Artisan Cheese Making: Cowgirl Creamery

Eden Canon interviews Sue Conley, co-founder of Cowgirl Creamery, to discuss the practice of artisan cheese making, the importance of sourcing locally, and the environmental impact of cheese production.

When we pick up groceries at the store, we rarely consider each product’s environmental impact in light of its production chain—from farm, to processor, to distributor, to store, right to our table.  Indeed, if we did this for every item, many would cringe, as I do, at the very idea of going to the grocery store. It came as a surprise to me when I learned in a recent Meat Eater’s Guide Report released in 2011 by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) that the production of cheese is listed as one of the three most greenhouse gas emitting proteins, followed by beef and lamb. In light of this information, I interviewed Sue Conley, who co-founded California’s famous Cowgirl Creamery with her friend Peggy Smith, to talk about how small scale artisan cheese production produces far fewer environmental concerns than the conventional, industrialized process.

Cowgirl Creamery

In 1989, Sue Conley moved to Point Reyes, California where she met the Straus family, whose local creamery and dairy proudly bears the title of the first dairy to become certified organic West of the Mississippi.  Sue became inspired by the Straus family’s long history of land and animal stewardship, both in the management of their own land and dairy operation as well as in Ellen Straus’ contribution to founding the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT)—a non-profit dedicated to the protection of agricultural land from development, as well as promoting collaboration and open communication between farmers, environmentalists, and government agencies.

Read our Straus dairy farm tour article.

With Sue’s interest in local, sustainable food, along with the call to action which Ellen provoked in her, Sue went into product marketing for Straus and other small dairy farmers in the region.  As a partner in a restaurant called Betty’s Ocean View Diner in Berkeley, Sue had an understanding of how best to establish a connection between small farmers and local chefs.   From this emerged the creamery’s founding company, Tomales Bay Foods Co., which showcased local products and cheeses. The first cheese that Sue decided to have a hand at making was a cottage cheese, which she made under the Straus brand.  Falling in love with the cheese making process, she called upon her friend Peggy to come to Point Reyes to start a new cheese and local foods business, and in 1997 the two women founded Cowgirl Creamery, as we know it today. Still sporting their former business title Tomales Bay Foods, the creamery’s Point Reyes location hosts a cheese and deli counter which offers their own nine cheeses along with a selection of over 60 other extraordinary American and European artisan cheese producers, and other local foods with which they can be paired. Apart from their deli counter, Sue and Peggy started off by selling their cheeses at local farmers markets in the Bay Area, bringing along with them a variety of other artisan cheeses to represent the region’s producers.  Many of the local cheese makers whose products Sue and Peggy brought with them were such small businesses, operating on shoe-string budgets, that they did not have the time or resources to go to farmers markets themselves.  Normally, farmers markets will only let a farmer or food producer sell their own product, however, since local cheese was so under-represented at farmers markets, Cowgirl Creamery was allowed to sell a variety of other brands

A taste of the region

When I asked Sue what made artisanal cheese production differ from conventional cheese production, she replied that it had to do with the source of the ingredients, the batch size and the cheese making process. Like wine, cheese gathers distinct flavors of the region it is produced in.  Artisan cheese producers work with milk either from their own farm—called farmstead cheese—or from neighboring farms, and prefer not to mix milks from other dairies because, as Sue put it, this “neutralizes” the unique flavor that milk gains from pasture grazing the animal it comes from. For instance, milk that is produced in the springtime has a more complex flavor, due to all of the different plants that bloom at that time.  This is Sue’s favorite time of the year to work with milk because the milk gains a flavor of wildflowers and even has a faint grassiness to it.  In the winter, the cheese comes out creamier and richer, not quite as brightly flavored as in the spring. The batch size is yet another important aspect of artisanal cheese making that separates it from its conventional counterpart. Working in smaller batches means that each wheel is given the attention that it needs.  For an artisan cheese maker like Cowgirl Creamery, their small wheels weighing only 8-10 oz. each require small 200-400 gallon vats to produce.  Because the US lacks a tradition of small scale cheese production, what is considered small in America is a vat that runs around 1,500 gallons.  In order to make their cheeses, Sue and Peggy had to specially import their vats from Holland.

Artisan cheese and the environment

The Environmental Working Group based its emissions calculations from farm to final product, based on milk production from a typical Wisconsin dairy farm.  The source of this high level of greenhouse gas emissions comes from the dairy operations that many industrial cheese makers source from, as well as the scale of production that they operate on. On average, Cowgirl Creamery makes 3,000 pounds of cheese per week.   Compare this to industrial cheese producers who make upwards of one million pounds of cheese per day.  To put this scale of production in perspective, it takes one gallon of milk to make one pound of cheese, meaning that industrial cheese makers process one million gallons of milk per day.

The massive amounts of milk required to meet this demand is usually sourced from dairies that rear 2,000-10,000 head of cattle.  Dairy operations on this scale are labeled by the EPA as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which are one of the higher ranking sources of methane production.

CAFOs raise animals in densely packed and notoriously unclean environments.  Furthermore, one of the by-products of the dairy industry is the production of veal, or baby calf meat.  In most cases, dairy production is inextricably bound with veal production.

Read how veal is inextricably linked to the dairy industry.

By sourcing their milk from local dairy farmers who keep small herds on acres of open pasture—the 275 cattle in the Straus milking herd, for instance—is far less environmentally threatening than conventional dairy.

Cowgirl Creamery sources all of their milk from two local dairy producers, Straus and Chileno Valley Jersey Dairy, who keep small herds on acres of open pasture.  The Straus milking herd, for instance, consists of only 275 pastured cattle. Sue and Peggy further offset their environmental impact by fitting their Point Reyes facility with solar panels, as well as selling their whey, a byproduct of the cheese making process, to two local pig and chicken farmers who use it as a great source of protein in their animals’ feed.  In our interview, Sue expressed her excitement that more young people are becoming interested in the artisan cheese making process, and not just as a hobby, but as a commercial venture.  Cowgirl Creamery helped the College of Marin develop a cheese making program to further promote people becoming connected with the fine craft of cheese making.

Conflict between ancient practices and food safety requirements

Sue commented that there is a clear disconnect between the artisanal cheese making process—and indeed the very concept of cheese—and food safety laws, which are tainted by a deep fear of dairy products which go unrefrigerated.  Plain and simple, cheese is a preserved product, created through the production of mold, a concept that clearly goes against everything that food safety laws stand for. The objective of these laws is to enforce as sterile an environment as possible, as they cover not only small producers but industrial processing facilities and farms as well.  These large-scale facilities give ample opportunity for contamination as many of the ingredients sourced for production come from CAFOs, and the fact remains that industrial food producers cannot take the time to care for every single product due to the quantity they produce.  Artisanal craft, on the other hand, is all about working on a scale in which a producer can craft each individual product. Cowgirl Creamery is being required to refrigerate more of their countered cheeses, and their moldy rinds (which are supposed to be moldy) are increasingly subject to harsher and harsher scrutiny by health foods inspectors. Finding Locally Sourced Food: Where to eat in Point Reyes Sustainable Restaurants: A complete dining guide for Point Reyes California, and the Tomales Bay area.