Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Oregon cheese maker earns awards — and customers

As competition increases at national cheese award competitions, an Oregon-based, family run cheese company has earned an impressive slice of kudos from their peers.

The Willamette Valley Cheese Company, run by Rod and Melissa Volbeda near Salem, earned six awards recently, against 1,208 other entries at the American Cheese Society competition in Burlington, Vt. The competition is the largest in the nation for cheeses.

The awards they won were: first places for their Farmstead Gouda and Perrydale cheeses; second places for their Cumin Gouda, Spring Valley Brie and Queso Fresco; and third place for their Smoked Gouda.

This isn’t the first time they have won. Last year they won five national awards for their cheeses, against a field of more than 900 cheeses entered at the American Cheese Society competition.

When they won last year, they had little time to celebrate: a day later, on one of the hottest days of the year, the Volbedas welcomed to their farm a busload of agricultural communicators from across the country.

While the temperature climbed to almost 100 degrees, they kept their cool. The tour stop for the people who attended the Ag Media Summit demonstrated how the Volbedas can comfortably handle pressure but also how well they can market themselves in a competitive environment.

The Volbeda farm served as a good example of what a family has done to make their entire business model be one of the most successful ones around. They’ve made choices about their herd and production practices, while at the same time successfully developing winning ways to make their cheeses. They identified their market, and helped develop effective marketing strategies so their cheeses have become well-known in the Willamette Valley of Oregon and beyond.

They also showed patience in developing their business until they felt the time, their experience and the market was right for them.

Rod Voldeba received his degree in food science from Oregon State University in 1989, then apprenticed with three different cheese masters in Holland. He worked on quality assurance work for a national cheese company, and continued to plan on how to make and sell cheese.

In 1993, he and Melissa bought a Holstein dairy farm near Salem. Two years later they bought used equipment to begin making cheese in their basement. The next year they took cheesemaking courses in California and Washington. In 1997, they decided to increase butterfat and protein in their herd, so they bought Jersey cows. Two years later they built a cheese room on their farm, and in 2002 began making Gouda and Havarti cheese.

Their patience shows how they wanted to ensure they create not just a business, but strived to be one of the best. In 2003, 10 years after they first bought milk cows, the Voldebas began to market their cheese, and three years later added a packaging room to their business.

By 2005, they won two blue ribbons and a second place one for their cheeses from the American Cheese Society competition — the only Oregon cheese maker to place that year.

In 2006 they made more changes, adding sheep’s milk cheese to their line of more than 20 varieties of cow’s milk cheese. They also earned organic certification for their farm and Jersey cows.

The cheese company now has its products in more than 40 stories and also sells at farmers’ markets in Salem, McMinnville, Lake Oswego, Beaverton and Portland. To help avoid shipping costs, especially as the price of fuel rose, 90 percent of their cheese is sold in Washington and Oregon, and along the I-5 corridor.

One of the ways the family has earned respect for its products is by winning awards at prestigious competitions when they compete against some of the best cheese makers in the world. How important is it to win awards?

Asked about it last year in an interview, Rod Volbeda replied, “For us, the importance of entering a contest like this one is two-fold. First, we really like to hear what the judges have to say about all of our entries. They provide incredible remarks and feedback, which is invaluable when we return to our cheesemaking room at home. And, secondly, it helps in our marketing efforts, no doubt. Awards definitely influence retailers and consumers' purchasing decisions.”

When asked last year what helped him make these award-winning cheeses, he explained: “Milk is the main ingredient in cheese and we know exactly where ours comes from — right from the cows on our farm. It is composed of high butterfat and high protein; it never sees a third person and we’re responsible for gently handling it every step along the way. It truly is farm fresh in every way.”

On their website, they play up the freshness of the milk, but also how well-treated their cows are, and the healthiness of their production methods. Their website creates a sensory connection with consumers as it begins with “It’s sunrise at Volbeda Farms. The creek runs cold and clear in the countryside surrounding Salem, Oregon. Rod & Melissa Volbeda’s jersey cows are enjoying a breakfast of home-grown, fresh forage.”

The Volbedas added on the site that their “philosophical approach to farming includes the practice of environmental sustainability.” They explained they fertilize pastures and crops “with nutrient-rich compost and never use herbicides or pesticides” and that “cows are not treated with hormones or antibiotics. The surrounding pastures and production plant at Willamette Valley Cheese Company are certified organic.”

And if that didn’t get the customers, the website adds: “Their cheese making operation focuses on quality, not quantity. That may be old-fashioned, but the Volbedas care about their customers and never rush to market with products that don’t meet their stringent standards for freshness and flavor.”

For the Voldebas, the investment of time, changes to their dairy herd and production practices, increase in cheese making skills, and smart marketing to consumers have paid off.

While ribbons are nice, it has been their connection to the consumers at the regional level in farmers’ markets, stores and restaurants that has made them the real winner in the cheese business.

(See the full list of winners from the American Cheese Society's 2007 competition at this link to a pdf file, including other West Coast cheesemakers.)

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