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Susan Prokop, left, and Mariann Fessenden, of Tumino Cheese Company, finish putting cheese into molds at the food science pilot plant in Stocking Hall.

Cheesemakers savor Cornell’s dairy incubator expertise

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Lindsey Hadlock

Elisa Tumino Van Amburgh thoroughly washes equipment at Stocking Hall.

Sarah Van Orden-Morrow ’01, M.S. ’03 stood in her Crosswinds Creamery booth at the Ithaca Farmers Market facing a steady stream of patrons. Plates featured cubes of her Butternut, Goblin and Rose’s Reserve Alpine-style cheeses.

“Please have a sample,” Van Orden-Morrow said.

“Thank you,” replied a smiling lady. “I have a sample every week. It’s delicious.”

Crosswinds Creamery in Ovid, New York, briskly sells their artisan cheese throughout the Finger Lakes region down to New York City. After fine-tuning the recipes and procedures, the company graduated a few years ago from the cheese and dairy business incubator program at the Cornell Food Processing Development Laboratory.

Cornell’s dairy business incubator provides long-term support and develops companies’ expertise in cheese marketing, dairy processing and building markets, said Rob Ralyea, M.S. '98, Cornell senior extension associate, who directs the incubator.

“It’s highly difficult to get a cheese or dairy company started. Equipment, obtaining land and building a plant is expensive,” Ralyea said.

He said the incubator gives participants information on food safety, regulations and production. It also helps to tweak recipes, identify distribution resources and provide marketing expertise.

“The nice thing about the incubator program is that participants get to experience the business before they go full-in,” Ralyea said. “It’s hard to have someone just buy a cheese plant and start doing things from the get-go. We’re nurturing young companies.”

For Crosswinds, the incubator helped to refine their Alpine cheeses. “It was a good opportunity to tweak our recipes,” said Van Orden-Morrow, who worked with Aljosa Trmcic, a former Cornell postdoctoral researcher and food safety expert.

Startup business Tumino Cheese Co. in King Ferry, New York – which specializes in fresh and hard cheeses typically found in northern Italy – is now an incubator participant.

Elisa Tumino-Van Amburgh ’12 said she and her partners, Sue Prokop and Mariann Fessenden ’84, come from dairy families. “We knew a lot, but we didn’t know everything,” Tumino said. “The incubator really helped us with learning food safety and teaching us about regulation. We had to learn about sanitation and how to clean the equipment. We were trained for personal safety and for the safety of the product.”

Tumino Cheese does not press cheese curd, as the curd goes into a passive mold that allows the whey to drain. “It’s a gentle pressing. We want the cheese to have a soft and elastic curd consistency, and not a lot of cheesemakers produce this in the United States,” said Tumino. “It’s a lot of manual work, but it gives us a delicious artisan-style cheese.”

Their cheese offerings include: Razzle’s Choice, which features red pepper flakes that brings about a saffron hue; Primo Sale (pronounced SAH-lay) – meaning “first salt” – a creamy-white, melt-in-your-mouth, rindless fresh cheese made from Jersey cow milk; and Old Grey Mare, which has a buttery brie flavor. For each cheese, the company has food safety protocols and procedures to keep track of pH and temperatures.

Cornell’s incubator helps make small dairy companies successful earlier, Ralyea said.

“The cheesemakers grow, start hiring and the companies make a New York state product,” he said. “We’re promoting New York agriculture and this is Cornell’s land-grant mission. For the incubation of dairy processing companies, we’re open for business.”