Steady cheese demand bolsters dairy
'Ours is a good product that does very well here'
By GEOFF PARKS
For the Capital Press
SALEM -- At the turn of the new millennium, Volbeda Dairy was a thriving 1,880-cow operation run by John and LucyAnn Volbeda and their son, Darren, while John's other son, Rod, was running his 600-cow Volbeda Farms near Salem.
Fast-forward to the present time and Rod Volbeda's Willamette Valley Cheese Co., now consumes one-fifth of the milk produced from his Jersey herd, Darren is now working with his brother in producing Holland-style cheeses from that milk, and father John "in the process of downsizing, big time, trying to retire," Rod Volbeda said.
John, now 73, and LucyAnn, 69, moved to Albany from California in 1972 to take over a 400-acre dairy farm, and worked hard to increase its herd and production numbers exponentially over the decades.
Rod Volbeda, now 47, took an early interest in the production of cheese. After graduation from Oregon State University with a food science degree, he took a seven-month hiatus to Holland to immerse himself in the craft of making cheese.
Upon return, he worked at the Tillamook County Creamery Association for three years before setting up the Willamette Valley Cheese Co. north of Salem. With his parents' looming retirement, the 20-year-old venture now appears set to be the face of the Volbeda dairies in Oregon.
"Dairying is hard," he said, "and it's really hard to make a living at it right now."
"We started with 200 cows," Rod Volbeda said about the start of his cheese-making operation. "We're now up to 600 Jerseys, which we went with about 15 years ago, and trying to increase our cheese production." Willamette Valley Cheese Co. production is now up to over 30 varieties of mostly Holland-style Gouda and other varieties like Fontina, Havarti and Jack.
While total production varies with the type of cheeses being made, Volbeda said the company currently produces 4,000 to 5,000 pounds each month.
Even at that, four-fifths of the fluid milk still goes to the Farmers Cooperative Creamery in McMinnville, he said.
Cheese production is easier than milk production, he said, because having a solid commodity like cheese makes it easier to control costs.
"We're able to do a budget here," he said. "Cheese is simple -- we know our retail price. Ours is a good product that does very well here (in the Willamette Valley corridor)."
Their sister, Coleen Van Dreal, is an investor in the business, while Rod's son, Garrett, 12, is learning the trade at the ground level. Darren, 44, has college-age twin girls, Lauren and Morgan, who are both working on microbiology degrees at OSU.
The cheese company has 10 employees and 12 seasonal workers.
The Willamette Valley Cheese Co. hopes to add a large aging facility for the cheeses in one to two years and is looking more and more at the export market.
Volbeda Farms (and Willamette Valley Cheese Co.)
Owners: Volbeda family
Years farming: Since 1972 (Family)
Co-op membership: Farmers Cooperative Creamery
Total cows: 600, mostly Jerseys
Employees: 10 on farm, 7 at cheese operation, plus seasonal
Quote: "Dairying is hard, and it's really hard to make a living at it right now."