Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Green Cheese

As I was sitting in a room filled with bespectacled scholars, mad-haired scientists and well-dressed industry experts yesterday, it occurred to me that the more I learn about cheese, the less I really know.

Case in point: about 50 people gathered at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture to get an update on The Green Cheese Project, which according to its website, is a "a partial LCA of integrated dairy and bio-fuels production systems."

Yeah, I have no idea what that actually means, so I Googled it and found that for the past couple of years, a group of progressive dairy farmers, state agencies, and faculty at UW-Madison have been working together to quantify energy intensity, greenhouse gas emissions, and the overall environmental impact of dairy and bio-fuel production in Wisconsin. They're calling their work the Green Cheese Project.


And, while I spent most of yesterday's meeting trying to maintain consciousness and follow acronym-laden lingo, I did glean these facts, which I think are pretty neat:
  • World dairy contributes 4 percent of all man-made greenhouse gases.
  • The carbon footprint of a gallon of milk is 17.6 pounds.
  • The carbon footprint of a pound of cheese is 10 times higher, because it takes 10 pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese.
  • Processing whey, the byproduct of making cheese, has a much larger footprint than just making cheese.

Furthermore, while I have only a vague idea what the above chart represents (there's a reason I have a Bachelor of Arts, vs a Bachelor of Science), I'm sure someone reading this blog will think it's awesome. According to Professor Douglas J. Reinemann, it shows the main processes within the life cycle of one kg of Cheddar cheese.

And, while I admit to not understanding nearly as much as I should have from yesterday's session, it did result in meeting some really cool people who provided more information about the sustainability of dairy. Sarah Gilbert, who works with the American Jersey Cattle Association, gave me a super cool handout on a study done on Jersey cow herd performance, taken from nearly 2 million dairy cows in more than 13,000 herds in 45 states.

The study concluded that per unit of cheese, the Jersey carbon footprint is 20 percent less than Holsteins, as Jersey cows weigh less and produce milk that is more nutrient-dense. Jersey cows also drink only 68 percent as much water as Holsteins, and because they are smaller, emit less methane (cow burps and farts), which unfortunately, contribute to greenhouse gases.

And then there was this study, handed to me by Dennis Presser at DATCP, which reports that computer simulation studies conducted by scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggest dairy cows raised year-round on pasture provide significantly greater environmental benefits than herds raised in high-production confinement operations.

Hmmm ... studying cows on computers, that had to be fun. The study concluded that compared to confinement systems, dairy cows kept outdoors all year had 30 percent lower levels of ammonia emissions, and that a well-managed dairy herd kept outdoors year-round left a carbon footprint that was 6 percent smaller than that of a high-production dairy herd kept in barns. 

In addition, the study found when fields formerly used for feed crops were converted to perennial grasslands for grazing, carbon sequestration levels climbed from zero to as high as 3,400 pounds per acre every year.  Which, is great, providing you live somewhere that doesn't experience a little something called winter.

All in all, the Green Cheese Project makes me wish I had paid more attention to subjects that ended in "ology" in school so I could understand it better. And if, unlike me, you understood half of what I just wrote about, then follow the team's Green Cheese Project progress and check back for conclusions and publications coming soon.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

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:
  • Grants announced to help Wisconsin processors expand specialty cheese and dairy
  • More Wisconsin dairy producers and processors modernizing, reinvesting in operations
  • New website offers resources for Wisconsin farmstead dairy producers, consumers, buyers
  • Register now to attend farmstead milk and ice cream field day
  • Specialty dairy revolution in Wisconsin: a conversation with Dan Carter
  • WI cheesemakers take center stage at New York's Artisanal Cheese Center
  • Wisconsin takes top honors at American Cheese Society Competition
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.