On July 8th, we will be attending and vending at the 3rd annual Little Falls Cheese Festival in Little Falls, NY. We have been diligent participants of the festival since its debut in 2015, but we still have yet to sample all the cheeses the event has to offer.
In addition to a wide regional selection of artisan and farmstead cheese, the festival also features all things cheese-complementary, including, but not limited to: gourmet chocolates, artisan breads, pastries, spreads, and, of course, butter. As much as we love the abundance of artisan foods, live music, and good company that we experience throughout the day, what touches us the most is what the festival celebrates: the rich history of pioneer creameries and dairy food manufacturing in New York State.
Although Wisconsin and California are currently fighting for the title of largest cheese manufacturer in the United States, throughout the 19th century New York was the leading state in amount of creameries, with Little Falls, in Herkimer County, NY as its cheese capital. Due to the fame of Herkimer County Cheese, the first United States cheese exchange was hosted in Little Falls in 1850s, set the price of cheese for the country, and even influenced the cheese prices in Europe.
Multiple factors allowed Herkimer County to rise up as the cheese center of the United States. New York’s climate, which is ideal for grazing dairy cattle and making cheese and butter, and Jesse Williams who pioneered the “cheese factory” system. Before the cheese factory, cheese and butter making was essentially the work of farm wives and dairy maids. While the task was arduous and at times resulted in inconsistent cheese quality, skilled dairy maids could provide for their families with their craft. The first cheese factory in America was established in Rome, NY in 1851 after Jesse Williams, dairy farmer and cheesemaker, began processing milk delivered from his son’s dairy farm alongside his own to make cheese.
Although milk cooperatives are common today, in the 1800s, this practice was novel. Jesse went on to accept more deliveries from other farms in the area and institute an efficient system of milk collection as well as consistent quality cheesemaking. The switch from farmhouse to factory cheesemaking empowered dairy farmers and manufacturers to produce over 49,000,000 pounds of cheese in 1850, compared to Wisconsin’s mere 400,000 pounds. In 1899 at least 1,611 factories in NY made either cheese or butter, 207 of which made both.
About 170 miles south of Little Falls, New York butter was having its heyday as well. In 1856, the first factory in the world specifically built to manufacture butter was built in Campbell Hall, Orange County, NY. Being constructed in the pre-refrigeration era, the creamery’s placement relied on the existence of a natural cold spring with which the butter was chilled.
As with New York cheese, it was skilled farm wives and dairy maids who made butter popular in Orange County. These farmstead producers were already the main suppliers of butter to New York City which were delivered regularly by way of horses and carts. The butter of Orange County was famously known around the country as “Goshen Butter”. However, the ability to produce large quantities of butter of consistently high quality left the Campbell Hall butter factory responsible for New York State’s peak in butter production from 1860 to 1890.
Ultimately, New York’s Herkimer Cheese and Goshen Butter faced the same sad fate. As refrigerated transport made it possible to ship fresh milk to New York City and other urban areas, the need for shelf stable dairy products sharply declined. Between 1890 and 1910, the production of New York butter decreased 80%.
New York's Dairy Comeback
As much as the Little Falls Cheese Festival observes New York’s rich cheese production history, it is also a celebration of the revival of the state’s artisanal dairy crafters and small dairy industry. Although no longer the top producer of cheese and butter, dairy farming is still the leading agricultural industry in New York state. Entrepreneurs are taking advantage of New York’s abundance of quality milk and getting creative with it. Increasingly, farmers are bottling, branding, and marketing their own milk, small businesses are opening small batch creameries and making value-added products, and processors are collecting local milk from small dairies and using it to co-pack for national brands.
As of now, New York State is the lead in yogurt production in the nation and its dairy manufacturing industry employees over 8,000 workers. In addition to feeding the economy, New York small dairy processors and dairy artisans are telling their farmers’ stories (if they’re not the farmer themselves) and responding to a growing consumer base that expects transparency, environmental stewardship, and quality by striving to create food that reflects those values. This is our mission at Kriemhild and we have joined many other fellow dairy processors that follow similar paths. It is true, the landscape of New York’s dairy industry has changed. But, as long as there are dairy farmers, there will be processors, and New York’s dairy will be rich.
Sernett, Dr. Milton C. Say Cheese!: The Story of the Era when New York State Cheese was King. Cazenovia: Milton C. Sernett, 2011.
"Governor Cuomo Announces New York State is Now Top Yogurt Producer in The Nation, Delivers on Key Promises Made at Yogurt Summit to Help Dairy Farmers." The Official Website of New York State. 18 April 2013. www.governor.ny.gov.
As the Butter Churns
Author: Ellen Fagan
Farm and Outreach Coordinator