SALEM, Ohio — Over the past two years, several dairy farms in Ohio’s Belmont County area have been forced to close their doors. Lower milk prices in 2006, coupled with the high cost of inputs, kept farmers from making ends meet and some felt they had no choice but to get out of the business.
The bleak situation grabbed the attention of several farm families in the Barnesville area and now they’re on a mission to give dairies an opportunity to profit.
The families have formed the Ohio Handcrafted Cheese Makers Community and they plan to raise donations to build a nonprofit cheese house where farmers can develop and make their own cheeses.
The effort is currently led by executive director Teresa Bailey, although the cheese house will eventually be governed by a board of directors once it receives nonprofit status.
According to Bailey, the idea behind this pilot program is to ensure the survival of farms in southeastern Ohio. The handmade cheeses will sell for a minimum of $5 per pound, a price that’s bound to bring some relief to struggling dairy farmers.
The cheese will be sold at farmers’ markets, right from the farm or any other way farmers choose to sell it.
Making cheese will expand the customer base for dairies, Bailey said. Most farmers have just a few co-ops where they can sell milk, but producing cheese and selling directly to consumers will allow those same farmers to have hundreds, if not thousands, of customers.
“We are creating new markets for all of the farmers,” Bailey said.
But the real beauty of the project is the group support. Right now, there are five farm families working to get the cheese house up and running. It’s a project that none of them could accomplish alone.
Each family will create its own cheeses at the plant and stringent biosecurity will ensure safe products. Bailey said that once a load of milk arrives, every step of the process will be recorded. The recordings will not only help with biosecurity issues, but also serve as a resource if farmers need to check any part of the cheese-making process.
The group plans to seek organic certification for the cheese house and Bailey said the farms producing the milk are headed in the same direction.
The exact location of the cheese house is still up for debate, but the cheese makers community is giving serious consideration to a 6,000 square foot building on the corner of Bailey’s farm in Barnesville. Bailey said a central location is important because the highest yield of cheese is produced from milk that’s processed within an hour of milking.
The whole process will be transparent, according to the executive director. The dairies will be open for tours and the facility will include an observation area where guests can watch cheese being made.
The cheese makers community is open to everyone, regardless of farm size. Whether a farmer has five goats or two cows or a much larger herd, Bailey said numbers aren’t a concern.
The key to making the cheese plant a reality is public funding through donations. The plant has to be supported by the public to keep a nonprofit status.
Bailey expects to receive that status this year and then the community will develop a plan and budget for building. It will take another year to get the plant up and running.
While there are high hopes for the cheese house, Bailey said the members of the cheese makers community don’t have any visions of grandeur. They don’t see it as a way to get rich quick, but they do see it as a way to improve and sustain their farms.
Bailey hopes the plant will become a transition facility, a place for cheese makers to get on their feet before branching out on their own.
She also said she would like to see the project reach beyond the agricultural realm and “raise the economic base of the entire community.” If it goes well, she expects to see similar facilities pop up across the state.