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Market ripens for cheesemakers.

Byline: Winston Ross The Register-Guard

COQUILLE - There's money in cheese. The trick is knowing how to make it.

The cheese, that is. The money will follow - provided the maker can appeal to the right market, said an expert cheesemaker at a workshop in Coquille on Saturday.

"Thirty-eight percent of U.S. milk now comes from the West," said John Coelho Jr., aiming a laser pointer at a PowerPoint chart. That's up 29 percent since 1997. "The government wants to develop more specialty cheese making, and coastal areas are a good place for them because there's so much tourist traffic."

That's why ShoreBank Enterprise Pacific hosted the workshop. The rural economic development institution provides business and community development loans, advisory services and market information, managing a $17 million capital fund.

American appetites for curdled milk are on a steady upswing, explained Coelho, who descends from a long line of artisans and the successful Mexican-style cheese company Queseria.

In 2003, U.S. consumers gobbled up an average of 33 pounds per person, up from 18 pounds in 1980.

The Greeks and French, by comparison, are making us look like cheese teetotalers, wolfing down 56 and 54 pounds per person, respectively. So there must be room in our rotund bellies for growth, Coelho reasoned.

And as the West's share of the cheese market continues to expand, (thanks in part to lousy weather in the Midwest and South) farmers in Oregon should ponder whether cheese is worth pursuing.

The south coast has a rich history in cheese making, despite the blow to local artisanship that came when the Tillamook County Creamery Association bought out Bandon Cheese in 2000 and moved the operation out of town. But there's still a healthy agricultural presence in the area, said Adam Zimmerman, who oversees the central and south coast endeavors of ShoreBank.

"We don't produce a lot of milk here," Zimmerman said. "So another Tillamook Cheese isn't realistic. But some of these cheeses go for $15 to $20 a pound. If they're getting that much value, cheesemakers can pay more for high-quality milk. We'd like to see a relationship where somebody's making cheese locally and is able to pay more for milk than they're getting in a commodity market."

Judging by the attendance Saturday, there was plenty of interest. Up to 100 people packed the small county annex conference room in Coquille.

"I'm here to learn what I don't already know," said John Shank of Greenacres. With a few goats on his homestead, "I've only made goat cheese, and just consumed it. But there's always more cheese in your kitchen than you can eat."

Bandon's former mayor showed up to encourage farmers to set up shop in his town. Why?

"Jobs, jobs jobs," Joe Whitsett said. "It's the same old song."

Paul Mohn of Bandon owns about five goats, but a stepdaughter in Italy has 350. "She's truly a Heidi," he says. Someday she might want to consider moving the business to the state, Mohn said, and he might be willing to start making cheese, too.

"They aren't making cheese in Bandon anymore. It's a real opportunity. They're not just blowing smoke." he said. "I thought I'd familiarize myself with it."

Much of the workshop was devoted to Coelho's presentations on making and marketing cheese.

There also was a tasting session, naturally - and what would a cheese workshop be without an actual effort to make cheese?

Nathan Sandwick was prepared for that, but he was sheepish enough about his first stab at cheese making in three years to wait until someone asked. In a pot outside the conference room, the Americorps intern at ShoreBank kept an eye on a still-curdling batch. The night before, he'd brought a gallon of milk to room temperature, added a splash of buttermilk to cause fermentation and then let it sit overnight. He had yet to slice, salt or press it, and he doubted if it would be something the workshop attendees would want to sample.

"I guess you could call it Farmer's cheese," he said with a grin. "Though that applies to just about anything."

Winston Ross can be reached at (541) 902-9030 or rgcoast@oregonfast.net.
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Title Annotation:Agriculture; A workshop in Coquille urges coastal farmers to consider the promising financial possibilities of curds and whey
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 16, 2005
Words:695
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