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It’s Springtime for Bellwether Farms

By Lorrie Baumann

DSCN0213Liam Callahan measures his days out in minutes: 10 minutes until time to cut the curd for Carmody, another 10 until time to add the rennet to Crescenza and then a few minutes to come back to his tiny office at the front of the creamery to attend to paperwork and keep an eye on the newly installed “lamb cam” that watches over the activity in Bellwether Farms’ sheep barns. The metronomic ticking away of the tasks is a calm measure of certainty that stands in sharp counterpoint to the uncertainties in which Callahan, as well as every other farmer and artisanal cheesemaker, operates: the vagaries of weather that decide feed availability and costs and therefore the production costs of milk, the threats from new regulations decided in Washington and the weight of the paperwork they entail, the whims of consumers who might decide that dairy products are the villain behind the bulge at their waistlines.

Baby_Lamb_300dpi_1.2Outside the Bellwether Farms creamery, in the wake of a tumultuous 2016, it seems like anything could happen. Inside the creamery, the aging rooms full of Pepato and Blackstone are milk in the bank, the lamb cam monitor behind Callahan’s desk reassures that the farms’ future is fine, the clock says it’s time to drain the whey from the Carmody and prepare to turn it into basket-drained ricotta made in the traditional Italian way, and at 50, Callahan is optimistic about the future of the American artisanal cheese industry and his place in it. “I don’t think we’ve begun to exhaust the possibilities of people knowing where their food comes from,” he says. “People have realized that they enjoy knowing more about their food.”

BF_Cheeses-2Let’s take a step back for a moment to introduce you to the cast of characters here. Carmody is a firm cheese made from pasteurized Jersey cow milk made by cheesemaker Liam Callahan at Bellwether Farms, which is near Petaluma, California. Crescenza is also made from pasteurized Jersey cow milk, but it’s a soft-ripened rindless cheese with a tart flavor. Pepato is an aged semi-soft sheep milk cheese studded with peppercorns. Blackstone is an aged mixed milk cheese studded with peppercorns and hand rubbed with vegetable ash. Liam Callahan is the cheesemaker at Bellwether Farms, which was founded by his mother, Cindy Callahan, who began raising sheep to keep the grasses under control on the farm she and her husband bought as a country home. “We were just basically looking for lawnmowers,” Callahan says.

The family bought its first 20 bred ewes at a Petaluma livestock auction and the first lambs were born on December 24, 1986. “Our heads were spinning. We knew nothing from nothing,” Callahan says.

Suddenly, Cindy was the farm’s herd manager, a role that she is just beginning to step back from, in favor of what Callahan calls “a high hover” that will free her from the exigencies of the lambing schedule. The family kept those first lambs, bought more sheep and started selling extra lambs to local restaurants in 1987. “One of our very first customers was Chez Panisse,” Callahan recalls. “Our primary product was the lamb until 1990, when we built the dairy.”

LiamLamb_300dpiCallahan was just finishing college when a family friend visited from the Middle East. He noticed the sheep grazing on the slopes of Bellwether Farms’ hills and pointed out that where he came from, sheep were milked to make cheeses. That was when the Callahans realized that many of their favorite imported cheeses were, in fact, made from sheep milk. “That summer, we built the dairy, started milking the sheep and making cheese and going to farmers markets,” he said. That timing dovetailed with the growth of farmers markets and with the American food movement in general, and local chefs who had learned in Europe to go to farmers markets to find the freshest of local ingredients found Bellwether Farms cheeses at the farmers markets around San Francisco. “A lot of the value of these products is in explaining the story of how they’re made,” Callahan says. “Everything we’ve done has been because we were interested in it…. For the most part, the things we were interested in have aligned with the direction the market has gone.”

DSCN0190“I’m not doing anything, really, that hasn’t been done for centuries. But is it innovative to say, ‘I want to do it that way again?’” he adds. “The fact that this is done in a unique way resonates with a lot of consumers…. It’s more than cheese – there’s a history there. There’s a story there.”

blackberryToday, Callahan makes highly regarded sheep milk yogurts and an array of award-winning cheeses from both his sheep milk and from cow milk purchased from local organic dairy farmers, and he’s planning the construction of a new creamery that should be finished in 2018 and that will expand his capacity with space for aging more cheeses and for giving him a little more elbow room around the cheese vats. He has recently been elected to the board of directors for the Dairy Sheep Association of North America, taking his place as a husbandman of sheep as well as the farm’s cheesemaker as his mother steps away from her herd management.

There’s been some controversy about the future of the sheep dairy industry in the U.S. after both Many Fold Farm and Barinaga Ranch ceased cheese production recently. Journalist Janet Fletcher discussed the reasons for that in a New York Times article in which she suggested that the American sheep dairy industry might be doomed by the economics of competing with European sheep milk cheeses. She noted that the cheeses produced by both Many Fold Farm and Barinaga Ranch were excellent cheeses, as evidenced by the many ribbons that their cheesemakers were taking home from competitions, but that wasn’t translating into profits for the farmsteads behind them.

