Cheese is alive, and alive with meaning. Heather Paxson’s beautifully written anthropological study of American artisanal cheesemaking tells the story of how craftwork has become a new source of cultural and economic value for producers as well as consumers. Dairy farmers and artisans inhabit a world in which their colleagues and collaborators are a wild cast of characters, including plants, animals, microorganisms, family members, employees, and customers. As “unfinished” commodities, living products whose qualities are not fully settled, handmade cheeses embody a mix of new and old ideas about taste and value. By exploring the life of cheese, Paxson helps rethink the politics of food, land, and labor today.
The Life of Cheese Crafting Food and Value in America
Andy and Mateo Kehler started milking cows and making cheese at Jasper Hill Farm, in northern Vermont, in 2003. Just one year into production, their Bayley Hazen Blue and Constant Bliss were featured in restaurants and gourmet shops from Boston to Chicago. Jasper Hill exemplifies the New American Cheese, the artisanal fabrication of cheeses by hand, in small batches, in the fashion of a European culinary style. These cheeses are intended to be savored on their own, or perhaps with a glass of wine. The Kehler brothers represent a new kind of American food producer: college educated and urban raised, they are becoming farmers, investing in their land and local community, and dedicating themselves to mastering the entire process of cheese production, from pasture to plate.
I first visited the Kehlers in March 2004. To reach Jasper Hill Farm, I drove through wooded hills dotted with crumbling buildings and rusted farm equipment. Lacking a major waterway, Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, a trio of optimistically named counties south of the Canadian border, missed out on the state's nineteenth-century logging boom and still retains the feel of a frontier territory. Andy and Mateo enjoyed childhood summers up here on Lake Caspian, following a family tradition reaching back to the 1920s. They remember their grandmother, the daughter of a traveling salesman who had bought a lakeside fishing hut here, telling tales from her youth of local residents descending from hilltop farmsteads dressed in home-styled furs. Today, at least during the spring mud season, many farms up here look more desperate than quaint.
Arriving at the farm, I was greeted by Andy, the brother in charge of the Ayrshire cows we later visited in the barn. I tugged hygienic hospital booties over my shoes before entering the sunlit cheese room the Kehlers built beside the milking parlor. Here, Mateo, his wife, Angie, and Andy's fiancée, Victoria-all then in their early to mid-thirties-were at work making an English-style cheese they called Aspenhurst. While Mateo fed heavy, rectangular slabs of pressed cheese curd through a noisy shredding machine, Andy leaned over the vat to join Victoria in agitating the shredded curd with his bare hands to prevent clumping. They stirred in a generous amount of salt, too. In Wisconsin, people snack on fresh cheese curds much like these, but in Vermont curd is merely a step along the way to making cheese. Using handheld scoops, the Kehlers hooped (that is, packed) the curd into cylindrical molds that they slotted into another machine, called a horizontal gang press, to squeeze out the remaining whey. It was steamy-hot, physically demanding work using shiny new models of the sort of equipment that would have been employed a hundred years ago by tradesmen working in cheese factories throughout New England's dairying regions, before industrial automation took over in the middle of the twentieth century.
As curd was being shredded, salted, and packed into wheels, Mateo shared their vision: "We wanted to make some money" and live in Vermont, "the most beautiful place in the world." Andy, a carpenter who worked as a building contractor after graduating from the University of Vermont, had been looking for an alternative occupation because as a contractor, "you make money off of other people's labor." Mateo, who studied international development at a Quaker college in the early 1990s and worked with a microfinance development organization in India after graduation, was politically committed to sustainable agriculture. Vermont, Mateo told me, is just as much in need of agricultural development as any struggling farm community the world over; his adopted state had lost fifty dairy farms the previous year. The Kehlers set out to create a precedent for agricultural entrepreneurialism that might reverse the trend of farm closures. From the beginning, their plan was to help develop the local economy in a way that would compromise neither what they described as the "culture of independence" of Vermont's people nor the "working landscape" of its environment. In 1998, using savings and some family money, the brothers bought 223 acres with a dilapidated barn. One of their early business models explored the market potential for organic tofu; another considered a microbrewery. But then they "looked around and said, 'Why not cows?'" Cows, they explained, are not only part of the existing landscape; they are central to Vermont's identity.
Labor-intensive, handmade cheese became the key to their plan. Dairy may be "the basis of the Vermont economy," Mateo explained, but fluid milk, sold by bulk tank to processing plants, has become a "failed industry" for the state. "We can't compete with the economies of scale in California," he said, citing a dairy in Barstow with nineteen thousand cows. In 2002, half of Vermont's dairy farms housed seventy cows or fewer. "California is going to bury Vermont in a tidal wave of cheap milk," Mateo predicted. As the Kehlers see it, Vermont's dairy future lies in artisan-made cheese. A family here can make a decent living with twenty-five or thirty cows, they told me-if they add commercial value to the milk by processing it into high-end cheese for a high-end market.
Today in the United States, upwards of 450 enterprises handcraft cheese from milk purchased from nearby farms or produced by the cheesemakers' own animals. The Kehlers are riding the crest of a wave of new artisan cheesemaking enterprises whose force has more than doubled since 2000, as indicated in fig. 1. Over the past thirty years, former professionals and recent college graduates have followed ex-hippies in renovating run-down farms and reinventing "farmstead cheese," an informal designation for cheese made artisanally on the dairy farm that supplies the milk. The vanguard was young women moving back to the land in the 1970s and commercializing their vocation in the 1980s. Today's cheesemakers come from wide-ranging backgrounds, including business management, nursing, homemaking, fine arts, science education, and gourmet retail. Heritage dairy farmers, who inherited their farms or married into farm families, represent a growing number of farmstead cheesemakers.
Here is a deceptively basic recipe for making cheese: Heat milk; sour it by adding bacterial cultures to convert milk sugar (lactose) to lactic acid; add an enzyme (such as rennet) to help coagulate the fermenting milk. Once the milk has set into a gel-like substance, use long blades to cut the curd into pieces and release the watery whey, drain, salt, and pack the curds into molds. Endless variations-including the choice to start with goat's, sheep's, or cow's milk; the selection of added bacterial cultures; the timing and temperature of the steps of the cheesemaking process; whether a cheese is eaten fresh or aged for months or even years-result in hundreds if not thousands of varieties of cheese. In his 2007 Atlas of American Artisan Cheese, Jeff Roberts catalogued newly invented artisanal cheeses rubbed with cocoa and lavender, washed in buttermilk and hard ciders, or covered with bloomy coats of edible mold. The novelty of such new American cheeses is secured in no small part by whimsical names (Purple Haze, Barely Buzzed, Fuzzy Wheel, Hyku) that convey the personal imprint of an individual producer and mark a contrast with Europe's place-based cheese names (Comté, Taleggio), which carry the historical weight of collective regional traditions.
"The art of cheesemaking," writes dairy scientist Paul Kindstedt, "is really about working with, shaping, and to some extent controlling the forces of nature," and so in examining the artisanal culturing of cheese we encounter broader questions about how "nature"-environmental, microbial, animal, human-should best be inhabited, incorporated, and regulated. As people work pastureland, tend livestock, handcraft cheeses, and ready them for market, they manage forces that are symbolic and institutional as well as organic. The Life of Cheese, then, refers both to the working lives of people dedicated to cheesemaking, and to the liveliness of the substance with which they work. Idiosyncratic and future-oriented, celebrating entrepreneurial innovation rather than consensual customs of the past, the culture of artisan cheesemaking in the United States is decidedly American.
What Makes Good Food Good?
Reporting on ethnographic research carried out in New England, Wisconsin, and California dairy regions, this book travels onto farms and into creameries to investigate efforts to produce American cheese as good food. Cheese may be considered to be good on the basis of taste and healthfulness and also on the basis of whether it is produced well-in other words, thoughtfully, even ethically. While handmade cheese undoubtedly generates gustatory pleasure and social status for its consumers, this book focuses on the values that making cheese generates for its rural and peri-urban producers.
