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New York producers market cheese, high-type Holsteins

PD Editor Emily Caldwell Published on 03 February 2010

The Murray family of Waterloo, New York, is no stranger to the concept of marketing. With nearly two decades of experience in merchandising Holstein cattle and genetics worldwide, the family has developed the skills to sell a quality product.

But when it came to using their knowledge to kick off their brand-new cheese business, the Murrays realized a different approach was needed for the new customer base.

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“The marketing end of it wasn’t something new to us,” Tom Murray says. “It was just a different audience. We were preaching to a different choir.”

In 2003, the Murrays had a dispersal of their milking herd and planned to continue milking after calving in their youngstock.

“As we were calving them back in, I kept thinking about getting into the direct marketing business because of our location here in the Finger Lakes region,” he says.

Finger Lakes is home to more than 100 wineries, many of which have paired up with cheese companies to attract customers with wine trails.

“At that time, we weren’t quite ready to get into the expense and the market wasn’t close enough to us,” Murray explains. “But the idea was born in 2003.”

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Fast forward to 2009, when the milk price plummeted and dairy farmers across the nation were struggling to stay in business.

“We decided to look for other ways to supplement the farm income through direct marketing,” Murray says. “Rather than process the cheese here, we decided to age it, cut it and wrap it ourselves and let someone else make it for us.”

The Murrays’ current cheesemaker is located in Cooperstown, New York, about 130 miles from their farm.

The farm’s milk hauler delivers the milk to the cheesemaker. The Murrays then drive down to pick up the cheese wheels and take them back to Waterloo to be aged in their cheese house.

Murray’s retired parents cut and wrap the aged cheese, working a couple of hours a day, four days a week.

Murray manages the on-farm store and relies on four part-time workers who sell products at farmers markets, help with events and are responsible for some duties in the cheese room.

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Currently, the cheese business uses about 25 percent of the 60-cow herd’s milk production. Murray works with Paul Thorn, who has been with the farm for four years, to manage the herd.

In addition to a few part-time replacement milkers who work periodically, Murray is grateful for the extra help provided by his children, Blane and Kendra, both students at Cornell University.

Murray’s wife, Nancy, manages the books of both the farm and the cheese company and is responsible for the online sale of Muranda Cheese.

Part of the marketing strategy that falls on the shoulders of all of those involved with selling and distributing the cheese is being able to convey the story of Muranda Cheese.

“We’re fortunate that we have a story to tell of success,” he says. “When people come to our farm, it’s well-kept, so they feel comfortable that they’re about to enjoy not only the product, but also the fact that they know the animals are well cared for.”

The Murrays are able to use this customer feedback as a selling point when going out to farmers markets or meetings with winery, store and restaurant owners.

Along with telling potential customers about their farm, they must be prepared to answer questions, ranging from how the animals are cared for to what kind of rennet is used in the cheesemaking process.

Although the family had to learn a thing or two when deciding to market cheese along with registered Holsteins, Murray says the initial feedback from cheese customers has been rewarding.

“Believe me, we’ve had people tell us, ‘No, I don’t like [the cheese],’ but not very many,” he says. “The positive reaction we get – there’s nothing like it. It just feeds our desire to keep doing what we’re doing and make more of the same product.”

Currently, Muranda Cheese is in 23 wineries, nine restaurants and five stores, in addition to the on-farm and online store. They attend farmers markets year-round, with one per month from November to May and about 16 per week from May to November.

While Murray would like to see the cheese business use about 5 to 10 percent more of the herd’s milk, he says it’s important to him that the business remains family-run.

On the cow side, Murray says the family is constantly striving to increase genetics, both phenotypically and the efficiency of the cattle.

The Murrays also plan to collaborate with similar businesses, including working with another producer to hire a cheesemaker and establishing a Finger Lakes cheese trail with eight other cheese companies.

“The positive thing is that we’ve been through the first year of the business in a depressed market, and we didn’t do too bad,” he says. “But we worked extremely hard at it, and we have to keep up that pace.” PD

To learn more about Muranda Cheese, visit the website at www.muranda.com/cheese.php or call (315) 539-1103 .

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