Having made the life-changing decision to make cheese on the farm,
it is now time to execute on the plan. Assuming you have a plan?
Without an executable plan, it will not be possible for you to solicit
the necessary input before you begin to spend what will become precious
dollars. Assuming that you know what type of cheese will be made you
now have to make a lot more decisions.
What size and shape will it be (the size and shape of traditional cheeses
may not be the most saleable format)? How much will you produce? What
will be the maximum production and how long will it take to get to
Have you calculated your breakeven point? Do you understand the ratio
of wholesale price to retail price? Will you need to develop a product
or will you be able to make an acceptable product on day one? Is your
new operation located close to or far from an urban market? Will you
be able to actively attract the urban tourist?
If you are producing cheese far from your point of sale the relationship
will most likely involve marketers, brokers, distributors all of whom
want a piece of the cake you create.
Designing your new cheesemaking operation will require a clear picture
of what you want to do, and then every decision can be made around
the needs of the product. One decision that comes up often is that
of building new or converting an existing building; either can work.
One thing to remember is that the production atmosphere in a small
cheese plant can be very high in humidity and when permitted materials
such as Dairy Board are attached to a timber frame they may look good
but are not very functional. (In 2005 I was aware of two buildings
where the ceilings collapsed in, both due to the impact of condensation
inside the structure).
All attachment points and jointing strips allow moisture to gain access
to the structure behind. Moisture barriers and insulation are needed
in walls that may not at first glance appear to need these features.
A quick way to destroy a wall and create a health hazard is to have
moisture condense inside a wall. There are many ways to produce a good
functional wall and I will discuss these in a future column. The belief
that stud-based construction is the least expensive is usually a myth.
Penny wise and pound foolish may be something to keep in mind here.
Re-habbing an old facility is often attractive as permitting may be
easier, but there is always a lot of hidden cost in this option that
is hard to quantify. Don’t overlook the need to meet all regulatory
requirements; don’t assume that because the project is farm-based
there will not be jurisdiction by an agency you did not know about.
Drains can be an item in question; it is important to make sure trapping
is up to code, slopes are adequate and surfaces can meet the stresses
of production, acid from the cheese whey and physical damage are the
two main items. Be prepared to pour new concrete, and install new drains.
Make sure the PVC used for the drains will stand the temperatures of
hot whey or water; one especially tough duty is the dumping of whey
from a Ricotta operation.
Most small cheese plants on farms have the following: A raw bulk tank
in a separate room may or may not have a pasteurizer (more on this
in a later column), production area, aging space and finished goods,
retail and dry goods, the most overlooked space requirement.
Look for flow in the layout, milk in one end, cheese out the other.
Provide an area where the person making the cheese can change easily
into suitable clothing for cheesemaking and discard the clothes from
his or her barn operations. In most cases that which grows in the barn
is not what you want on your cheese. There maybe some exceptions but
they are few. Always try to locate your production upwind of dust and
What standards should you build to? A common mistake is to think of
state and federal authorities such as USDA, FDA and state departments
of agriculture as the source of this information.
Yes, it is important to meet the minimum standards required by these
organizations, but it is does not mean that a building approved when
new will remain in compliance as it ages. Think long term, think clean.
Your regulators are primarily looking to protect the consumer with
regard to health and safety, protect you from a structure that is dangerous,
earthquake, wind and storm, and fire. It is always good to visit an
operation that has been through several expansions. I find that the
more recent structures of successful operations far exceed the requirements
of the regulatory bodies.
The payback is in the form of longer life, improved serviceability,
sanitation easily achieved etc. The role of the inspector is to make
sure you meet code; he is not likely to be a product specialist, a
construction specialist, but will need to approve all equipment.
The depth of experience in building food grade facilities for the last
50 years has been about catering to ever larger operations. That trend
is now in reverse. Those same providers who are not accustomed to the
cost constraints of the small operator may charge you more to design
your building than you want to spend building it.
Where to look for solutions? Europe has gone through much of the agony
of meeting higher hygiene standards for its operations, including those
which are small.
Positive filtered air in production spaces, stainless steel evaporators
that are completely washable in aging rooms, cooling and humidifying
units that are fully washable, building techniques and materials that
are functional and meeting code are available. Even if the solution
is not a drop in it may provide an insight into a better way.
In closing I want to return to my earlier comment about having a plan.
When there is no plan I find the total money spent and the time taken
exceed what would have been expended with good planning.
There is often a lack of realism on the part of the emerging entrepreneur.
An irrational willingness to pay to make it right rather than get it
right is well understood by me personally.
Some years ago I embarked on a publishing venture. If I had spent all
the money I spent trying to keep it alive on marketing up front, that
business may well have been around today. Take off the rose-colored
glasses when writing business plans and don’t be too quick to
shoot the messenger; the voice of realism is probably not the downer
you think it is.
Neville McNaughton, president of Cheez Sorce, St. Louis, MO, has
many years of experience manufacturing dairy products in both New
Zealand and US. He has been a judge at several cheese competitions.
Neville will be writing a regular column in Cheese Reporter and will
take any questions regarding cheese manufacture. You can reach him
at firstname.lastname@example.org. jumhoefer@wischeesemakersassn.