The value of food to humans endlessly transcends quantitative measures, whether of kilocalories or grams of fat, or in dollars and cents. Beyond providing a source of nutrition and an economic livelihood, food is everywhere a medium of cultural and social exchange. Its preparation invites creativity and requires an investment of material resources, while eating and feeding offer opportunity for pleasure as well as denial. Through food, people solidify a sense of self and connectedness to (or distance from) others. Food offers a strong anchor for identity because eating well-adequately, appropriately-holds not only the promise of being well (healthy) but also of being good (moral). Think of the role of food as the nutritive medium of motherhood, or as the virtue of generous hospitality. Consider too, though, how food may constitute a bone of contention, a site for playing out social conflict, discord, or resentment. Food does not merely symbolize status and prestige; it is a transformative substance through which social relations are manipulated and power is enacted.
Food's goodness may thus be evaluated in terms of bodily and social well-being, purity, status, emotional impact, ease of preparation, cost, and, not least, deliciousness. The layering of multiple values that constitute food's goodness can make fraught the politics of eating: how we enact the adage "We are what we eat," or pose the accusatory challenge "You are what you eat." Ethical trade-offs and inconsistency in food choices are hardly surprising, since what makes food culturally and culinarily desirable is not always the same as what is understood to make food nutritionally or socially beneficial.
Similar qualifications manifest in producing food. Artisan producers want to make healthful and delicious food, but more than that, in making good food they want to make a good life for themselves, pursuing engaging and gratifying work. Insofar as these rural entrepreneurs are guided not solely by profit but also by sentiment, artisan cheesemakers in the United States are similar to the winegrowers of Bordeaux, chocolatiers in Paris, and fish traders in Tokyo studied by my anthropological colleagues. While the Kehler brothers may pitch their enterprise in political terms of remaking a segment of the food system, others are engaged in far more modest, even idiosyncratic endeavors. Most neither proselytize nor pretend to offer solutions to entrenched structural problems with our current food system, such as inner-city landscapes, called food deserts, that are denuded of grocery stores yet cluttered with cheap fast-food outlets. Rather, they are mindful of the everyday practice of their own lives. Anthropologist Judith Farquhar suggests, "Agency in everyday life is a form of craftwork involving intimate collaborations among embodied humans and material objects like food. Like recipes and the cooking skills on which they rely, like tasting food and savoring the company of others, the crafting of a good life is an improvisational project in which a great deal goes without saying." The Life of Cheese offers close attention to how the crafting of cheese and the crafting of a life mutually inform each other.
By what accounting might it seem sensible to employ nineteenth-century-era machinery and craft techniques to make cheese for commercial sale when a fully industrial food system has accustomed us to more efficient, less expensive, and more consistent ways of producing food? Those who handcraft cheese in the United States today do so because the value they gain by doing it exceeds its limited potential to generate income. Although the daily discipline of artisanship varies as cheese is made in fifty-gallon kettles or fifteen-hundred-gallon vats, from raw or pasteurized milk, by third-generation cheesemakers or former housewives or business executives, artisan cheesemakers are united by a belief that the qualities that make their cheeses taste good are fundamentally connected to personal values that make the cheeses good for them to make.
This book brings the interpretive analysis so richly applied to food consumption to the study of its commercial production to explain why cheesemakers believe in the goodness of their endeavor and of their cheese. How do culinary and moral values influence producers' practical encounters with pastureland, dairy animals, and the biochemical substance of milk that they transubstantiate into cheese? How are those values conveyed to a consuming public and translated (or possibly undermined) through market exchange? What can we learn from artisan food-making about the politics of nature and the ethics of the marketplace in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century?
The Value of Artisan Cheesemaking Today
Artisan cheesemaking is part of a broader cultural transition in the United States as key cultural values have been challenged by, or are being adapted in response to, deleterious legacies of twentieth-century industrial agriculture. Our supply of cheap food comes at the cost of farm closures, periodic outbreaks of food-borne illness, and the inhumane treatment of farmworkers and livestock; in this light, the technoscientific promise of unlimited progress through rationalized, industrial efficiency rings hollow. From the best-selling book Fast Food Nation to the Academy Award-nominated film Food, Inc., popular exposés fuel public critique of agribusiness as usual. At the same time, disillusionment with corporate America following urban deindustrialization and scandals of executive malfeasance has precipitated a groundswell of interest in making do for oneself. Half a century ago the American Dream promised a union-negotiated family wage to workers who drove cars they helped build and owned houses they could afford; today, the collective mythology of rugged individualism and self-realization carries on in a very different register as do-it-yourself craft and gardening collectives are moving into postindustrial urban landscapes, while suburban chicken coops have become "The Most Exciting Backyard Accessory since Lawn Darts." Artisan cheesemaking represents not a new cultural trend so much as (for those who take it up) a reordering of values that are pervasive and enduring in American culture-autonomy and self-determination, belief in the virtue (and reward) of hard work, a communitarian ethos of neighborliness, concern for the natural environment, and faith in future progress.
While some cheesemakers got into artisanship as a sustainable retirement project, others work to earn a living for themselves and their families. Like the Kehlers, many are new farm families, new to farming and also new families: young couples moving to the countryside to raise children; lesbian women and gay men making a life and a living together; multigenerational constellations of reconvened family members united by commitment to collective enterprise. But the story of America's farmstead cheesemaking resurgence is also a tale of multigenerational dairy farmers hoping to escape the dilemma of industrial agriculture: either get big (and squeeze out your neighbor) or get out. Both groups wrestle with multiple, sometimes competing values as they pursue work they find personally satisfying.
Through the stories I tell and interpret in this book, I aim to demonstrate the complexity of cheesemakers' decisions and actions. My intent is not to make judgments about what cheesemakers do and decide. When people are motivated to become artisan food-makers out of concerns that they share with consumers of local and Slow foods-support for rural economies and communities, commitment to feeding their families healthy yet tasty food-I ask: how might such sentiments inform and be modified by the practical concerns of animal husbandry, product development, and business growth?Working to realize multiple values simultaneously can create moral ambivalence as well as economic uncertainty. Many cheesemakers struggle to discover how they might grow big enough as a business to cover their bills, pay themselves a modest salary, and put away some savings, but without growing so big that they find themselves sitting in an office doing managerial work, rather than outside with their animals or submerging their arms in sweet-smelling curd, realizing the personal values they initially pursued in becoming commercial cheesemakers. Producers' uncertainty is exacerbated when a product's strongest selling point may be the subjective value it embodies for its maker: the four generations a family has lived and worked on a farm, say, or the personal names given to dairy goats. In marketing the personal values they derive from making cheese, artisan cheesemakers risk exaggerating the influence of those values in generating a cheese's material qualities, its apparent intrinsic goodness.
The figure of the artisan within an industrial society is an uneasy one, embodying cultural anxieties about middle-class status and security. In Europe, artisans are prone to being considered throwbacks to a premodern era, holding static the tradition against which the rest of society measures its modernization. French chocolatiers in Susan Terrio's analysis, for example, "represent what the French like to tell themselves about themselves in terms of a traditional work ethic, family values, community cohesion, and the noncompetitive practices of small business," but at the same time they remain "manual workers whose businesses require considerable self-exploitation." Their self-employment affords economic upward mobility but without the refinement that higher education affords. Deemed insufficiently cultured, artisan entrepreneurs in France are suspected of being "vulnerable to economic greed," liable to overcharge customers and exploit workers. In the United States, artisan cheesemakers may also represent what many Americans like to tell themselves about their own work ethic, family values, and community cohesion, but here romanticizing farming and artisan enterprise as honest work can generate unrealistic expectations for moral purity. Popular celebrations of local and artisanal foods wax poetic about the agrarian Good Life-think of novelist Barbara Kingsolver's 2007 best seller Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, recounting a year procuring food from neighboring farms and her family's own backyard-but rural entrepreneurs must be practical. In the words of one veteran cheesemaker, "People who really cared about what they ate in the sixties grew up to have businesses that have to survive." Pragmatism and compromise are part of their moral reasoning.
