Perspectives Online

(Cheese) Making a Profit - Gerringer dairy diversifies to successful farmstead cheese business, with help from a College short course.

Jackie Gerringer in her farmstead cheesemaking workroom.
Photo by Becky Kirkland

In a gleaming workroom of a Gibsonville dairy farm, Jackie Gerringer and four employees work six days a week, making three types of farmstead cheeses. Each week, the Calico Farmstead Cheese Co. turns 3,000 gallons of milk into traditional Mexican cheeses marketed in North Carolina and neighboring states.

Like many small cheesemakers, Gerringer and her family are new to the business. But their marketing savvy and a growing consumer demand for fresh cheese has provided the Gerringer dairy with a new source of income.

Jackie Gerringer was among the first cheesemakers to participate in the Hands-On Farmstead Cheesemaking Short Course, developed by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Food Science Department. The workshop helped her understand food safety issues, labeling and regulatory requirements involved in cheesemaking, as well as how to get started in the business.

Jackie Gerringer (second from right, above) and her team remove curds for cheesemaking.
Photo by Becky Kirkland
"It was just really a good experience," Gerringer said.

In the Food Science Department, Gary Cartwright, food science pilot plant coordinator, and Dr. MaryAnne Drake, food science assistant professor, are among those who have put on the Farmstead Cheesemaking Short Course in December of each year since 2004.

The course started in spring 2004 as a processing short course, and in December of that year, the hands-on workshops began. Cartwright credits Dean Johnny Wynne with having the vision to offer the training through the College.

"Dean Wynne saw that there was a need to empower farmers who were interested in doing this and doing it the proper way, the legal way, and helping them stay on the family farm. He asked Dr. Drake and me to support this kind of the program, so we garnered funds from Golden LEAF, Southeast Dairy Foods Research Center and North Carolina Agricultural Foundation. Their generous support - and the dairy processing plant located here in the Food Science Department - made the program possible," Cartwright said.

Since the workshops began, Cartwright says that 83 individuals from 34 North Carolina counties - and from several other states - have participated in the training. The workshop is offered in late November or December to accommodate goat dairy operators because the dairy goats do not produce milk at that time of year.

(Top) Anna Amoriello, the Gerringers' daughter, is manager of their dairy herd of 200 Jerseys and Holsteins. Here she gives tender loving care to a cow that likes to be scratched.
(Bottom) The Gerringers make three types of cheeses - quesa fresca, panela and requeson (ricotta) - under the name Tia Anna's Cheese.
Photos by Becky Kirkland
The workshops deal with many aspects of cheesemaking, including a roundtable discussion with successful local cheesemakers, Cartwright says. "This is not just to educate farmstead-interested people on how to do it. It's to educate them on whether they want to or not," he said. "So they get a good taste of the technology involved, the labor involved, and then we also hit the economics and regulatory parts involved."

Safety is emphasized in the cheesemaking workshops. "What makes a good cheese is sanitation, sanitation and sanitation," Drake said. "What makes it your cheese could be the type of cheese you make, it could be how you position your product, it could be your label. It could be any one of a number of things."

"What makes a good cheese for someone trying to stay on the farm is making it economically successful. You can make the best cheese in the world, but if you don't have a market for it, you're not going to make it for long," Cartwright said.

The workshops emphasize the importance of cheesemakers having a plan to market their cheese. In a survey of workshop participants who go into cheesemaking, Cartwright says that all of them underestimate how much time it takes to market and sell cheese.

Jackie Gerringer says she had no illusions about her sales abilities when it came to cheese. "I am not a sales person," she says. "We knew we couldn't sell because we didn't have time. I could give you cheese all day long, but I couldn't sell it."

Fortunately, the Gerringers have had good partners in developing their cheese business. Several Mexican employees in the dairy first suggested that they make Mexican-style cheeses. Employee Juana Beltran taught Jackie Gerringer to make quesa fresca, a cheese Beltran learned to make from her mother.

Juana's husband Manuel was eager to take on the role of marketing the cheese. Each day he fills his coolers and sells cheese to tiendas that cater to Mexicans living in North Carolina and sells direct to consumers at the Buckhorn Flea Market in Mebane. Two other distributors sell their cheese in Virginia and the Charlotte area.

From processing curds (Top) to removing whey (Middle) to shaping the product for the containers (Bottom), the Gerringer team works seamlessly during a day of cheesemaking.
Photos by Becky Kirkland
Though it took time for the Gerringers to perfect the cheesemaking process and develop a processing facility, they now make three cheeses - quesa fresca, panela and requeson (ricotta) - under the name Tia Anna's Cheese.

Food scientist Drake says Southeast dairies are in decline because of competition from other areas of the country. "The way dairy production occurs, we cannot compete with the Southwest and the West Coast. That's reality - we just cannot compete production-wise," she said. "But we do have niche markets here and throughout the Southeast for artisan and farm-raised and organic and small-scale, specialty value-added dairy products."

The Gerringers got into the cheese business after the tobacco buyout. Tobacco income had supported their dairy, but after the buyout, they needed to find a way to make the dairy profitable.

Cheese has been just the ticket, Jackie Gerringer says. "The cheese has more than made up for the tobacco income. Sometimes we think, 'Well, why didn't we do it earlier?'" she said. But the family realizes that the knowledge they needed, the help and the market for the cheese might not have been there before now.

For the Gerringers, the dairy - started in 1949 by Larry Gerringer's parents - is really a family affair. Larry, Jackie's husband, is up by 4 a.m. each day to sanitize equipment for the morning milking. Workers milk the Gerringers' herd of 200 Holsteins and Jerseys twice each day. Milk that is not used for cheese goes into milk production.

Their daughter Anna Amoriello (CALS '89, animal science and agricultural education) manages the herd health, breeding and calving.

Six days a week, Juana Beltran comes in about 9 a.m. to place labels on cartons that will hold that day's cheese. Jackie Gerringer, Beltran and three other workers make cheese from around noon to about 5 p.m.

They've come a long way from their early cheesemaking days when production went on from about 3 p.m. until after midnight. "My first efforts at making cheese would have made a good bouncy ball for my grandchildren," Jackie said.

The Gerringers are thrilled with their success, and Jackie says she would like to learn to make other types of cheeses. "But right now," she said, "I'm busy."

This year's Hands-On Farmstead Cheese-making Short Course will be held Nov. 28-30. For more information, contact Gary Cartwright at or 919.513.2488.