CMN

Article Archive - August 31, 2007

Farmers cheese is versatile, varied and difficult to define

Editor’s note: Each month CMN profiles a different cheese, giving our readers a comprehensive look at production, marketing and sales, as well as any other details we can unearth. Please read on to learn about this month’s featured cheese: Farmers.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — Farmers cheese, despite its common-sounding name, is undergoing somewhat of an identity crisis in the United States.

European-based populations such as Greek, Russian and Jewish communities know Farmers cheese as a versatile spread or dessert ingredient. It has a consistency similar to Feta or Ricotta with a tangy, cultured flavor. European-style Farmers cheese often is served with sweet additions like jam or raisins, or as the main ingredient in blintzes.

Other cheesemakers produce a Farmers cheese that is mild, lowfat and similar to Jack, Muenster or Mozzarella. These varieties sometimes are used in recipes as a substitute for other cheeses, or as a specialty melting cheese to enhance the flavor of pizzas or burgers.

Cheesemakers can’t even seem to agree on the name. Farmers, Farmer’s, Farmers’ and Farmer cheese are variations found on different products, recipes and websites.

When asked to name an attribute all Farmers cheese shares, Bob Wills, owner, Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain, Wis., gave a telling answer:

“They’re all made from milk?”

Its loose standard and niche status might explain why no national production data exist for Farmers cheese. In Wisconsin, where Farmers cheese currently accounts for only 0.5 percent of the state’s total specialty cheese production, the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Services indicates that Farmers cheese showed a small production growth of 0.3 percent from 2005 to 2006, though average production has declined 6.7 percent over the past five years.

Nationwide grocery retail sales of Farmers cheese also have declined, according to Information Resources Inc. Scanner Data, 2006. Last year 759,283 pounds of random-weight Farmers cheese were reported sold, down 9.2 percent from 2005. Also last year, nearly 1.6 million pounds of exact-weight Farmers cheese were sold, down 1.8 percent from the previous year. Chunk was the top form of exact-weight sales with 94 percent, followed by round at 3 percent and crumbled and partial round, both at 1 percent.

Finding Farmers cheese at a local retailer can be difficult in some parts of the country, since there are not a lot of producers of or customer familiarity with the product.

“Not a lot of companies still make it,” says Paige Pistone, director of marketing for New York-based Friendship Dairies. “It’s a more involved process, and it’s hard to fully automate. It has become cost prohibitive for some companies.”

One obstacle Friendship Dairies has had to overcome, Pistone says, is what it takes from a resource and cost perspective to produce Farmers cheese using a semi-automated process while retaining a homemade-type quality.

Friendship Dairies, which began producing Farmers cheese by hand 90 years ago as its original product, offers the more traditional European-style Farmers cheese that often is used in desserts or as a spread. The IHOP restaurant chain uses a version of the company’s Farmers cheese called “hoop cheese” for its blintzes.

The process Friendship Dairies uses to make Farmers cheese is similar to that used in its cottage cheese production, but is more involved, requiring the curds to be further pressed so that the cheese is dry enough to be sliced.

“Farmer cheese is a dry-pressed curd cheese,” Pistone says. “The curd is taken to an aggregated machine to blend it smooth. The curd is cooled overnight, and another step blends it smooth and forms it into a loaf.”

Larger 3-pound loaves have to go through more manual pressing and are transported in a paper wrapper to keep the delicate cheese intact.

Farmers cheese, Pistone says, is not well-known among most Americans.

“It’s a niche awareness thing,” she says. “People of Greek or Jewish descent are very familiar with it. New Yorkers are aware.”

She adds that Friendship Dairies has almost 100 percent distribution of its Farmers cheese in New York state.

Farr Hariri, owner of Berkeley, Calif.-based Belfiore Cheese Co., also says Americans are not well-acquainted with Farmers cheese.

“It’s not as well-known as other types of cheese,” he says. “It’s relatively new to this country.”

“Russian immigrants are the main consumer,” Hariri says about his company’s Farmers cheese. “Traditionally Russians used it as a dessert cheese. They added jam, compote, powdered chocolate, raisins, honey, molasses — sweet additions that turn it into a nice dessert spread.”

“It’s the main ingredient for the blintz,” Hariri adds. “Farmers is to the Jewish blintz like Mascarpone is to (Italian) tiramisu.”

In addition to its prominent role in blintzes and desserts, Farmers is popular as a health-conscious alternative to other types of cheese, whether eaten by itself or used as an ingredient.

“A lot of people like its versatility,” Pistone says. “It can go on salads, be spread on a bagel, put in Italian dishes.”

She says it often is used in place of Ricotta or cream cheese because Farmers is lowfat, low in lactose (less than 5 percent lactose per 1 ounce serving) and can be digested more easily than other cheeses by people who suffer from Crohn’s disease or colitis.

“We sell a lot of Farmer(s) cheese to health-focused food stores,” Pistone says, “because it’s low in fat, low in lactose, has no carbs, helps certain conditions, and also is an excellent source of protein.”

Lowfat also is a common though not necessary thread among other varieties of Farmers cheese.

Cedar Grove Cheese, which received a first place for its Farmers cheese at this year’s American Cheese Society (ACS) contest, makes its Farmers cheese in the form of a reduced-fat Jack.

“Ours is different from some others,” Wills says of Cedar Grove’s Farmers, a semi-hard cheese with 40 to 42 percent moisture and about a third less fat than the company’s other cheeses.

Wills says that because the company handcrafts its cheeses, using very little automation and allowing the fat to naturally separate from the milk, its Farmers cheese provides a use for the leftover lowfat milk.

“In order not to throw away milk, we make lowfat cheese. It has a symbiotic relationship with high fat cheese,” Wills says.

And while he doesn’t think Farmers will ever win Best of Show at the ACS contest, Wills says it fills an important niche.

“It’s not a big cheese, not real showy,” he notes. “It’s really versatile, and might be the greatest thing to some families looking for an all-natural, reduced-fat cheese on the market.”

Forgotten Valley Cheese, South Wayne, Wis., also makes a specialty Farmers cheese that is different from the more European-style dessert cheese.

“The way I make it, it’s between lowfat Mozzarella and Brick or Muenster,” says Hans Lehner, owner of Forgotten Valley Cheese and head cheesemaker at Valley View Cheese Co-op.

Lehner describes his Farmers cheese as a lower-fat cheese that still has excellent flavor, is stringy but buttery, and melts well on cheeseburgers and pizzas.

He says it has been popular with the pizza industry, the Hispanic population, and anyone who wants to melt cheese.

“It’s just not your typical Mozzarella,” says Lehner, who has sold his Farmers cheese to many small family-owned restaurants. “Most pizza makers use Mozzarella, but that’s too bland for me ... most people who turn onto this (Farmers) like it better than Mozzarella.”

Though Farmers cheese takes on varied forms and applications, its producers agree that the main challenges facing the segment are defining the cheese and creating more awareness.

“Probably the biggest hurdle for marketing is that there’s no standard of identity so everybody’s Farmers is different. We have to explain it to the customer,” Wills says.

“It just needs to get out there more — there needs to be more awareness, more introduction to the cheese-consuming public,” Hariri says.

“I think if more people knew about it they would use it,” Pistone says. “I think it’s the best kept secret in cheeses.”

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