In their dual roles as craftspeople and small-business owners, American cheesemakers risk being represented-or may judge one another-as hypocritical "sell-outs." In a striking inversion of the French stereotype of artisans lacking in cultural refinement, American artisans are instead suspected of granola-coated elitism, playacting at manual labor as a means of denying their privileged class status. There are problems with this generalizing presumption. First, it disregards as artisans the dairy farmers who have taken up cheesemaking to add commercial value to their milk, as well as the third-generation owner-operators of artisan factories who have resisted mechanical automation. It also disregards the influence of consumer expectations on marketing rhetoric; marketing the pastoral romance that appeals to consumers obscures what producers know to be a far less romantic reality of unpaid bills, rising property taxes, and animal slaughter. Finally, the judgment that commercial artisans may be moral sell-outs reproduces a dichotomy between quantitative market value and qualitative social values, such that the pursuit of one is assumed to diminish the other. This book refutes that view. Indeed, I propose that the struggle to realize potentially competing values itself constitutes a source of value for producers: it is the moral struggle, and not necessarily its resolution, that makes artisanship worth undertaking.
Although the revival of artisan cheesemaking emerged from the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s, as it has grown it has largely shed its countercultural ethos. Artisan cheesemaking remains a marginal economic enterprise but has become a mainstream cultural project. It reflects a postindustrial reconfiguration and reimagination of the American landscape, one produced by new social traffic between the country and the city as well as by a growing sensibility that "nature" as we know it is clearly a product of human activity. Whether carried out by rural newcomers fleeing desk jobs or by heritage dairy farmers, artisan cheesemaking gives new life to run-down farms, provides new jobs to rural residents, and expands culinary tastes. It is part of the emergence of an agrarian form of life that is more future-oriented than nostalgic for a mythical pastoral; an ethos that seeks-in contrast to industrial agriculture's technoscientific domination of nature-to work in collaboration with the agencies of pasture ecologies, ruminant life cycles, and milk fermentation. In many ways, contemporary artisanship is guided by what I call a post-pastoral ethos.
From Industrial to Artisanal Production
First, to grasp the emergence of what Carlo Petrini, a founder of the Slow Food movement, impressionistically calls America's artisan cheesemaking "renaissance," it is important to consider what American cheese has been. What is today celebrated as farmstead cheese, namely, cheese made by hand on a dairy farm, was a household staple in preindustrial agrarian America (this history will be outlined in chapter 4). For generations, farmwomen made cheese for domestic use and commercial trade. By the late nineteenth century, cheesemaking had moved into factories where specialized, skilled tradesmen processed milk pooled from area farms. Food scientists soon scaled up the process, breaking down the chemistry of turning milk into cheese and building it back up as the industrial processing of a safe, predictable, commodity food. Factories were consolidated and, in most plants, automated assembly displaced artisan workers-although, as chapter 4 details, a few artisan factories still turn out cheese in much the same way as they did a century ago. Meanwhile, in 1997 commodity cheddar (made using a different process than true Cheddar) began to be priced alongside pork bellies on the trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Kraft Foods, Sara Lee, and McDonald's are among the corporate players trading barrel cheese by the carload.
Dairy farms have undergone similar transformations. Over the past century, dairy farming, like the production of wheat and other staple crops, has come to be organized by an industrial logic guided by faith in capitalist and technoscientific rationality to realize the singular goal of maximizing production and profit. Throughout the twentieth century, small dairy operations were forced out of business by higher equipment prices, declining milk consumption, and health regulations that increased the costs of production (e.g., mandates in the 1950s for concrete-floored milking parlors and the replacement of metal milk cans with bulk tanks). Between 1970 and 2006, the number of cow dairy farms in the United States fell by 88 percent. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has regarded subsequent rural depopulation as a measure of the success of agriculture's industrial logic, offering "evidence of technological mastery." Fewer and larger farms continue to produce more milk at lower prices (see fig. 2). Industrial agriculture has undoubtedly provided the United States with cheap food. As a whole, Americans spend less than 10 percent of their disposable income on food (within low-income households that figure rises to 21 percent). But cheap food, as Mateo Kehler reminded me, is produced by economies of scale that have not only displaced small farmers but also rent the social fabric of rural communities while depleting the fertility of agricultural lands. [figref2]
In 1970, Margaret Mead argued that commercial agriculture had lost sight of food's significance as a source of bodily and social nourishment. Instead, food production had become redefined in terms of staple crops (on which the prosperity of an entire region or even country might depend) and as potential profit for agribusiness. Such economistic thinking, according to Mead, led to the tragic paradox of our global commodity food system: dire food shortages exist alongside food surpluses. Thousands of tons of food lie rotting because bringing it to market would upset prices. The iconic symbol of commodity food policy's illogic may well be the Reagan-era "government cheese" giveaway. Only after the national press reported that tons of price-supported surplus dairy products were rotting in refrigerated warehouses where they were stored at great public expense-and, more gallingly, at a time when the reach of the federal food stamp assistance program was being slashed-did the Reagan administration in 1981 release thirty million pounds of government surplus cheese to feed "the needy." The poor and the elderly stood in long, televised lines to receive blocks of the generic, processed surplus dairy product turned out by assembly-line manufacture, a product known as "American cheese." Recipients were instructed to scrape off any nontoxic mold that might have formed on the surface during storage. Not only did the giveaway symbolically taint processed cheese as the food of poor people, it did nothing to reduce the volume of surplus that was eroding dairy farmers' profits. At the behest of the National Cheese Institute, cheese buyout and redistribution was replaced with another federal initiative to restore market balance: the Dairy Termination Program. Otherwise known as the Whole Herd Buyout, this federal program paid farmers to submit herds of dairy cows for slaughter. Dairy farmers were told by their government to get big or get out.
Hoping to forge a viable middle way, the state governments of Vermont and Wisconsin have thrown their support behind what are called "value-added" farm products. Instead of expanding herd size to produce more milk to sell at commodity prices to regional processing plants, midsize farmers are now encouraged to downsize and add commercial value to high-quality milk by processing it themselves into butter, ice cream, or cheese for direct sale. Since 2004, state institutions such as the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese (VIAC), affiliated with the University of Vermont, and Wisconsin's Dairy Business Innovation Center (DBIC) have provided technical support for value-added dairying. These states promote dairying, but their historically smaller farms struggle to compete in national fluid milk markets dominated by and calibrated to California's vast valleys, mild winters, and pro-agribusiness political climate. Value-added agriculture attempts to expand niche markets in which small-scale farmers might capture a greater portion of the consumer dollar. Government support is aimed at rural economic development through job creation and preserving agricultural or open land-use.
Institutional initiatives for transforming dairy farming are inspired by the apparent success of homesteaders and other rural in-migrants who have been buying abandoned farms and making cheese from Maine to California since the 1980s. Well-capitalized operations (early ones include Coach Farm and Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in downstate New York) made a name for American artisanal cheeses, paving the way for newcomers with more modest start-up funds and less expansive market networks. At the same time, artisan cheese factories that resisted automation in the twentieth century began to repackage their specialty cheese for a twenty-first-century artisanal food market.
Whether "lifestyle migrants" escaping office jobs or longtime dairy farmers shifting strategies, today's artisan cheesemakers want to make and sell food that is better than industrially produced food: with fewer social and environmental costs, and with more complex taste, greater nutrition, and higher commercial value. To do so, they work artisanally. Instead of processing vast quantities of standardized milk using automated assembly, they make cheese in small batches using minimally modified milk, employing machinery and other tools to extend rather than replace their practical knowledge. They purchase milk from or operate themselves what sociologist Douglas Harper calls "craft farms," comprehensive small-scale operations in which members of a farm household perform, or at least participate in, all the tasks of the production system. In craft dairying as in artisanal cheesemaking, "the worker controls and directs the machines rather than vice versa," Harper writes. Buying dilapidated farms on which to substitute artisanal for industrial modes of production, the Kehlers and others like them hope to revitalize agricultural land and rural communities scarred by industrial farming. It is telling of the class politics and economics involved that many of the new artisan enterprises were enabled by government foreclosure on older farms that were let down by the promise of industrialization.
