Walmart offers state product to cater to locavores
By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
Growth in the dairy sector over the past decade has made Idaho the third largest cheese-producing state in the nation.
Most of that production is sold to food companies that cut and wrap it and put their own brand on the packaging. But now some Idaho cheese will be standing on its own with a distinctive "Idaho Cheese" label and the Idaho Preferred logo.
Last week, 16 Walmart stores across southern Idaho began stocking the cheese, which was provided by Nelson-Rick's Creamery, a small, family-owned cheese company located near Rexburg.
The first order was 40,000 pounds, and weekly replacement orders are expected to be 10,000 to 15,000 pounds, said Leah Clark, manager of the Idaho Preferred program, who worked to bring the cheese industry together with the retail giant.
The project to give Idaho cheese its own spotlight -- making it easier for locavores and consumers to support Idaho agriculture -- has been in the works for about two years. The challenge was finding a company to cut and wrap the cheese, she said.
"We're really excited," she said. "It's been a long time coming."
Walmart has been a strong supporter of local products and the Idaho Preferred program. The company was persistent in its efforts to encourage Idaho cheese companies to find a way to identify local cheese in its stores, she said.
"They really want this to be the No. 1 cheese line in Idaho," she said.
About 85 percent of the Idaho cheese varieties, including mild and medium cheddars, Monterey Jack, Colby Jack, pepper Jack, and mozzarella, are being produced by Nelson-Ricks. Some is being purchased from Idaho cheese processors.
Last week, however, Nelson-Ricks announced it is closing its creamery, but it will still cut and wrap purchased cheese with the Idaho label for Walmart, Clark said.
The creamery shutdown, required for repairs, may be temporary, said Virginia Morrison, sales manager for Nelson-Ricks. But the company is seeking buyers for the facility.
The company will continue to cut and wrap all of the cheese for the new label at its Salt Lake City packaging and distribution center. But it will now outsource all of the cheese production from other Idaho processors, mostly Glanbia, she said.
The partnership with Idaho Preferred and Walmart is a wonderful opportunity for Nelson-Ricks, Glanbia and any cheese processors using Idaho milk, she said.
"This is an exciting opportunity for Idahoans to pick up a piece of cheese and easily see that its source was an Idaho dairy," Jeff Williams, CEO and president of Glanbia Foods, stated in a press release.
Glanbia doesn't have its own brand but is providing cheese to the program as a way for consumers to buy local, he said.
"Walmart is thrilled to offer Idaho cheese as part of the Idaho Preferred program," Walmart market manager Tory Nichols said in the release. "Walmart is committed to supporting local suppliers, which reflects our ever-important goal to provide our Idaho customers with quality, affordable, home-grown selections."
Plans are to extend distribution to northern Idaho stores later this fall, Clark said.