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The State of American Cheese

The American Cheese Society recently completed the first-ever survey of artisan, farmstead and specialty cheesemakers in the U.S. and Canada, identifying and contacting 851 North American cheesemakers. About a third, 324, participated. While the full report has not yet been released, Christine Hyatt, president of the ACS, published some intriguing numbers from the study in a July story for the Oregon Wine Press.
For example, the study shows in the last 10 years, 61 percent of all American cheesemakers started their operations. Compare this to only 9 percent having started prior to 1980, and you’ll see what all the fuss has been about in American artisan cheese in the last decade.
While I don’t know how many Wisconsin artisan, farmstead and specialty cheesemakers participated in the ACS study, I can tell you that the ACS survey data mirrors what’s happening in Wisconsin. In 2003, when I first started working in the artisan cheese community, we had six farmstead cheesemakers. Today, we have 26 farmstead cheesemakers and a half dozen more farmstead milk bottlers, ice cream makers and yogurt producers. If I were any good at math, I could tell you what percentage growth that was, but as it stands, all I know is that it’s impressive.
According to the ACS data, the ’80s and ’90s were marked by slow growth with an average of just under four new cheesemakers starting up each year between 1981 and 1999. Fast forward to the 2000s, when an average of 19 new cheesemakers started up each year. The ACS reports that the years 2005 and 2010 were tied for the highest number of startups, with 23 each year.
In 2005, I was still working as a spokesperson at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture. I’ve kept my press releases from those days and went through them just for fun. Here were a few of the headlines I wrote for the state of Wisconsin that year:
Those were heady times — Wisconsin cheesemakers and dairy farmers were modernizing, expanding and launching new products almost every month. I had a hard time keeping up with the news, and because the Dept of Ag obviously wasn’t going to report on every little thing happening in the industry, I started this Cheese Underground blog in 2006, writing anonymously for the first year as a state employee, until some dude named Kevin ratted me out in the Chicago Reader. Shortly thereafter, I left the Dept of Ag and started my own business, working full-time to share the gospel of Wisconsin artisan cheese.
And what a story it’s been. From cows to goats to sheep, American artisanal cheese is coming into its own. According to the ACS study, cow’s milk is still used the most for specialty cheeses, by 64 percent of processors. But goat milk has come a long way – with 50 percent of the study’s respondents using it to make cheese today, a dramatic shift from even 20 years ago, when Fantome Farm’s Anne Topham had to give away goat cheese at the farmer’s market just to get people to try it. Meanwhile, sheep’s milk is used by 15 percent of cheesemakers, the survey results show.
Style-wise, the ACS reports that 77 percent of cheesemakers craft aged cheeses and 63 percent produce fresh product. Ripened and semi-soft are made by about 50 percent, with blue cheese being the most popular offering by 30 percent of cheesemakers. More than half craft cheese with raw milk and 34 percent produce exclusively raw milk cheeses.
Cheesemakers also run very small businesses. Half of all operations responding to the ACS survey have three or fewer employees. Production is also on the low end, with 44 percent of cheesemakers crafting less than 10,000 pounds of cheese a year. The majority sell direct to retailers and restaurants, with 68 percent selling at farmer’s markets, which have also seen a dramatic rise from 2,863 in 2000 to 6,232 markets in 2010.
Christine says ACS staff is working hard to get the full report ready to be released in time for the American Cheese Society’s annual conference in Montreal, coming up August 2 – 6. I’m looking forward to attending the conference, and reporting more about the study from there. 
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