Project created to cast spotlight on artisan cheeses
By PATTY MAMULA
For the Capital Press
Oregon cheesemakers are following in the footsteps of the wine industry with a unique new promotion.
The Oregon Cheese Guild recently received a $50,400 grant from the USDA's Farmers' Market Promotion Program for the Oregon Cheese Trail to encourage consumers to check out cheesemakers around the region.
The effort also involves the development of a video that spotlights each guild producer, highlights Oregon as a dairy state and shows the high quality of local cheese. An updated brochure and map of cheesemakers will be available at www.oregoncheeseguild.org and include information about hours and tasting rooms.
The Cheese Trail, cited as an innovative agritourism project, "will help create the means for individual farmer-cheesemakers to establish sustainable businesses, increase sales and increase product quality," said Francis Plowman, guild president and marketing director of Rogue Creamery.
In 2011 awards totaled $9.2 million and went to 149 projects in 42 states and the District of Columbia. Oregon received $291,327 for eight farm-to-consumer marketing projects that emphasize making local food accessible, especially to people in underserved communities.
The focus of the cheese trail is education of the public and fellow cheesemakers.
"Artisan cheesemaking has taken off in the last 10 years," said Lisbeth Goddik, Oregon State University dairy processing extension specialist.
In 2006 when the guild started, there were only three cheesemakers. Today, the guild has 20 members and Goddik works with even more startups.
"David Gremmels and Cary Bryant, owners of Rogue and founders of the guild, set up an environment where cheesemakers work well together and share a sense of camaraderie," she said.
The sales growth stems from increased demand, Goddik said. Farmstead cheesemakers use traditional methods, are less mechanized and focus on quality, so the cheese is more expensive.
"While most producers are profitable, they have to target niche markets, like high-end restaurants, private stores, community events, grocery stores like New Seasons, Market of Choice and Whole Foods," she said.
Many smaller makers sell exclusively at farmers' markets, said Plowman, who divided producers into three sizes -- large, medium and small. Tillamook is the only large producer and Willamette Valley, Rogue and Tumalo Farms are the only medium-sized operations. The rest are small.
"It's not enough to sell at farmers' markets, even though you receive full price there," Goddik said. The initial investment, even for people who build equipment themselves, runs between $300,000 and $1 million.
As part of the education effort, the guild sponsors an annual festival at Rogue Creamery in Central Point. Last year's encompassed 14,000 square feet. Other local producers participated in the tasting event, but Plowman estimated the space for cheese producers increased fivefold.