Artisan-made or artisanal cheese is not cheap food. As one goat cheese producer who grew up on a conventional dairy farm said to me, "You don't go to farmers' markets now looking for a bargain. That's one thing that's changed from even twenty to twenty-five years ago." Farm produce prices have not risen because small farmers today demand more money for their produce than in the past. Rather, farmers' market prices seem expensive because industrial-scale farming practices, government subsidies, deregulated transportation, and global trade have artificially deflated the price of supermarket food. The issue is not simply a matter of industrial machinery, but of political decisions. Prices that compensate low-intensity dairying and artisan labor-prices that boosters hope may revitalize pockets of rural America-are out of reach for many, even most, consumers not because such producers overestimate the value of their labor, but because the United States government subsidizes large-scale industrial dairy enterprises (but not, as in Europe, artisan food production). More of the costs of producing cheese are borne by artisan producers in the United States, as compared to both industrial and European artisan production. So while artisan cheesemaking has been upheld as a bellwether for American agricultural enterprise, one that might presage new alternatives to industrial foods, legislative work is required to move away from one-size-fits-all agricultural policies before any durable systemic change can take place.
Anthropologists seek to understand how social change manifests not only materially-for instance, in institutional policies and standards of living-but also in less tangible ways, in how people think and feel about what they do. As a commodity sold in a market, artisanal cheese is surely a manifestation of capitalist economic enterprise, but its production is not strictly governed by the industrial logic of economic efficiencies. As an entrepreneurial enterprise and as a mode of production, artisan cheesemaking is guided by an understanding that economic values and personal sentiments explicitly, though not neatly, inform one another. Deliberations over what kind of cheese to make, how to market it, and how large to grow a business entail negotiating economic and moral values. Such negotiations also appear in debates over the meaning and worth of designations-local, organic, artisanal, farmstead, terroir-that both establish commonalities and differentiate among cheeses as commercial goods and as good foods. Although craft farmers and artisan cheesemakers are keen to integrate moral and economic values, they nevertheless work within a market economy whose mythology claims that capitalism primarily rewards unsentimental, rational self-interest. Caught between competing value hierarchies, their optimism is often coupled with anxiety.
Artisanal cheese, I argue, attains meaning and significance not only in opposition to industrial cheese in terms of how it is made, but also in opposition to commodity cheese in terms of how it is valued. If the aim of twentieth-century industrial food production was to make "every farm a factory," as historian Deborah Fitzgerald has detailed, then a central aim of twenty-first-century artisan food production is to make every farm a working landscape-one that generates, and will continue to generate in the future, multiple values: decent livelihoods, healthy ecologies, beautiful vistas, and, most immediately, good food.
Realizing Value in an Unfinished Commodity
Through detailing how people work to make a good life and a decent living by crafting cheese, The Life of Cheese demonstrates how economic, moral, and social actions are fundamentally, inseparably implicated in one another. Cheesemakers are by no means alone in struggling to reconcile multiple values-in searching for worth, as sociologist David Stark puts it-because this is how we all operate in a market society. In addition to earning wages or salaries with which we purchase goods and services, we may also receive inheritance or cash gifts from relatives, swap baby-sitting services with friends through play dates, grow vegetables in a garden that a neighbor waters while we are away, and so forth. The value of such actions is equally material and symbolic. What anthropologist Stephen Gudeman names "economy's tension," the dialectic between market competition and the "mutualism" of nonmarket transactions on which we all rely, underwrites an ongoing quest for meaning in labor. Artisan cheesemakers illuminate this broader reality because their struggle to realize multiple values in and through their business enterprise is both self-conscious and valorized by others, whereas elsewhere the interplay of economic and moral values is often obscured through language that separates spaces of "work" from "home" and distinguishes actions carried out for money from those we do for love.
By continually confronting the tension between principle and pragmatism, artisan cheesemakers craft a sense of themselves as ethical subjects of production. I am by no means suggesting that the practice of making cheese is inherently moral. Instead, my point is that commercial artisan cheesemaking lends itself to ethical self-fashioning, to the evaluation of oneself as a good person, because the value of American artisanal cheese is not fully determined. Artisanal cheese is what I call an unfinished commodity. It has not (yet?) been reduced to an apparent equivalence between intrinsic value and market value. The unfinished character of artisanal cheese as a commodity calls attention to the instability, and hence open promise, of its heterogeneous forms of value.
A finished commodity would be one in which the appearance of value has been effectively reduced to an economic equivalency between use value (what someone gets out of a purchase) and exchange value (what is paid for that purchase). A box of cereal can illustrate. Entire supermarket aisles are packed with innumerable varieties priced roughly the same. As consumers, we have little idea of what went into each box by way of labor, research and development, product design, sourcing of ingredients, environmental costs, marketing, and packaging. All commodities have biographies or "social lives" of production. In finished commodities, these backstories are obscure to consumers. In the place of labor and indirect costs, new stories are written for commodity goods through corporate branding and marketing. Precisely by keeping the experiences, sentiments, and interests of those who designed and produced the item out of the experience of commodity exchange can the desirability and functional capacity of an object (its use value) be figured as having worth equal to what people are willing to pay for it (its exchange value). Value is thus figured as intrinsic to the object; this is what Karl Marx called labor alienation and commodity fetishism.
In contrast, cheesemakers bring select elements of the social and material backstory of an artisanal cheese's fabrication to the foreground. Marks of the artisan's labor are retained to enhance a cheese's consumer appeal. In a shop or at a farmers' market stall, a photo of the farm where a cheese came into being may be displayed alongside samples for tasting. Cheese names that sound like nicknames (Fat Bottom Girl, Square Cheese), in contrast to more familiar names that place a cheese within a classificatory system of belonging (Cheddar, washed-rind), are intended to carry the identities of their producers in them. In calling attention to their own labor, as well as to the productive contributions of farm animals, bacteria, and fungi, cheesemakers seek to provide a demystified life for artisanal cheese, one distinct from conventional commodity cheese.
Less intentional pointers-a cheese's mottled surface appearance, lopsided shape, or barnyardy odor-also suggest the handicraft of an individual rather than assembly-line production. While such variations may be promoted as a valued manifestation of artisan labor, if a cheesemaker produces results that are consistently more erratic than merely variable, this may undermine a product's market value. In the eyes of consumers accustomed to supermarket shopping for finished, standardized commodities, imperfectly formed cheeses-discolored, uneven, unclassifiable as a familiar type-may appear incomplete as commodity goods. How can consumers evaluate whether an unfinished commodity is worth its labeled price per pound? From many of their names-Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Carmody-we can only guess what a cheese might look, smell, and taste like. Nevertheless, unfinished commodities are sold and purchased every day by restaurants and at farmers' markets and specialty shops. Producers, traders, and consumers need not come to a consensus on how to value artisanal cheese. Certainly consumers do not have the final word on what making cheese signifies and generates for those who make it.
The unfinished commodity character of American artisanal cheese is a material instantiation of a market economy's constitutive tension. From one batch to the next, does variation in quality characteristics (color, texture, taste, odor) reflect the hands-on aspect of skilled artisanship, or the influence of natural environmental conditions, or sloppy workmanship? As a commodity, does artisanal cheese represent an elite consumer treat or, more nobly, in the words of maître fromager (cheese master) Max McCalman, "a vehicle for rescuing [dairy] operations destined to fail"? Such questions, explored in the chapters to come, remain open. In the meantime, artisanal cheese generates value for producers largely because it is an unfinished commodity.
The unfinished commodity character of artisanal cheese suggests further that people may be motivated to make and sell it not only for what it offers them now, but also for what it might offer in the future. As food producers reconfigure their personal values, they are also brokering changes in the land and landscape. One Vermont dairying family I met transitioned to organic production as an economic strategy but then came to believe in an organic ethic of care for their cows, whose veterinary bills declined after being fed pasture grasses. Practices of producing, exchanging, and eating food construct broader social and material realities, often in unforeseen ways. Rural in-migrants may pride themselves on keeping land in agricultural use and buying hay or milk from their neighbors at fair prices, but when they invest urban-earned money in rural communities they may also contribute to rising rural property taxes and the displacement of long-term residents. Far from representing a romantic return to nature, artisanal cheese offers a means to bring into being a "working landscape," one worked by humans and other animals to produce multiple values that may shift over time.
Artisanal cheese contributes a new chapter to the American Pastoral. In the classic pastoral imaginary, nature and culture are defined in opposition, while production and consumption are considered to take place in separate, rural and urban locales. Premised on caricatured contrasts between the country and the city, escaping from the hustle-bustle of urban society to a countryside idyll has been an enduring theme in American narrative, embodied in the writings of American authors such as James Fenimore Cooper, Henry David Thoreau, and Robert Frost. "From the beginning of its long history," writes literary theorist Terry Gifford, "the pastoral was written for an urban audience and therefore exploited a tension between the town by the sea and the mountain country of the shepherd, between the life of the court and the life of the shepherd, between people and nature, between retreat and return." Pastoral imagery conveys a view of land seen from a remove, as a landscape.
