There are several cooperatives and proprietary companies that reign as giants over our national dairy landscape. California Dairies, Inc, is in control of 9 percent of the U.S. milk supply. Dairy Farmers of America's (DFA) membership reaches near 15,000 producers stretched all over the country. Land O’Lakes’ branded products are internationally known. But none of those three are active in the high-risk, high-reward artisan cheese market. Or, if they are, they aren't competing for ribbons.
However, if you look closely you’ll see that some mid-sized cooperatives and proprietary plants participate actively in this high-margin business. The awards for those competing in the artisan cheese realm were awarded last Thursday night in Sacramento, at the American Cheese Society judging awards. The top four winners included three farmstead cheesemakers, and a small family-owned plant in California’s Central Valley. Two of the three farmstead cheese makers are actually educational foundations.
But if you look closely through the rest of the awards, you’ll find many dairy cooperatives competing in this unique space, with cheese names like For example, Swiss Valley Farms took over the Caves of Faribault, an artisan cheese business in Minnesota. They took a third place award in the Blue Mold Cheeses category with their Amablu St. Pete’s Select Blue Cheese. Cabot Creamery Cooperative, an Agri-Mark brand, is a perennial winner in the space, taking home awards in 2014 for it’s Cheddar, Greek yogurt, and two types of butter. Even Kraft Foods is artisan, winning awards with two of its Cracker Barrel Cheddar products, beating out much smaller (in terms of production) competition.
This year’s 2014 Best of Show winners (selected from all categories) were:
1st Place - Farms for City Kids Foundation, Vermont, with Tarentaise Reserve
Farms for City Kids Foundation is an educational organization that brings kids from New York City up to their Vermont farm for a Monday through Friday stay learning life lessons while being taught to milk cows and make cheese. The farm has 42 Jerseys on 1,000 acres.
2nd Place - Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, California, with Point Reyes Bay Blue
Point Reyes begun in 2000 after Bob and Dean Giacomini and their four daughters went after Bob’s dream to make a branded product. Their award-winning blue cheeses are made in the Tomales Bay of California, with the farm situated across from Point Reyes National Seashore. The farm has 350 cows, downsizing from 500 when they first started to focus on the cheese and their “The Fork” restaurant business.
3rd Place - Oakdale Cheese & Specialties, California, with their aged Gouda
This small plant in the Central Valley of California is a fourth-generation operation making Dutch Gouda, Quark and yogurt, just south of Stockton, California.
3rd Place - Sprout Creek Farm, New York, with "Eden"
Sprout Creek Farm is also a foundation, set on 200 acres in Dutchess County, NY. Begun as an independent school for girls in Connecticut, and now visited by 2,500 children each school year.
The ACS judging involves both a technical and aesthetic judge, in teams of two. The judges evaluated 1,685 cheeses this year from 248 companies in over 100 categories.