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Take a Reality Check Before Making Cheese a Career

Vicki Dunaway

Who doesn’t dream of raising dairy goats and turning a profit from goat milk products? Feed and vet bills can cost a fortune, and making cheese in the farm kitchen has netted some delicious results. It’s only logical to consider the next step—why not turn that cheese-making passion into a career? Why not, indeed? Wouldn’t it be fun to sit at the farmers’ market and chat with customers every sunny Saturday morning, then head home with a pocketful of cash?

Hold that pleasant image for a moment, before considering reality. Sometimes it rains on Saturday morning. On those days only half the usual number of customers show up. After staying up till midnight packaging that amazing goat cheese, after getting up at 4:00 a.m. in order to open the booth at 8:00, after fighting with the wind to keep the canopy up and then finding out that the top fills up with pockets of rainwater that have to be dumped by poking from below with a broom—the reality is that going home soaking wet with lots of cheese and not very much cash isn’t going to pay the farm bills.

There is no harm in following a dream of self-sufficiency and developing goat milk product goals, but there are a number of very important questions one needs to ask before embarking on a quest to turn a dairy goat hobby into a long-term career.

Unfortunately I can’t locate Mary Falk’s (of Lovetree Farmstead Cheese) famous list of things to think about before starting a cheese plant, but I do remember the last one—“When are you going to sleep?” THAT is a good question. For this article, I’ll offer an abbreviated list of considerations based on my own experiences and some from my cheese-maker friends.

Do you have small children?
I was always grateful that commercial cheese-making didn’t come into my life until after my daughter had graduated from high school. It would have been terrible to miss being involved with her activities, picking her up at school when she was sick, or even just driving her to where she needed to be, because of demands from my business.

Is there enough market for your cheese in your area?
Urban markets can support more cheese-makers than rural ones, but competition can be cutthroat anywhere when there are other people making similar products, both at farmers’ markets and at retail outlets.

Does your product stand out in a crowd? If you make a simple flavored chèvre spread, chances are there will be someone else with similar products at almost any local market. The more cheese-makers around, the smaller will be your piece of the pie. Fancier, unique cheeses, such as mold- or bacteria- ripened semi-soft types, may allow you to compete in a mature market, but they will take more resources and lots of practice.

Do you have a good support system?
Is there someone in your life who can and will support you financially for the first four to five years while you grow your market beyond the breakeven point? Do you have a handyman you can call on to fix busted pipes and electrical problems and help you move stuff? Is there someone who can take over when you are sick?

Can you meet the legal requirements?
If you are lucky enough to live in a state that allows on-farm sales without a lot of oversight, you can probably get started fairly easily. Where states allow these on-farm “incidental” sales, they usually require that customers come to your farm and often to bring their own containers. Advertising is generally not allowed. Even if you are in that situation, it’s important that you know the rules and practice meticulous sanitation for milking and cheese making, as well as proper milk storage. Customers can be your best inspectors, and they will not return if they see shoddy practices.

If you reside in a state where dairy product sales are not permitted without oversight, your operation will have to pass muster with several government agencies. Your cheese making facility will have to meet certain requirements, which vary widely from state to state, so get to know your local inspector(s). The Department of Agriculture oversees milk and cheese production in most states, but the Health Department and FDA are increasingly involved in inspecting cheese plants and products. Certain types of products, such as fluid milk or yogurt, require a higher level of inspection and pricey machines for packaging. You will also have to meet weights and measures standards for labeling purposes and for calibration of any scales you use.

Do you have an existing building or room that you can convert?
Constructing a new building is very expensive these days, so many budding cheese-makers opt to convert a farm building or even a room within the home to a cheese plant. I’ve seen some really creative cheese rooms! One was in a converted sun porch that had a separate door and a hallway separating it from the main house.

A friend of mine recently converted the basement of her home (also with a separate entrance) to be her cheese room, after having rented a space a couple of miles away for several years.

Another family I know divided a large metal prefab building (like you buy at Lowe’s) into a barn, milking parlor and cheese room.

Are you willing to delegate?
At some point, when your cheese has become locally famous and you can sell more than you could possibly make, you will have to delegate some of the work. You might have to hire a herd manager or milkers, meaning you will have less contact with your goats; or you might have to turn some of the cheese-making over to someone else. Most of us will happily let someone else do the cleaning and packaging and bookkeeping, but if you love going to market and talking with customers, that may not be something you’re willing to let go. Think about what relinquishing control means to you.

These are just a few points to consider— a reality check—before jumping into a commercial cheese business.

Talk to cheese-makers, join an e-mail support group (such as “dairystartup” at Yahoogroups), do your homework, take classes to improve your skills. After one cheese-making class I offered, a participant came up to me and said, “I’m so glad I took this class! I had no idea how much work it was or that you had to stand on your feet all day long. I think I’ll stick to home cheesemaking.”

Vicki Dunaway was formerly an artisan cheesemaker and editor of Cream Line and Home Dairy News. She still maintains the web site www.smalldairy.info, and invites DGJ readers to visit the site bookstore and insert the following code on checkout to receive a 20% discount on any purchase over $50:

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