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The rise of independent cheesemakers

Artisanal cheesemakers represent a new version of an old American dream: people making living doing what they want, where they want, on their own land. An MIT anthropologist looks inside the growing world of do-it-yourself American cheesemakers.

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And while the traditional strongholds of artisanal cheesemaking are such places as Wisconsin, Vermont, and northern California, it is a national phenomenon. “There are people making good artisanal cheese in Alabama,” Paxson observes.

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Kendra Nordin

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In all, there are upward of 450 independent, artisanal cheese-producing farms and creameries in America; Paxson visited or interviewed the proprietors of about one-tenth of them in her research, going back to 2004, while conducting interviews with scores of other industry workers and regulators – and also spending a stint working on Major’s farm, to see the process from the inside.

Still, if artisanal cheesemakers are, in part, rebelling against the economic order, their scale is not large enough to scare companies that are major producers of food. Reliable aggregated statistics about artisanal cheesemakers’ revenues do not really exist, Paxson notes. A few have done well enough to have their brands sold in chain stores such as Whole Foods Market and Wegmans, and some have developed their own regional distribution networks. Others scratch out sales from local farmers’ markets.

“A lot of these people are in it not to make a lot of money,” Paxson says. “They need the money to keep going, but it’s not about making it big. It’s about keeping going.”

Where do-it-yourself cheese-makers have been most successful, however, is in propagating an ethos of craftsmanship, and in inventing new kinds of cheese. In both of these areas, the American artisans feel a kind of superiority even compared to the vaunted cheese-makers of France – where, because of European Union regulations, many famous cheeses are now mass-produced.

In the book, Paxson relates the account of one Wisconsin artisan, Myron Olson, visiting a cheesemaking museum in Switzerland, looking at a supposedly old-fashioned technique being displayed, and thinking “today’s Friday, and I did that Tuesday!”

Camembert and politics

The regulation of artisanal cheesemaking is, Paxson says, “a window into broader issues of politics,” raising the question of government intervention versus individual liberties. Some artisanal cheesemakers would prefer not to make pasteurized cheese – briefly heating milk intensely to kill potentially dangerous bacteria before beginning the cheesemaking process – and think doing so removes precious flavor. (US cheesemakers can also meet legal safety standards by letting cheese cure for an extended period of time.)

Artisanal cheesemaking may not be a revolution, but as Paxson makes clear, it is an important part of a larger shift in the way Americans value food – and in the way some enterprising farmers have quietly rebelled against a corporatized, globalized world by going back to the farm.

“They are really looking to make a life and a living that is defined on their own terms,” Paxson says.

– Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office


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