Monday, June 7, 2010

Cheese economics

Leah took four five pound wheels of cheese to a local horse show last week, along with some hand-made pottery and homemade jellies and jams. She sold all the cheese (please don’t put my wife in jail), and about 2 dozen jars of jam. She also sold a couple of nice pieces of pottery. She came home with almost $600.

So this morning while sitting under a cow, milking, I started doing some math to occupy my mind. It takes four gallons of Jersey milk to make a five pound block of cheese (more if you’re milking a Holstein). I’m also raising calves on my cow, so I only milk once a day. I get about two gallons per cow out of the deal.

A sack of feed costs just over $5: quite a bargain, absolutely dependent on cheap fossil fuel and mechanization to produce at this cost. The feed is nothing but ground Monsanto genetically modified corn, and cotton seed hulls produced from Monsanto genetically modified cotton seed, with a bit of cottonseed meal, salt and trace minerals. Two cows won’t consume a whole sack, so I’ll figure the cost at $4.

The cows get pasture, but that pasture doesn’t come free. There's fertizler, weed spray, etc. I also feed them a bale a day of hay grazer (sorghum type hay) that sells for about $5/bale, once again, totally dependent on fossil fuel powered machinery. It’d cost more if the work had to be done by hand. Much more. I raise my own hay, so I’ll be more than fair and say the cost of pasture and hay combined is $5.

I use a bit of fly spray on the cows, hot water and soap to disinfect the milk pails, funnels, etc, used in handling the milk. We buy cheese cloth to strain the milk and also to make the cheese. There’s the cost of culture and rennet. And there’s the energy cost of refrigeration, also totally dependent on electricity generated by fossil fuels. Being generous, let’s say all of this adds up to $3/day (it’s more, but by God, I've got to make this work, so I'm going with the low number).

So, I have $12 in direct expenses involved in the process, per day. Not including taxes or the cost of the land, of course, but who gives a shit about all of that.

The entire process of milking the cows, from prep work to straining of the milk takes me two hours. I have to catch the cows, spray them for flies, wash their udders, feed them and squeeze out the milk. Pour the milk for the milk pail into a larger milk can, carry the milk back to the house, strain the milk, clean the pail and the can, etc. Leah often takes over on the straining, but the time is spent, one way or the other.

While we drink raw milk, we discovered it’s better to pasteurize the milk before making cheese. We’ve made it from raw milk, but raw milk cheese must be consumed immediately or aged a minimum of 60 days to ensure that no bad bacteria survive the process. Leah has to heat the milk, then cool it rapidly. This takes about a half an hour; she spends a good portion of that time standing above a pot in a sink full of cool water stirring to cool the milk to exactly 90 degrees. Then she adds culture to the cheese and waits 45 minutes. She adds rennet and waits another 45 minutes. The milk must remain at 90 degrees for this entire period. Exactly 90 degrees. She cuts the curds, then she places the pot into a sink full of moderately hot water and gently stirs the curds. The process varies from this point forward, depending on the kind of cheese she’s making. For something like cheddar, there’s quite a bit of work left to do, but for fresh cheese like that she sold at the horse show, this takes about an hour and a half. The temperature of the curds and whey must gradually be raised to 100 degrees during this process. Go over 102 degrees and you’ll probably ruin the cheese.

Then she has to drain the whey from the curds and pack this into a cheese press. The cheese has to be turned a couple of times, removed from the press and refrigerated.

No way you’re doing this in less than 3 hours. Truth is, by the time all is said and done, it’s more like 4 hours, scattered over an entire day.

Leah quartered the cheese, meaning each block weighed a pound and a quarter. She sold each chunk for $6. So we grossed $24 for a day’s worth of cheese.

Less $12 in expenses, gives us a profit of $12.

We have 6 hours of labor invested. So we have earned $2/hour, assuming you drive out to our place to buy the cheese. Delivery to market cuts into that profit quite significantly but she was going to the horse show anyway.

Hell, we’re making a profit. Guess I ought to go spend another $1,400 on an additional cow….

For what it's worth, the pottery, the jelly and the produce I raise in our garden all have similar profit margins.

No comments:

Post a Comment