell it, I had no concern about selling high-quality milk to the creamery. 

While the milk check may seem pretty dismal these days, because of low milk prices, you should still appreciate that it arrives on time. Most producers don’t have to worry, either, about marketing their product in addition to producing it.  These are things to certainly appreciate.

As consumers modify their food purchasing habits toward higher-quality products, they need more choices from which to select. This requires more businessmen to make the change from selling commodities to selling their own branded products. The success of these new ventures rests on the ability to not only make a desirable and safe product, but the ability to communicate its value throughout the dairy-food chain.

John Fiscalini is a dairy producer and cheese-maker in Modesto, Calif.