Artisanal cheese, particularly when made on dairy farms, often trades on the mythic quality of the pastoral. Miles and Lillian Cahn-to take one prominent example-sold a luxury goods business, Coach Leather, and in 1983 bought an abandoned farm in New York's Hudson River Valley, soon launching Coach Farm goat dairy and creamery. At a New York City Slow Food event in 2001, I heard Miles Cahn tell their story, retold in the photo-filled Perils and Pleasures of Domesticating Goat Cheese: "We had this idea about moving to a farm," he recounted to a rapt audience. "We were Manhattanites. I definitely had a particular image of a farm in my head. I'd seen this cartoon, with a red barn and a silo and Farmer Brown on his tractor, talking to a cow. And that's how I thought of it, as me and the animals talking to each other." Cahn writes in his book, "It all began with the idea that it would be nice to have a place in the country-a farm actually-where we could enjoy a change of pace on the weekends." Cahn's imagery is self-consciously pastoral and might seem parodic if it did not conform so well to type.
While pastoral imagery has tended to be overly romanticized or sentimentalized in popular discourse, Leo Marx has shown that in American literature the pastoral ideal is continually interrupted: into the contemplative wilderness chugs the locomotive, that noisy engine of industrial progress. Naming this device the "machine in the garden," Marx calls attention to a paradox at the heart of American industrialism, that nature is simultaneously reduced to raw material for human cultural and technological transformation and, in its purportedly pristine form, upheld as an object of reverence and means of contemplative self-realization. While land is seen by agricultural and mining industries as a resource for value extraction, landscapes are framed as objects of contemplation and sites of relaxation. What Marx calls "complex pastoralism" wrestles with what this paradox might mean for what counts as progress in American culture.
In The Country and the City, Raymond Williams argues that the paradox of complex pastoralism is ideological. For Williams, it is not merely poetic that "The means of agricultural production-the fields, the woods, the growing crops, the animals-are attractive to the observer." In aestheticizing agricultural fields and pastures, the pastoral divide between country and city masks rural exploitation when that exploitation is enacted in courts of law, money markets, and opportunities for conspicuous consumption-all of which are found in the city. Bucolic pastoral imagery has had durable effects in the world, as starkly evident in the history of farm labor. In Depression-era California, landowners traded on the promise of a rural idyll to lure farmworkers from the heartland; upon arrival these labor migrants, derogatorily named Okies, were exploited and dispossessed. By telling their tale, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath gives us a powerful anti-Pastoral. Pastoral mythology continues to mask the structural inequalities, from health-care disparities to seats of regulatory authority and advisory power, reinforced when capital flows from rural to urban areas.
If at first glance Mateo and Andy Kehler seem to repeat a Thoreauvian experiment in agrarian living, their self-narrative-and those of other cheesemakers in this book-tells not of an ambivalent "complex pastoralism," nor of a radical anti-pastoralism, so much as an optimistic post-pastoralism. Their ideological anchor is a revised pastoral that critiques industrial capitalism's wholesale exploitation of nature and culture yet retains, while modifying, an opposition between city and country-and it hopes to offer a better way forward. Far from being denied or debated, the "machine in the garden" at Jasper Hill Farm is proudly front and center-in the form of the cheese vats, pneumatic presses, walk-in coolers, vacuum-packaging machines, and steady stream of UPS trucks necessary to produce cheese and deliver it to a distributed marketplace.Their dreams share many features with what Terry Gifford has identified as a twentieth-century, environmentalist post-pastoral literature, from the naturalist essays of John Muir to the poetry of Ted Hughes.
Taking Leo Marx's machine in the garden as a point of reference, the "machine" of artisanal cheese production is integrated into a post-pastoral landscape, meant not to displace nature but to work in collaboration with organic agencies in a productive fashion. The machine may indeed be mechanical, but it remains human-scale. The labor of artisanal cheesemaking is slow, thoughtful, even sensual. Its temporal pace is freed from the factory clock. Artisans prefer to pasteurize milk used for cheesemaking by heating it gently and gradually-a process that takes more time but is less detrimental to the enzymes in milk than the almost instantaneous high-temperature, short-time pasteurization method used in industrial fabrication. Rather than follow a preprogrammed procedure, artisan cheesemakers reach into the vat, thrusting fingers into coagulating curd to ascertain when it is ready to be cut and drained from the whey. Artisanal manufacture represents an extension of the craftsperson's body into the productive process rather than its replacement by computer-programmed machinery.
The "garden" of the artisan post-pastoral is neither wilderness nor country estate, but instead a working landscape. Urban and suburban migrants relocate to the countryside not merely to observe and contemplate the natural beauty of its landscapes, but to work and to steward the land. Agricultural newcomers such as the Cahns and the Kehlers have purposefully set out to keep land in agricultural use, protecting it from being otherwise developed by encroaching exurbs (as in New York's Westchester County) or small-town real estate developers (as in the Massachusetts Berkshires or California wine country)-or, in Vermont, preventing tree regrowth from covering fields as they are kept open by the nibbling of grazing livestock. Placing sentimental as well as material value on the working landscape, cheesemakers articulate a synthesis of land (resource extraction through labor) and landscape (bucolic vista). While valuing, even sometimes romanticizing the potentiality of nature, they are under no illusion that that nature is simply there, awaiting labor to be mixed with it. Instead, they understand that nature's generative potential must be realized through proper care-that is, through post-pastoral artisanship.
Here is how Steve Getz, who after 9/11 quit his job as a business consultant and moved with his family from suburban Pennsylvania to rural Vermont, intending to make cheese, describes his farm:
It has mountain views in every direction, which is really nice. It's a very pleasant place to farm, but this is a farm in transition.... We bought this farm [from] a young man [who had] the cows locked up 365 days a year, heavily drugged, [and] the fields plowed edge to edge for corn silage. I took two contractor bags of syringes out of the manure pile. And so it's been a series of cleaning this up from what was done to this farm over time. So I see a farm going back to the future, going back to some of the traditional techniques of grazing and making dry hay.... [But] we're using some newer techniques, too.... We put up this solar barn, which we bed with deep straw, and that's where our cows live in the wintertime. It's their choice, though-be outside or come inside on that deep straw.
Such narratives construe cheesemaking and the craft dairy farming on which it is based as a form of counterindustrial agricultural remediation.
A post-pastoral ethos recognizes that culture and nature are not in fundamental opposition to each other; instead, nature, no less than culture, contains and unleashes creative as well as destructive forces-and therefore requires responsible human guidance. Cheese itself exemplifies cultured nature, the product of human skill working in concert with the natural agencies of bacteria, yeasts, and molds to transform a fluid made by ruminant animals. In "recognition of a creative-destructive universe equally in balance in a continuous momentum of birth and death, death and rebirth, growth and decay" that Gifford identifies as fundamental to post-pastoral literature, the post-pastoral artisan teams up with beneficial microorganisms in a collaborative effort to defeat those germs that might derail fermentation or introduce pathogens into a food destined for human ingestion. While human-crafted, cheese has a life of its own. So-called natural cheese, real cheese, is said to "age" and "mature." Wisconsin cheesemaker Anne Topham once said to me, "I've always thought that the cheese just has a life of its own and, once we really got going, my job was to follow it around and make it."
Artisan post-pastoralism is "after nature" in the sense described by Marilyn Strathern-at once post-nature, recognizing that there is no pristine natural world outside human cultural activity, and also ever in pursuit of some kind of remade nature as a ground for appropriate human action. The post-pastoral remains haunted by, even indebted to, the pastoral: in sharing its aesthetic values, in looking to the natural world as a source for self-realization-though now more through work than through restful contemplation. Many of today's rural in-migrants who engage in the day-to-day labor of dairy farming and artisanal production hail, too, from a demographic that in the past enjoyed the country as recreational vacationers rather than residents. It is not incidental that the Kehlers now farm where their grandmother once summered. In All Creatures, a cultural history of natural history collecting in the United States, historian Robert Kohler draws a connection between the late-nineteenth-century rise of middle-class outdoor vacationing and a scientific interest in nature: "Natural history was an outdoor activity that particularly embodied the idea of active, improving recreation. It was a kind of work (and play) that was easily assimilated, morally and logistically, to the practices of middle-class vacationing." Artisanal cheesemaking, when practiced by rural in-migrants, might be viewed as a kind of work (and play) that assimilates the improving recreation favored by the middle class into the marketplace. If the pastoral-inspired, middle-class penchant for buying abandoned farms as vacation homes paved the way for early twentieth-century natural science collecting, three generations later some of the same properties provide opportunities for commercial cheesemaking. The artisan post-pastoral builds upon those capitalist economic structures that, according to Williams, the pastoral ideal has long legitimated.