Callahan believes, though, that despite these regrettable losses, there’s no immediate necessity for gloom about the future of the sheep dairy industry as a whole. “We really feel that we’re on the cusp of turning the corner, but I still feel there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about what sheep milk has in the future,” he says. “The consumers respond to the milk and the products we make from it.”

He pointed out that recent nutrition research has shown that sheep milk has valuable health benefits, and the U.S. government has recently approved the importation of a limited supply of dairy sheep semen from France and that there are efforts under way to begin importing dairy sheep from Spain as well. “That’s a game-changer,” he says. Callahan plans to incorporate some of those genetics into his flock, which should result in lambs that will eventually grow into ewes that will produce more milk than do the ewes he has today. That should reduce his production costs for milk, and it will also make his lambs more valuable as potential breeding stock. All of that will give him a more solid economic base for his business. “We’re loving the sheep milk,” he says. “We’re just stuck on production…. Our ability to grow depends on our ability to use peak milk and put it in a cheese bank.”

Gluten-Free Label Becomes Secondary to Other Benefits

By Greg Gonzales

Disco didn’t really go anywhere; it inspired new forms of music, and eventually gave rise to nu-disco, a genre that blends the classic style with electronic dance music and modern rock, satisfying a larger and more diverse crowd. The same could be said for gluten-free foods. Sales growth peaked a year ago, but producers continue to launch and expand gluten-free lines, innovating them with nutritious, better-tasting ingredients that help the products compete with their gluten-containing counterparts. Though gluten-free food sales are growing at a slower pace, the brands and their fans are here to stay.

Going gluten-free is not motivated by gluten intolerance or sensitivities for most people, but a third of American consumers still purchase gluten-free products. According to the Packaged Facts July/August 2016 National Consumer Survey, 30 percent of consumers who bought gluten-free foods said they bought them for reasons other than gluten-free certification. Twenty-nine percent of respondents said the products are “generally healthier,” while 20 percent said they use the products to manage weight. Of those surveyed, nine percent of consumers said they buy gluten-free products for a household member who has celiac disease, a condition that affects only one percent of the population.

“The bottom line is, people are looking at the back of the package and being critical of what they put in their mouths,” said Barry Novick, President of Kitchen Table Bakers. “If the consumer turns the package over and the information is not there, the consumer suffers.”

Consumers seek out gluten-free, but want more than a gluten-free label. A 2013 New York Times poll found 75 percent of Americans were concerned about GMOs. A 2015 Gallup poll showed that 44 percent of Americans incorporate organic foods in their diet, too, and half of them avoid sugar. In addition, about 90 percent of those polled said they try to eat more fruits and vegetables. This lines up with Nielsen’s Global Health and Ingredient-Sentiment Survey, which found that 64 percent of respondents are avoiding or limiting consumption of specific foods or ingredients.

“Informed and savvy consumers are demanding more from the foods they eat, and some are prioritizing ingredients over brands,” said Andrew Mandzy, Director of Strategic Health and Wellness Insights at Nielsen, in the ingredient-sentiment survey report. “To many consumers, simple is beautiful, and foods with a short list of recognizable ingredients resonate strongly. Savvy manufacturers are responding to this trend by modifying product portfolios by simplifying food ingredient lists and creating natural and organic alternatives to existing offerings. Meanwhile, retailers are also prioritizing healthful foods and better-for-you brands in the center of the store, and emphasizing fresh and perishable foods around the perimeter in order to drive growth.”

Total sales for gluten-free foods this year are set to clock in at $1.328 billion, according to the Packaged Facts Gluten-Free Foods in the U.S. report. The report also said gluten-free food sales growth fell from 81 percent in 2013 and 30 percent in 2014 to 11 percent in 2015. By 2021, the report says, growth rates should end up at a steady five to six percent, with $2 billion in sales by 2020. “Sales do continue to grow, just at a slower pace,” said Mintel Senior Food and Drink Analyst Billy Roberts. “As manufacturers, large and small, enter the largely fragmented gluten-free marketplace, consumers gain an increased availability, quality and variety of options.”

Small Specialty Food Producers Find a Home in New Hampshire

By Lorrie Baumann

Swineheart product characteristicsMary Macdonald got just three weeks’ notice that her business, The Discerning Palate, was about to lose its home because the facility in which she was making and packing Swineheart’s Signature Sauces, Old’s Cool Wild Game Sauces and Our Local Table specialty food products had been sold and was closing. The other New Hampshire food producers who shared the space with her were out on the street just as suddenly.

