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Designing A Farmstead Cheese Operation

First Step: An Executable Plan

Volume 131, No. 33, Friday, February 16, 2007

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 that level? 

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 odor. 

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 neville@cheezsorce.comjumhoefer@wischeesemakersassn. org

Other Neville McNaughton Columns
Judges Recognize High Art in Cheesemaking
Cutting the Curd
One Day Analysis - Beyond Being Legal
The Shape of Cheese
Adding the Extra Column
Pasta Filata Cheese
Very Hard Cheese
Hard Cheese with Eyes
Gouda, Edam And Other Washed Curd Cheese

Other Cheese Reporter Guest Columnists
Visit John Umhoefer