Farmers tap popularity of artisan-quality products to grow niche markets

Sonoma County is becoming a leader in the production of artisan cheeses as more and more dairy farmers move from the commodity milk market to specialized, value-added products.

Agricultural leaders say dairy farmers are taking a cue from grape growers, creating high-value, top-quality products with a Sonoma County appellation.

"Sonoma County is experiencing a growth in specialty cheeses because the region produces such high quality milk. The region's reputation for quality is attracting cheese makers who want to produce cheeses with flavor and it's encouraging farmers to take their milk from the farm to the table," said Sheana Davis of The Epicurean Connection, a Sonoma-based cheese marketing company.

The artisan cheeses are adding to Sonoma County's reputation as the specialty food basket of the San Francisco Bay Area. Growers on small-scale farms are producing tree-ripened fruits and baby vegetables for markets throughout the North Coast. Grass-fed beef, free-range chickens and trademarked CK lamb add to the county's agricultural diversity.

"Growers who concentrate on specialized and value-added products seem to be recreating a market that was popular a century ago when personal contact and regional identity were commonplace due to transportation and refrigeration constraints," said Ellie Rilla of the UC Cooperative Extension in Marin County.

Agricultural officials said specialty markets are the future of Sonoma County's $3 billion agricultural industry.

"Coupled with competition from abroad, Sonoma County farmers will have to continually rely more on specialty niche markets and creative marketing to stay ahead of their neighbor," said Lex McCorvey, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau, the county's largest agricultural organization.

Davis of The Epicurean Connection said it's not just cow's milk that is gilding Sonoma County's reputation for specialty cheeses. Sheep and goats' milk cheeses also are earning the praise of chefs around the country.

The move to specialty cheeses is testament to the will and resilience of farmers determined to keep cows, sheep and goats part of Sonoma County's agricultural landscape. Although wine grapes drive the agricultural economy in Sonoma County, some farmers aren't ready to give up their Jerseys for chardonnay.

"I bought this creamery so we can keep agriculture and cows part of Sonoma County for the next three or four generations. It's a big risk but it's worth the risk to keep our dairies," said dairy farmer Larry Peter, who last year bought Petaluma's 92-year-old creamery from Dairy Farmers of America, a Kansas City, Mo.-based cooperative.

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