Taking cues from other New York agricultural success stories such as wine and apples, dairy farmers and creameries based in the Finger Lakes are working together to ensure that their products, cheese in particular, get the attention they deserve.
Among those efforts was the establishment of the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail three years ago. There are currently 15 member creameries scattered over the trail that, in all, measures about 500 miles from Candor to Canandaigua. While many of the members are not geographically close, they do share a commitment to collective marketing.
The trail members will hold the third of this year’s four planned open houses on Columbus Day weekend, Oct. 6 and 7. The final open house for the year will be held Nov. 17. These events enable customers to visit the farms and sample their cheeses on-site. The creameries will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. those days.
Tom Murray, owner of Muranda Cheese Company in Waterloo, and one of the founders of the cheese trail, says the success of the Finger Lakes Wine Trail was part of the impetus for starting the cheese trail. “A lot of our business has come from the wineries,” he says. Muranda is currently offering nine varieties, mostly raw cheddars and cloys, that can now be found on the cheeseboards of 85 New York wineries, in recipes served in 57 restaurants and sold in 12 gourmet stores in the Waterloo area.
Murray says in the three years since the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail was established, business at Muranda has been brisk. He sees the trail working in much the same way as the wine trail has, with the larger creameries bringing attention to the nearby smaller producers. Visitors to one dairy can perhaps visit a few others in one trip.
“We are definitely becoming a destination point,” says Murray. “I think the biggest thing for us is that we are open every day. We want the experience for our customers to always be positive.”
For the open houses, the creameries try to do something special. For Columbus Day weekend, Muranda plans to feature soups made by a local chef, all featuring the farm’s cheese. Murray says nearly a dozen cheeses will be available for sampling.
Muranda, and many other trail members, also sell their cheese online. Murray says he ships all over the world, and has steady customers as far away as New Zealand. But Murray adds that the growing interest in buying local has probably brought the most business.
“Oh, absolutely we’ve benefited from that,” he says. “People now want to go as close to the source of the food as they can. We don’t really give tours on our farm, but people can walk around if they want, see our cows, the aging room. Visitors love the freshness of New York cheese, and they can see the difference in the value of our product compared to what they can get at the grocery store.”
While Murray is happy with the growth the Cheese Trial has brought to his business, he still takes pride in the fact that everything about the process is done at arm’s length. Murray’s son Blaine runs the dairy, while wife and mom Nancy handles the business side of the creamery. The Murrays’ milk is transported to Cooperstown Cheese Company for preparation, and then brought back to the farm for aging.
By contrast, the cheese at Sunset View Creamery in Odessa is made right on the farm. Carmella Hoffman says she started making cheese in 2004. After some initial success, Hoffman began to see it as something more. “It was a last ditch effort to keep a family farm alive,” she says unabashedly. “This dairy farm has been in my husband’s family for over 100 years.”
While at SUNY Morrisville, Hoffman studied artisan cheese making, so, with that knowledge base, she decided to give cheese making a real go. “Once I started, it’s been pretty much non-stop ever since,” she says. Hoffman and one of her daughters currently produce about 250 pounds of cheese a week, offering three different cheddars, seven varieties of cheese curds and 10 flavors of Monterey Jack.
“We’re starting to taper it down,” Hoffman says. “Logistically, it’s tough to do that many flavors. But every time I try to
get rid of something the customers say, ‘No, not that one!’”
Hoffman says the Cheese Trail, and especially the open houses, offer customers opportunities to see just how diverse the variety of cheeses produced in the Finger Lakes region are. She notes that while more artisan varieties are popular in the Ithaca area, customers at Sunset View prefer “American-style” cheeses.
“Cheddars and Monterey Jacks, that’s what sells here,” Hoffman observes. “We have the country bumpkins, and they have the foodies.”
At Sunset, Hoffman’s husband Ron and son Jeremy run the dairy, where no hormones are used. The small operation means the family can closely monitor every aspect of the operation. “There’s a lot of the buy-local push, and people like that our cheese is so fresh,” she says. “The more local you can get, the more wholesome I think it is.”
Keeley Cheese Company at McGarr Farms in Kings Ferry, takes a much different approach than the Hoffmans or the Murrays. Keeley McGarr was raised on her family farm, but it wasn’t until she attended the University of Vermont and learned cheese making during a work-study stint on another farm that she found her role in the family business. After completing further study in County Cork, Ireland, McGarr brought her experience back home and started her own creamery. She makes one soft, raw milk cheese: Across the Pond. The cheese is inspired by the techniques McGarr learned in Ireland. McGarr runs the creamery while her parents and siblings continue to run the farm.
“We’ll probably produce cheese twice a week, making 130 to 150 pounds per batch,” McGarr says. She adds that while she offers fewer varieties than the other creameries, the attention from being a member of the Cheese Trail is invaluable. “It worked out well for me because the trail started at the same year I started my business,” she says. “It’s been great to have that kind of consistent presence by working together.”
Murray says working with the other creameries—all of which pay dues to be a part of the trail—has been rewarding, but the trail has experienced a few growing pains. A few creameries prefer to remain small and are less inclined to be as motivated with marketing and publicity as Muranda is.
“Most of the cheese makers in the area see the value of what we’ve done so far. I think the collaboration enables people to be as involved as much as they want to be,” he says. “There are about five of us who are very motivated. We are trying to expand people’s knowledge of the cheese industry in the Finger Lakes, and I’d say we’re not even close to hitting our stride.”
Hoffman agrees. “It benefits you to be part of a larger organization,” she says. “The Cheese Trail is something I felt we needed to do and it’s definitely increased the traffic here at the farm.”
Sunset View’s cheese is now featured at several wineries and is carried by a local grocer. Artisan Foods in Rochester also distributes their cheese. During the open houses at the farm, Hoffman expands the sampling options for visitors. She plans to feature 10 of Sunset’s varieties on Columbus Day weekend.
Murray says the trail members wisely sought the help of a media consultant to maximize their marketing potential. “Working together helps get the word out,” says Carol Fingar of Rochester-based Break the Ice Media, who started working with the farms and creameries about a year ago as a media and marketing representative. “As we’ve seen with the wine trail, there’s power in numbers. One creamery would never be able to get the attention that all 15 get as members of the Cheese Trail.”
And that is what enables creameries like Keeley to remain small and still succeed. McGarr says about 85 percent of sales is done wholesale, to wineries and local shops. Keeley’s is even distributed in New York City. “We’re still looking to get bigger, so we like being a part of the bigger picture,” she says. “The trail has done a lot for us.”
After a few years of easing into the business, McGarr says she is ready for the next step. She’d like to double production and offer a few more varieties of cheese. “We’d like to move into a bigger space and maybe even hire an employee or two,” she says.
McGarr says marketing the creameries collectively also enables customers the opportunity to learn a bit about each of the different producers and the variety of products made in the Finger Lakes region. “There are creameries that make goat cheese, cow’s milk cheese, hard and soft cheeses. There’s just so much variety on the Cheese Trail. Between all of us, you’re bound to find something you’ll like.”
For more information on the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail, its member farms and the fall open houses, visit flcheesetrail.com.