The report, “Coming of Age: The Status of North Bay Artisan Cheesemaking,” provides a current profile of farmstead and artisan cheesemakers in Marin and Sonoma counties. The data in this report were collected in 2010 in interviews with 38 cheesemakers and cheese professionals. It reports on the current status of artisan and farmstead cheese production in the North Bay, identifying the needs and issues facing these farmers and producers. The North Bay is home to the largest concentration of artisan cheesemakers in the state. Of California’s 43 artisan cheese companies, more than half are located in Marin and Sonoma counties. Survey results confirm the many positive aspects of a diverse and thriving artisan and farmstead cheesemaking community—from the variety of cheeses being made here, to the increasing interest in and demand for artisan cheeses by consumers.
Respondent data indicated:
• Almost half (46%) of Marin and Sonoma Counties’ artisan cheese businesses are farmstead, with one to four family members involved in the operation.
• The oldest continuously operating cheese company has been in business since 1876; the newest operations, begun in 2010, are close to production.
• There are 22 commercial cheese plants in the two counties; four more are close to production.
• Over one third (33%) of those interviewed have been making cheese for three years or less.
• Almost 8 million pounds of artisan cheese are produced here annually.
• Production per cheese business ranges from 1,500 pounds to 3 million pounds annually.
• At an average price of $15 per pound, artisan cheesemaking is a $119 million dollar industry in the two counties.
•Annual sales range from a high of $8 million to a low of $10,000.
• 332 people are employed in the two counties in the production of cheese and fermented milk products.
• 40% had 11 or more full time employees with an average of 35 employees.
• 70% own a dairy and produce milk for cheese.
• Almost three-quarters (73%) of cheesemakers are making cow milk artisan cheese.
• 46% of cheesemakers indicated that they farmed all or part of their operation organically.
• 37% rely on land leased from others for their cheese operation.
• 72% of farmstead cheesemakers sold agricultural conservation easements on land totaling 9,000 acres and used the proceeds to help capitalize their transition.
Recommendations for future growth included:
• Streamlining permits for cheese plant development;
• Expanding education and training programs for new cheesemakers;
• Increasing the number of cheese operations with active food safety and hygiene plans;
• Resolving shipping and distribution problems;
• Building an affinage infrastructure; and
• Promoting area cheeses in connection with culinary and wine tourism efforts. -- Ellie Rilla, UCCE Marin