By the same token, artisanal cheesemaking not only poses a critical response to industrial agriculture, it has been enabled by it. The infrastructure of highways and long-haul refrigerated trucking necessary to get rural-made cheese to affluent urban markets is the same infrastructure that paved the way for the Wal-Mart economy that now accounts for a significant portion of the grocery market in this country. And it is no coincidence that the beginning of the American artisanal cheese revival in the 1980s coincides with a decline in small family dairying when a new wave of rural in-migrants bought deteriorating farms and restored old barns and farmhouses-the very farms, in many instances, that were casualties of industrial agriculture. Almost without realizing it, Miles Cahn of Coach Farm hits on the historic conditions in which his dream could be realized: "In my fantasy, the farm we were looking for was going to be a real working farm.... We soon learned, however, that if it was a real working farm, it wasn't for sale. And if it was for sale, it was surely not working." In her anthropological study of the fallout from 1980s midwestern American farm closures, Kathryn Dudley argues that cultural romance with an idealized rural way of life obscured from public view the social trauma of the U.S. farm crisis: "The disappearance of a family farm system of agriculture has not yet registered in the consciousness of the nation. The paradox of the pastoral ideal has allowed us to entertain the illusion that any family with the right combination of skill, ambition, and luck can make a decent living on the land." Artisan cheesemaking is unfolding as a sequel to the 1980s farm crisis insofar as the "nature" that today's cheesemakers have inherited or, more likely, purchased, is not bucolic pastoral landscape but instead industrially configured agricultural land. This book offers a partial sequel to Dudley's story, too, in telling of suburbanites and city dwellers, hoping to alight upon the right combination of skill, ambition, and luck, who are setting out to forge a new post-pastoral ideal.
In the post-pastoral vision of a working landscape, cultured nature-cows grazing on a hillside pasture, or the microbial activity that creates a "natural" rind on a wheel of cheese-is both productive of commercial goods and also a vehicle for social and aesthetic value. While in many ways the practice of artisan cheesemaking challenges a familiar divide between country and city-"here nature, there worldliness," to borrow a phrase from Raymond Williams-that is enshrined in popular, romantic representations of the pastoral, such familiar oppositions do often pervade cheesemakers' own marketing. Mary Keehn, founder of Cypress Grove Chevre in Arcata, California, told me in an interview, "I wrote in an article that you have to have a lot of different footwear, from your boots in the barn to your clogs in the creamery to your high heels to go to town [to market cheese]. People see it at the high-heel level and they want to romanticize all the rest." Nevertheless, Keehn's company's Web site declares: "In our cheesemaking process, we let as much local environmental influence into our creamery as regulations allow. What does that environmental influence look and feel like? Well, stunning vistas and moist air. We're located in rural Humboldt County, in the northern most reaches of California. It's rugged and remote here, a place where the legend of Bigfoot is celebrated with a yearly festival.... Our creamery sits where the redwoods meet the Pacific Ocean, the perfect vantage point to watch the fog roll in."
Although artisans make pragmatic business decisions and their fabrication methods are often technologically sophisticated, their cheese's commercial value still trades on classic pastoral romance. Within the artisan post-pastoral lie not only the seeds of a powerful cultural critique of industrial capitalism, but also the potential for a new myth of labor and value. A working landscape is not fastidiously cultivated to demonstrate wealth but suggests instead a democratic ideal in a "hard-working American" kind of way. Still, as with the classic Pastoral before it, idealization of the working landscape can paper over real economic differences among working farmers and artisans.
Questions of Class
How might we think about social class in rural settings in an era not of gentleman farmers, but of former professionals whose second career has them rising at dawn to milk animals and whose weekends are spent behind a folding table making change at a farmers' market? Among artisan cheesemakers are some economically privileged landowners who bring refined cultural tastes to their productive activity.A few are wealthy indeed; not coincidentally, these tend to be the ones profiled in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal as models of what can be achieved by returning to the land. At the same time, a few producers of highly sought-after cheeses live near the poverty line. Although income measures can be deceptive, among cheesemakers participating in a nationwide survey I conducted in 2009, 14 percent (n = 143) reported annual household incomes under twenty-five thousand dollars. Those who lived on the least amount of money were also those whose income depended on sales of cheese and other farm products, without the off-farm income of a spouse or the investment income generated by savings from a prior occupation.
It is not strictly the case that these households are unable to make more money. Rather, money is not the measure of the life these farmers and artisans seek. Still, choosing not to pursue wealth for its own sake does not make poverty a lifestyle choice. The structural conditions within which people confront everyday economic decisions are an important part of the "moral ecology of the market." In the United States, as artisanal production demonstrates, these conditions favor the interests of large corporations at the expense of small entrepreneurs, as well as the potential of initially well-capitalized operations at the expense of more modest upstarts.
We need a more complex understanding of social class than the familiar model of whether someone owns the means of production to understand contemporary rural social dynamics. We need to unravel the symbols and processes through which economic and cultural capital-that is, money and taste-map onto and reinforce each other. "Cultural capital" is a term elaborated by Pierre Bourdieu to call attention to how taste, while it may feel subjective and personal, is in fact shaped by the class position of the taster. When hiring practices transmit cultural capital into earning power, belief that taste is an intrinsic matter of character may seem to legitimate class hierarchies. As with artists and educators, the social position of unconventional farmers and artisan food producers often complicates this equation. Hippie cheesemakers may be decidedly cash-poor yet exhibit tastes that run to the cosmopolitan, naming their goats after Greek goddesses or female reporters for National Public Radio. And when dairy farmers develop artisanal skills hoping to generate additional income, they may acquire new tastes. Cultural capital can be accrued through the production no less than the consumption of status goods, though this is not always obvious to consumers. Commenting on my research, a graduate student once asked me, "You mean frou-frou cheese?" His disapproving tone suggested that cheese that appeals to elite tastes must surely be made by elite people. Demonstrating naïveté about the means and mode of artisanal production, such a portrayal is reminiscent of the 1990s demographic that David Brooks skewered as "bourgeois bohemians, or Bobos." Based on analyses of patterns and rationales of consumption, such accounts offer little to help us understand the artisanal production of goods, even when artisan markets may rely on "Bobo" consumers. The "frou-frou" characterization is rooted in a class-based critique of "sentimental pastoralism" that obscures a more complicated dialectic of economic and moral activity enacted by artisans across the country.
By implying that handcrafted goods must be the province of those who do not work to make money, the charge of elitism also reflects the marginal, ambiguous status of artisanship in a hyperindustrial society. The artisan, like the independent farmer, is neither a quintessential capitalist, living off the labor of others, nor an alienated wage-worker. Artisanship confounds familiar class categories. Smaller enterprises may see wealthy landowners assuming the physical labor of dairying and cheesemaking; larger enterprises may see employees innovating new production methods and creating new cheeses. Those who have taken up cheesemaking as a second career might be characterized as belonging to a "creative class," a growing segment of the American workforce-scientists and engineers, artists and designers, new media producers, university professors-paid to "create new ideas, new technology and/or new creative content," according to Richard Florida. But not every maker of artisanal cheese working today fits this characterization.
