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She’s got cheese and $100 hundredweight milk

John Hibma Published on 09 April 2009

Aged raw-milk cheeses and a niche market have made Liz McAlister a successful dairy farmer in Colchester, Connecticut. Liz realized in the mid-’90s that if she was going to make it in the dairy business with a small herd of cows in New England, she must concentrate on the retail market for dairy products.

After attending a local seminar sponsored by the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, Liz found there were opportunities to direct-market farmstead dairy products throughout the region. Why, she reasoned, when she was living in one of the most densely populated areas of the country, should she sell her milk to a wholesale processor for a paltry $12 to $20 per hundredweight when she could make cheese and sell it for the equivalent of more than $100 per hundredweight? After attending cheese-making classes in 1997 at California Polytechnic College in San Luis Obispo, California, she began making aged European-style cheeses at her dairy farm and selling it at local farmers’ markets in Connecticut. Her cheeses are marketed under the “Cato Corner Farm Farmstead Cheese” label.

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But it soon became apparent that the seasonality of the markets in Connecticut prevented her from selling her products year-round. “I had to find a place where I could sell my cheeses more than just a few months during the summer,” Liz explained.

And that led her to the “Green Markets” in New York City.

Today she participates in three markets – two in Brooklyn and one at Union Square in Manhattan on Saturdays throughout the year and, then again, once at Union Square during the week.

When you meet Liz she’s quick with a smile and laugh. She’s always got a few minutes to talk to you, but you’ll soon find that this is one busy and hard-working lady – and a very self-confident business woman. She milks cows several days of the week and oversees much of the herd management.

And if that doesn’t fill up a day, then there’s preparing cheese orders and getting ready to spend a day in the city. Liz is tenacious and devoted to her endeavor and has a dedicated team working alongside with her.

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In 1999, Liz’s son, Mark Gillman, who was teaching school in Baltimore, Maryland, joined her in the fledgling business, and he’s now responsible for all of the cheese making. Liz has also participated in a foreign-exchange program in which students interested in learning the cheese-making trade come and live and work for her for a number of months at a time.

With a 25- to 30-cow herd of mostly Jerseys, more than 1,100 pounds of milk is produced every day and processed into more than 120 pounds of cheese. The cheese is made right on the farm in a room adjacent to the milking parlor, molded into wheels and aged for no less than 60 days – required by law for raw-milk cheeses in Connecticut. Some varieties are aged for a year or more.

Liz and Mark are very particular about the quality and taste of each batch of their Cato Corner cheeses. Strict milking procedures and cleanliness in the milking parlor are imperative. The cheese is only as good as the milk that it’s made from, and the quality is dependent on both the health of the cows and the types of feeds they eat. The foundation of the feeding program is pasture grass, supplemented with a custom-formulated grain mix from a local mill. Liz prefers to graze the cows on pasture as much of the year as possible and stresses that her cheeses are not ‘organically certified’ but they are ‘all natural.’ During the winter months hay is fed to the herd. Liz doesn’t feed any ensiled feeds.

“I can taste the difference in the cheeses even from spring to summer depending on how much grass there is for the cows to eat,” says Liz. “Our best cheeses are made when the cows have more grass to eat. We have some very discerning ethnic customers that are quite particular about the cheeses they buy. Pasturing gives the cheese a more desirable flavor for our market.”

In the span of a dozen years, Liz has developed an impressive business selling her cheeses. By 2004 she outgrew the small cheese storage room next to the barn and built an underground storage room with the help of a state grant. The “Cave” measures around 900 square feet and will store about 12,000 pounds of cheese in various stages of ripening and aging. It’s both temperature and humidity controlled which is essential to the proper ripening of the cheeses. Cato Corner Farm sold 42,000 pounds of cheese in 2008. With unique names like Bridgid’s Abbey, Vivace and the award-winning Hooligan, the cheeses can also be purchased in a growing selection of specialty stores in the Northeast. And with the help of a distributor, Cato Corner Farmstead Cheese is now making it to Chicago and California.

Liz employs a crew who works the Green Markets for her in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The market at Union Square is located directly over a busy subway station and offers a wide variety of produce. On a Saturday morning the crowds can be elbow to elbow by 8 a.m. During most of the year business is brisk and several hundred pounds of cheese are sold during a weekend. But the cold New England weather tends to slow business down a bit during the winter months. As of February Liz wasn’t sure yet if the current economic downturn was impacting her business or not. But she’s optimistic, because the popularity of farmers’ markets in the Northeast has been growing in recent years as people look for locally grown products. One thing’s for sure though, she won’t be settling for the $13 or $14 milk that most dairy farmers will be getting this spring.

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It takes about 10 pounds of milk to make a pound of cheese. That 10 pounds of milk is worth less than $1.40 to many dairy farmers in the country in the spring of 2009. Cato Corner takes that 10 pounds of milk and with its high components converts it into more than a pound of farmstead cheese, selling it for $15 to $25 per pound at the New York City markets. That works out to $150 to $250 per hundredweight for the milk. Obviously there are production costs associated with the dairy and the cheese making as well as marketing costs, and Liz noted that expenses took a big jump in 2008.

Liz focuses on the retail markets because that’s where the real money is. But with the economic slow-down she also keeps her options open with wholesale business to local grocery chains. Looking at other options, she’s also experimenting with raising pasture-fed veal calves. The calves nurse on a cow grazing on pasture until they’re about 4 months old, resulting in a delicious pink meat while avoiding the confinement issues.

The formula for Cato Corner Farm’s success has been a strong entrepreneurial ambition in finding a niche market and producing a first-class product that keeps people coming back for more. The route to success for many small New England dairy farmers centers around “adding value” to the milk they produce and marketing it themselves. At a time when the trend in the dairy industry is to “get big or get out” and price volatility is off the chart, Liz McAlister is a big winner, doing something she loves, staying way ahead of the curve when it comes to profitably operating a small dairy farm in New England. “There’s such a huge market for artisan cheeses in the city,” Liz said. “I’m really surprised there aren’t more dairy farmers around here looking at this type of marketing.” PD

Learn more about Cato Corner Farmstead Cheeses at www.catocornerfarm.com

John Hibma is a freelance writer in South Windsor, Connecticut.

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