She and her husband Gavin responded by building Genuine Local, a specialty food production facility that functions as an incubator for specialty food businesses, a shared use kitchen, co-packer and the new home of her house brands. “We wanted to figure out how to make something that worked for the people who were also displaced,” she said. “We found that not only did the people who were displaced by the other facility need a new production facility, but there was also a need within the central part of the state because there were no other resources like this anywhere.”

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Genuine Local opened for business on January 2016 in a 1,800 square-foot former warehouse, and now has 125 to 150 products coming out of the kitchen from 23 different producers. “We received our final notice of occupancy on January 25, 2016 at about 10:00 in the morning,” Macdonald said. “By 1:00, the first batch of sauce was in the kettle.”

In December 2016, Local Baskit, a meal kit subscription service owned by Beth Richards of Concord, New Hampshire, became Genuine Local’s first graduate. Local Baskit had launched in June 2016 using Genuine Local’s facility as the base of operations in which Richards packaged all her meal kits. As the business grew, she shifted her attention to customer service and recipe development, while Genuine Local took on assembling the meal kits. Then in December, Richards relocated her business to a space that will allow her to expand her offerings to include cooking and nutrition classes. “At lightning speed, she leaped and she landed,” Macdonald said.

Genuine Local, located in Meredith, New Hampshire, is in the middle of the state, about 40 miles north of the state capital in Concord and about 80 miles west of Portland, Maine, as the crow flies. It’s equipped as a small-scale commercial kitchen with 40-gallon kettles, which is large for a catering kitchen but small for a production facility. “We expect that people will come in and work for a year or two, but then move on as they outgrow what we’re here to offer,” Macdonald said. “The group that I’m most excited about working with are all the specialty food producers who need to take the next step.”

The facility doesn’t have a USDA license, so it’s not for meat products, and there’s no cold chain production capacity. “We don’t do cheese, but we can pretty much work with anybody else,” Macdonald said. “It’s a very purpose-built facility, so it has a very functional footprint. All of the equipment is on wheels. Everything we have is semi-automated, including the bottler and the labeler. It’s all about being the bridge.”

OLT OC SSSThe 23 producers who are currently sharing the space make a variety of products, including conventional hot pack products and a range of ethnic foods that include a unique West African pepper relish, Ruth’s Mustards, Little Acre Gourmet Foods’ condiments and Bleuberet’s microbatch relishes and jams. Local caterers also use the facility. “Products coming out of here are in distribution throughout New England into upstate New York, as well as pushing down into New York City. We have one customer that’s featured in all of the Eataly stores,” McDonald said. “We have another customer that’s really happy being able to drive to every single store that carries their product, and that’s where they want to be.”

3Pepper Ketchups“We have everything from one company that makes a northern Indian-style eggplant relish, and that’s their only product, to Little Acre Gourmet, which is really pushing to expand their line,” she added. “I’m thinking that in three years, we’re not going to be big enough for her, but we are for now, and we’re very glad.”

The facility is also home to The Discerning Palate’s house brands. They include Swineheart’s Signature Sauces, which offers seven flavors of handcrafted, small-batch sauces representing various styles of American barbecue. “We got into the food business as a hobby gone wrong. The kids gave their dad a small smoker for Father’s Day about 10 years ago,” Macdonald recalls. From that beginning, the Macdonalds started competing in the barbecue circuit and developed their own sauces. “From there, people started wanting to purchase the sauce, and the company just grew,” she said. Once they’d decided to produce the first Swineheart’s Signature Sauces on a commercial basis, they set up shop in a copacking facility that also rented space on an hourly basis. “It was historically a culinary training program run by the county,” Macdonald said. “It was set up as a catering kitchen that transformed into a production facility, whereas ours was set up to be a production facility from the get-go.”

OLT Logo clearNew brands grew up around that 2010 start, including Our Local Table, which offers a trio of onion relishes as well as salsas and spicy Peri Peri sauces, and Old’s Cool, a line of three sauces designed for wild game. “They’re fat-free and made with gluten-free ingredients with no preservatives or artificial flavors or colors,” Macdonald said.

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Genuine Local is also home to Genuine Local’s Bootstraps Program, an a la carte business development program that works by subscription and offers assistance with all the myriad problems that people have to solve when they’re starting a food business: labeling and nutrition panels, licensing, market development and recipe development. “For regular business planning, we refer those out. There are simply not enough hours in the day,” Macdonald said. “We have some people who are qualified to do a variety of types of production, and they’re willing to work with people on a freelance basis, so we do make those types of connections as well.”

“We developed that Bootstraps Program out of recognition that we’d never have been able to do what we’ve done without the generosity of other people,” she added. “It’s frankly not rocket science, but there’s no manual. We have a really strong commitment, with our focus on local, to help people take the next step.”

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