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A new age of cheese for upstate New York

Kate O'Connell

It’s soft, stinky and delicious, and it’s an opportunity for economic development.

Upstate New York looks set to usher in a new era of cheese production. A partnership between supermarket chain Wegmans Food Markets and Cornell University aims to make the region a leader in the artisanal cheese industry.

Dean of Cornell’s college of agriculture and life sciences, Kathy Boor, says growing demand for local quality cheese presents an opportunity to diversify the region’s dairy industry.

Until recently, she says the region has lacked two key ingredients needed to give local dairy farmers a foothold in the vast cheese market. Specialist expertise, and a facility to age cheeses.

“With the addition of the affinage, or the aging facility at Wegmans, we have everything we need right here in upstate New York to make the world’s best cheese as we look down the road.”

“We have wonderful cows, we have dairy farmers who are highly educated, who are very progressive, and who produce a quality of milk that you would not find anywhere else in the United States at a volume that’s needed in order to meet our needs for fluid milk, for yogurt and now for this emerging cheese product.”

Wegmans has already broken ground on an aging facility of more than 12,000 square feet.

Cornell has also introduced a three-year pilot program designed to teach small-scale, local operators how to make a quality product.

Finger Lakes cheese maker Keeley O’Brien says upstate dairy farms are well placed to keep the entire process hyper-local, guiding their product all the way from cow to table.

“It’s just a really gratifying thing for me to see what we can do with the milk, the high quality milk we have on our farm and how it can be turned into cheese and even to be at events like this and see the consumers enjoying it. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

She says the strong demand for local products has been a large factor in the success of their family operation.

“That was one of the most influential parts of us thinking we could really make a go at having a really small farmstead cheese making operation.”

Kathy Boor says she can see the beginnings of a cheese-trail in upstate New York, especially if it’s developed in concert with the region’s beer and wine industry.

“I would love to see someone come here just for the cheese and then discover the wine too.”