Those who start cheesemaking businesses are, however, predominantly white. There are many reasons for this, including European and Middle Eastern traditions of cheesemaking and cheese eating, a history of racial discrimination in agricultural loans and federal assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and a history of segregated vacationing in rural landscapes. All across the country, however, agriculture and food-processing industries, including a few of the larger artisan enterprises in this book, rely increasingly on immigrant labor. As far north as Vermont and Maine, dairy farms (larger than the ones I visited in my research) are sustained by the low-wage labor of Mexican and Latin American farmworkers. Among these farmworker populations are women and men who, working on the side in unlicensed facilities, turn milk into queso fresco and other "Hispanic-style" cheeses for domestic consumption and informal trade. Their stories, like those of Amish cheesemakers now flourishing in Wisconsin, are in many ways parallel to the story I tell here.
Recent signs suggest that the artisan cheese community of which I write is beginning to diversify. In Wisconsin, Cesar Luis, an auto mechanic who emigrated from Mexico to find work in his teens and who missed eating the Oaxacan rope cheese that his grandmother taught him to make, spent his weekly day off taking cheesemaking classes to earn his license (Wisconsin is the only state that licenses commercial cheesemakers). After renting vat time for one year, he and his wife, Heydi, bought and installed a cheese vat at a dairy farm in eastern Wisconsin; two days a week they make cheese curd for the farm to sell, and on other days they make Mexican-style cheeses to sell under their own label, Cesar Cheese. In the 2010 competition of the American Cheese Society, Cesar and Heydi won First Place for their Queso Oaxaca in the Mozzarella Type category.
Because I am most interested in artisanal production, the bulk of my research has been carried out by visiting dairy farms and creameries and by interviewing cheesemakers. While most of the people I interviewed are owner-operators of small businesses, a few co-own or manage farms or larger creameries that employ artisans. I formally interviewed forty-five artisan cheesemakers and/or owners representing forty-two businesses centered on three major dairying and cheese-producing regions: New England, Wisconsin, and Northern California. This figure represents approximately 10 percent of all artisan cheese enterprises across the country. I have spoken informally with dozens of additional cheesemakers at farmers' markets, tasting events, and other public venues.
Although I always arranged appointments in advance, I never knew what to expect when I arrived for an interview. Often I was invited into a cheesemaker's home, where we would have a leisurely talk over a cup of coffee or a light lunch before touring the farm and/or cheesemaking facility. Other times I accompanied farmer-cheesemakers as they carried out their daily routine, scribbling notes as we talked, aware that the audio recording would be difficult to decipher over the rush of wind as we walked around a farm or the din of clanging metal and running water as cheese molds were washed. Always, it was instructive to see the facilities: Was the equipment cutting-edge or repurposed? Was the workspace designed with a picture window overlooking a cow pasture or tucked into the corner of a garage?
In the spring of 2004, I spent twelve days as a resident anthropologist at a sheep dairy farm in Westminster West, Vermont, sleeping in David Major's barn and helping to make and cure wheels of Vermont Shepherd cheese. Anthropologists call this mode of learning by doing-and more, by experiencing the quotidian instances and interactions of everyday life among those whose vocations and concerns we study-participant-observation. Sharing a barn bunkhouse with David's intern, no less than working alongside David in managing rotational grazing, delivering lambs, milking ewes, and culturing, molding, curing, and packaging cheese, provided invaluable access to the daily experiences of sheep dairy farming and cheesemaking. It also gave me a firsthand feeling for how milk becomes cheese-for the smooth touch of coagulated curd, for the warm humidity of the immersive environment of the cheese room, for the endless washing and sanitizing. In working on Major Farm and enrolling in several hands-on cheesemaking workshops in Vermont, I was becoming not so much a cheesemaker as an anthropologist of cheesemaking. My rudimentary experience in working with sheep and curd became invaluable to me when later conversing with cheesemakers as they struggled to convey the tacit knowledge of their craft.
Cheese is a material artifact, shaped by human craft. Like any artistic work, however, cheese is fabricated, packaged, and presented, and bestowed aesthetic value through the aggregate, if not always collaborative, efforts of numerous people. In addition to cheesemakers, these include office managers, equipment sales representatives, summer interns, specialty foods distributors, retailers, technical and business consultants, chefs, food writers, judges at cheese competitions, and consumers. I refer to this distributed community as the artisan cheese world. The American Cheese Society (ACS), a nonprofit organization founded in 1983 by a Cornell University dairy scientist to help develop and support artisanal cheese production, represents a significant slice of this world. With blue ribbons won at its annual competition translating into media attention and increased sales, the ACS has been instrumental in revising popular understandings of "American cheese." Its annual meetings provided a crucial venue for participant-observation, offering me unparalleled opportunity to learn about the concerns of and debates among people in the artisan cheese world, for instance: building facilities to government code, working with raw versus pasteurized milk, branding and trademarking, finding a market, and defining farmstead and artisanal, terms that help organize this emergent enterprise.I have attended four ACS meetings over a seven-year period (2005, 2007, 2008, 2011), allowing me to track cheesemakers' conversations-among themselves but also in dialogue with retailers and distributors as well as food-industry and dairy-science consultants-from coast to coast and from year to year.
This book tells stories about people who populate the world of American artisan cheese. My mode of analysis is to interpret these stories by offering multiple perspectives-including but not exclusively my own-on what it takes and what it means to make cheese artisanally. Because people's individual stories and perspectives are so central to this text, I have decided not to use pseudonyms. Although my analysis is informed by the composite of my research, I have had to be selective here in telling only the most vivid stories, or those that best represent conclusions I have drawn from years of research. I regret that I am unable to tell more stories of more people. Those persons named in this book have given approval for my use of attributed quotations from my interviews.
I should mention two additional research methods. First, there is eating. It was as a consumer that I first encountered and thought about American artisanal cheese, and I have continued to eat quite a lot of it. In shopping for and tasting cheese I have been able to discern producers gaining skill in their craft, apparent to me through greater consistency from one batch to the next as well as in the qualities of any particular wheel or wedge. I have watched retail prices rise. I have seen cheese varieties, and entire businesses, appear and disappear from the market.
Finally, in January and February 2009 I conducted an extensive, nationwide survey of artisan cheesemakers-the first social science survey of its kind-to provide a contextualizing data set on cheesemakers' ethnicity, age, gender, and household composition; educational background and occupational experience; land ownership and financing strategies; household income; and scale and profitability of business operations. I distributed the survey to 398 businesses, yielding 177 responses (a 45 percent response rate). The survey gathered additional data on how, when, and for what initial reasons people learned to make cheese; through what venues businesses market their cheese; whether farmstead operations also buy milk for cheesemaking; as well as other business-related matters. A report on survey results was sent to all survey participants as well as to the ACS and a few regional cheese organizations.
Although I did not set out to conduct a systematic regional comparison in my research, a few patterns emerged. In New England and California, where open pastureland is under threat of development, selling use rights to land trusts is a popular way to capitalize the expansion of cheesemaking facilities. In Wisconsin, where land is less at a premium, no one spoke of the need to preserve a "working landscape" (as they did in Vermont), nor did farmers sell development rights to land trusts; the story I heard there was that artisanal cheese provided a means of carrying into the future Wisconsin's "rural way of life." People, as farmers and artisans, were drawn in sharper relief in Wisconsin, while, rhetorically speaking, land and landscape were more fully in focus on the coasts. At the same time, the majority of New England's cheesemaking artisans are college graduates, often from elite schools, who have returned to family land with new class dispositions and business sensibilities or who have adopted a state like Vermont or Maine as a land of environmentally sound business opportunity. In Wisconsin, the only state that requires cheesemakers to be licensed through internship and examination, cheesemaking has been and continues to be a viable, visible profession. Here, where rural newcomers live and work alongside third-generation farmers and artisans, cheesemakers are said to exemplify a "midwestern work ethic" that was cited to me as frequently in Wisconsin as the "working landscape" was in Vermont.
A Note on Consumer Interest
Although this book focuses on the producers and production of cheese, a consumer market is essential to their projects. Ihsan Gurdal, whose Formaggio Kitchen in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, neighborhood where I live was the first cheese shop in the United States to install a French-style cheese "cave" for ripening cheeses, told me that from his perspective as a retailer, consumer interest in domestic cheese has piggybacked on broader consumption of European cheeses. This interest took off in the 1990s as a strong U.S. dollar and domestic economy encouraged Americans to travel to European cities and country inns where, Gurdal said, they "were exposed to cheese" and to the way Europeans eat cheese, as a discrete course in a meal. Meanwhile, he noted, people were beginning to realize that the eighties' "cholesterol scare was overdone." American diners requested that restaurants offer after-dinner cheese plates, and chefs were only too happy to oblige. Middle-class consumers have since flocked to educational and recreational cheese-tasting workshops held at restaurants, bars, and retail shops, just as they had begun exploring wine in the 1970s. Cheese is the new wine: a mark of educated good taste. Meanwhile, the low-carb diet craze of the early 2000s did even more for hedonistic cheese consumption than the news about good cholesterol. In 2004, a retailer at Formaggio Kitchen told me of new customers, people who had previously never thought of cheese as a food in its own right, walking in the door and announcing, "I'm on Atkins! Give me some cheese! Fat is no problem!"
