STARKVILLE – If you’re one of the people “in the know’” about the cheese produced by Mississippi State University, you undoubtedly have your order in for this Christmas already. No? Better get going – you may not be able to get any edam, cheddar or other kind if you wait too late.
“Last year we sold out about the last week of October,” said Gloria Reed, sales office manager. “I really expect to sell out sooner than that this year.”
Reed said that Christmas orders have been selling out earlier and earlier each year. Since the facility can make only so much cheese, once the orders are filled, no more can be produced.
This year, MSU expects to process orders for 117,000 balls, blocks and tubs of cheese. The most popular, Reed said, is the edam. “We sell more edam than anything else. If you’re giving a gift, $14 is not that bad. But somebody who’s buying it themselves – a lot of times – they’ll buy a cheddar. It’s easy to cut and everything. But edam is the biggest seller.”
PRODUCTION CONTINUES THROUGHOUT YEAR
“We make cheese every day because it has to age. We do have cheese every day, up until about the first of November, that you can come in and purchase over the counter in the sales office. But November the first we’re sold out with Christmas orders and things that have been reserved.”
Sales for this year, by orders of type of cheese, are impressive: 48,000 edam, 45,000 cheddar, 2,000 reduced-fat edam, 7,500 vallagret, 7500 pepper blocks, 3,500 pepper spreads and 3,500 cheddar spreads.
David Hall, dairy plant manager, explained that although the production is continuous, it disappears fast. “We make cheese year-round, but get rid of 80% of it in a three-month span. It’s a lot of cheese for an operation as small as we are.”
AGING THE CHEESE
It’s the aging of the cheese, Hall said, that is crucial to making good-tasting cheese. “There’s a pretty wide variety of aging time. We age our cheese a minimum of three months, but realistically, it ages anywhere from three months to nine months. The aging is where you’re getting your flavor. If you just got some that we’re making today, it wouldn’t taste like anything. The longer it ages, the sharper a cheese you’re going to have. That’s the reason sharper cheese is more expensive. The company has to warehouse it for that much longer.”
And Hall feels that the aging of MSU cheese makes it better than some. “That’s what makes our cheese a little bit better than what you’ll buy in the supermarket.”
By the sales figures, customers agree with Hall’s assessment. “We’re making all we can do, and we’ll pretty much sell out every year. We’ll have to turn people down. I think some of us here feel like it’s a good situation to have people turned down. When you’ve got a good demand, people know that they’ve got to get out there early to get their orders in. It’s good to have a bigger demand than you do supply. And it gives it a little prestige – somebody knows that if they want some Mississippi State cheese, they have to get out there and place their order in September or August for cheese this Christmas.”
THE CHEESE-MAKING PROCESS
Hall’s description of the cheese production is deceptively simple. After the cows are milked, the milk is put into vats.
“We’ll have cheese in seven or eight hours,” Hall said. “But it’s not what most people think of as cheese. It hasn’t aged yet. Depending on what type of cheese it’s going to be, it goes through a couple of different processes. If it’s going to be the edam, our most famous cheese, we put it into a mold that makes it into the round ball. Then we press it in a hydraulic press for a certain amount of time – a few hours. Then we’ll take it out of there, the same day that we made it, and we’ll put it in brine or salt solution, and hold it there for 48 hours. Then we let it dry for 24 hours, then we wax and bag it and store it.”
Despite the increased demand and Christmas rush, there are currently no plans to expand production capability, Reed said.
“We’ve increased production several times. We’ve expanded a couple of times, and it’s getting back up to that point where we’re selling out sooner and sooner each year. With the facilities we have now, it’s going to be hard to expand again until we enlarge, and I don’t know where we’d go. We just don’t have the capabilities now. I don’t foresee it.”
One of the factors in the production is the supply of milk. Most of the milk comes from Mississippi State’s dairy herd, but not all of it, Hall said.
“Every drop that they have, we use. When we get in the season that we’re in right now, late summer, the milk supply gets kind of short, production drops due to the heat. Two or three months of the year we have to buy a little bit of outside milk. Right now, we’re picking up some milk that is still Mississippi State milk, it’s just at one of the experiment branch stations in Newton.”
STUDENTS LEARN AND EARN
Of course, this is a university project, so students are involved whenever possible. The cows are tended in part by students in the Animal and Dairy Science Department, who use the opportunity to gain (pardon the puns) hands-on field experience.
The dairy plant, however, is primarily run by employees.
“We have a staff of five full-time employees, who are not students,” Hall said. “Right now I’ve got seven part-time people lined up for this semester. This is when we’ll go through and box up all 40,000-80,000 cheeses. It’s a manual operation, and we’ll set up an assembly line. We’ll use a lot more students this semester than we will in the spring and the summer. But still, we’ll use two or three during the spring semester and during the summer. We give the opportunities to the food science students first. If we don’t have enough there, then there’s beau coup students that come through here that I have to turn down for jobs. Even if we’ve got more workers than we really need, we’ll work the food science students in. All this equipment is just like they’ll see in the real world. It helps a whole lot. I know because I’ve done it. I graduated here and been out in the business for about 10 years, and it’s a lot of help to them.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Kim M. Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
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