If you own cows or goats, you may at times find yourself inundated with more milk than you can possibly use. Naturally, the first thing that comes to mind is…cheese!
Cheese-making is gaining new popularity as more people return to the homesteading lifestyle, and as the appetite for hand-made, local, artisan goods grows. But there is a big difference between making a few cheeses for your family to enjoy, and turning your cheese-making hobby into a full-scale production, or “going pro.”
The decision to “go pro” is sometimes seen as an elaboration of the cheese-making hobby, when in fact it is truly a full-fledged transformation. The change from avocation to profession brings new dimensions that can wear out even the most passionate hobbyist.
It seems like being a farmstead cheesemaker would be fun and fulfilling, but after you take a good, hard look at the realities of setting up and running your own creamery, you need to decide whether it is the right move for you. Here is a little quiz, devised with the help of cheesemakers from across the country, to help set the stage for what you will be in for should you bravely go where others have gone before…
Are the hours really that bad?
There are times throughout the year when most farmstead cheesemakers find themselves going to bed just about in time to get up again. Kidding/lambing/calving season is a prime example — and this is also the time that most farmers markets start their season. Milk is flowing, cheese must be made, and babies won’t wait for your bedtime schedule… When you choose to become a farmstead cheesemaker, you are choosing not just a job, but a way of life. If you have a spouse or partner, you will need to consider very carefully whether this way of life will be fulfilling for both of you, together.
How about a good head for business?
When the hobby farmer-cheesemaker turns pro, everything changes. In reality you are now operating two businesses — a dairy farm and a cheese business. Any inefficiency in either aspect will likely evolve into a liability, both financially and, in the end, emotionally. If you know you will not be able to develop a sound business plan, maintain accurate and up-to-date financial books, complete invoices, and follow up on orders and billing — and you still want to go into the business — then consider taking classes, or even hiring a bookkeeper and office manager.
Why would I need to be creative or artistic?
Remember there is “art” in “artisan.” Not only will being creative give you an edge in producing visually appealing products, but it will help with designing packaging, labels and promotional materials. As the number of producers grows and the volume of farmstead cheeses increases, it will be the little things, such as irresistible packaging and mouthwatering product presentation, that will help give your business an edge.
Is there really a lot of dishwashing and repetitive labor?
Oh my, yes! After all of your cheese recipes have been refined and perfected, it becomes the great cheesemaker’s job to keep making them, as identically as possible, over and over. Keeping the passion and inspiration evident in each batch and wheel can become a challenge. As to dishwashing, there is a standard saying that cheese-making is 90 percent cleanup. Sanitation and cleanliness in a licensed creamery cannot be treated casually. It is not in the least bit glamorous or inspiring, but you will spend a good deal of time doing it.
How could I be too tired to enjoy my animals?
For most farmstead cheesemakers, the animals are usually the reason they make cheese, not the other way around. After you are licensed, however, selling your cheese becomes a priority that can take away time with the animals and drain your patience and energy to deal with their needs, as well as the challenges that caring for them brings…
What kinds of problems can crop up?
The farmstead creamery, no matter how well-administered, will face an ever-changing set of challenges. Dealing with equipment failure that leads to lost production or lost product; animal health issues that lead to lost milk, animal deaths and culling decisions; and the possibility of liability lawsuits, product recall and inspection violations — all of these and more bring a facet to the lifestyle that can be unduly stressful. To be successful, you must be prepared to face these challenges without letting them overwhelm you.
What about money?
Even if your cheese sells at the high end of the price spectrum, the number of hours you will work to create that product could mean that your average income will be somewhere below minimum wage… If you do not have the investment capital to survive the first few years or another source of income to make ends meet, then you would be wise to reconsider starting a cheese-making business (or any small business, for that matter). Even after several good years, you will probably not become wealthy making cheese — but you will have a priceless quality of life and hopefully be able to pay the bills!