If high-end cheese consumption is on the rise, how much of this market is dominated by European imports and how much is filled by domestic production? This turns out to be a difficult question to answer. There are no direct data available on production and sales volumes for U.S. artisanal cheese. State and federal statistics do not differentiate between artisanal and specialty cheese; "specialty" includes industrially fabricated cheeses of foreign origin (e.g., Feta, Asiago, Hispanic-style) as well as specially designed cheeses in limited supply (e.g., industrially made, waxed Cheddar cut to resemble the geographic outline of the state of Wisconsin). Furthermore, the U.S. National Agricultural Statistics Service declines to release production data on cheese made from goat's milk and sheep's milk; producers are so few, particularly at the high-volume end, that release of data might compromise proprietary information for the largest facilities. What can safely be said is that the market for domestically produced artisanal cheese continues to grow.
While the strong U.S. dollar of the 1990s spurred American consumption of European cheeses, the strong euro of the 2000s helped to widen the market for domestic cheeses. In Sonoma, California, I asked eighty-year-old Ignazio Vella, venerable second-generation maker of Vella Dry Jack, what he made of what was being called a domestic artisan renaissance. Leaning forward in his office chair, his customary, crisply folded paper hat cocked to one side, Ig Vella's eyes widened as he replied: "What has driven this has been the euro. The euro began to climb, and all of a sudden"-he lowered his voice to a mock-conspiratorial whisper-"cheese made in America wasn't bad at all! ... When the euro went up and is staying up, our cheese is good. That's your renaissance." Indeed, the last time the U.S. dollar exchanged at a higher rate than the euro occurred in the fall of 2002, just as Jasper Hill and so many other domestic cheese producers were preparing to enter the market. The weak dollar of the past decade brought the price of European cheeses, generously subsidized by state governments, up to the range of American prices. When European cheeses are not the comparative bargain they once were, a retailer confirmed, even the most Europhilic consumers are more willing to take a chance on American cheeses. But while heightened interest in sophisticated European cheeses may have helped open a market for domestic varieties, it also raised the bar. Another retailer suggested to me that increased sophistication might have made consumers "more suspicious" of American cheeses, not more curious about them. The American artisanal cheese industry has taken off amid increasing pressure to be good in another way-to produce high-quality cheese consistently.
Reinforced by the growth of farmers' markets and food-themed television programming, consumers are expressing an interest in learning about where their food comes from and how it is produced. The U.S. adoption of Slow Food, an organization begun in Italy to protect customary food-making knowledge and to cultivate in a new generation a taste for "traditional" foods enjoyed in convivial settings, is symptomatic of such interest. While Slow Food in Europe has been a producer-driven initiative, Slow Food U.S.A. has been consumer and retailer-driven. Locally sourced foods are à la mode. Cheese, another retailer said to me, is becoming "the darling of chefs," citing a restaurant fad of featuring "one perfect cheese" if not a wide cheese selection; with broader emphasis on regional produce, more featured cheeses are produced domestically. Since New York Times writer Marian Burros named Mateo Kehler (shortly after my initial visit to Jasper Hill) the "rock star of the cheese world," the Kehlers and a handful of other cheesemakers (and their cheeses) have appeared on Good Morning America and The Martha Stewart Show and in the pages not only of gourmet food magazines but also of GQ and Details. It would not be surprising if such attention influenced producers' own hierarchy of values.
The chapters of this book unfold the stories of particular cheesemakers while developing a set of arguments. Chapters 2 and 3 concentrate on the people behind the artisan resurgence that began on the coasts in the 1980s and spread inward across the country, while chapter 4 settles in Wisconsin and provides a historical overview of American cheesemaking since colonial times, bringing into view artisan factories, some still in operation, that long predate today's post-pastoralists. Chapters 5 and 6 draw from science and technology studies to analyze the craft practice and regulatory conditions of commercial cheesemaking. Chapters 7 and 8 situate artisanal cheese production and consumption within contemporary agricultural and food politics.
Chapter 2, "Ecologies of Production," draws from my stay on David Major's farm to detail what goes into producing cheese and to analyze how producers draw meaning from that labor. Vermont Shepherd cheese's farm-based ecology of production includes the pasture grasses, sheep, and microorganisms that contribute to the development of the cheese and its sensory qualities. In telling and selling a story of how cheese is made on a farm, cheesemakers depict livestock and microorganisms as sorts of co-laborers, a move that reflects an appreciation for their animals and the organic agencies of fermentation and cheese ripening. Because commercial stakes are involved, however, which particular properties of farm-based production should be considered value-enhancing is a matter of debate carried out over the meaning of "farmstead" cheese.
If chapter 2 examines "the life of cheese" in an ecological sense, chapter 3, "Economies of Sentiment," zeroes in on the life of cheese as a vocation for those who pursue cheesemaking commercially. It begins by surveying the motivations and goals that have led a variety of people to start artisan cheesemaking businesses. It then shows how, in price setting, marketing, and calibrating business growth, rural entrepreneurs struggle to reconcile their principles and pragmatic needs in ensuring that their enterprises are both personally fulfilling and financially viable.
Chapter 4, "Traditions of Invention," retraces the history of cheesemaking in the United States to argue that continuities in artisanal fabrication methods between factory and farmstead creameries are obscured by changes in the organization and significance of artisanal production. Juxtaposing the artisanal practices and sensibilities of third-generation factory cheesemakers in Wisconsin and first-generation farmstead producers in Vermont, I show how cheesemakers in this country continually reinvent an American tradition of entrepreneurial innovation.
Chapter 5, "The Art and Science of Craft," investigates what makes artisanal cheese artisanal. In contrast to industrial cheesemaking, which begins with standardized ingredients and hypersterile conditions to produce an utterly consistent product, artisan cheesemakers adjust their method to work with rather than against seasonal and climatic variations in milk that affect fermentation and coagulation as well as the color and flavor of cheese. What distinguishes a cheese as artisanal is the synesthetic reason of the artisan, engaging her senses to evaluate the empirical conditions and behavior of curd as it forms in the vat and matures in a wheel of cheese. I unpack the significance of the fact that cheesemakers speak of this skill not as a craft but rather as a balance between art and science.
Chapter 6, "Microbiopolitics," considers the regulatory dimension of food production. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration views raw-milk cheese as a biohazard, potentially riddled with pathogenic microbes, many artisans and consumers see it as a traditional food processed for safety by the action of beneficial microbes that can outcompete "bad bugs" that may be lurking in milk or can settle on the surface of an aging cheese. Revisiting ecologies of production at a microscopic scale, I develop the concept of microbiopolitics to analyze how farmers, cheesemakers, food microbiologists, safety regulators, retailers, and consumers work variously to reconcile Pasteurian (hygienic) and post-Pasteurian (probiotic) attitudes about the microbial agents at the heart of cheese.
Chapter 7, "Place, Taste, and the Promise of Terroir," revisits the theme of value creation by investigating American experiments in translating for American cheese the French notion of terroir, which links the taste of comestibles to the geographical and geological features of agricultural lands. While some cheesemakers describe distinctive relations among land, climate, cheese type, and flavor, others work in a more avowedly constructivist and, indeed, American, register, invoking terroir to speak to the instrumental values of artisanal production. To many, artisanal cheese has the potential to revitalize agricultural landscapes, reinvigorate rural economies, and even create new places. Through the vocabulary of terroir, producers seek to concretize their visions of the value of handcrafted-and handcrafting-cheese.
In a brief conclusion, chapter 8, "Bellwether," meditates on what artisanal cheese might suggest about the future of agricultural practice and food politics in the United States.