Extension offers online tools for small-scale cheese-makers

UNIVERSITY PARK — When it comes to artisanal cheese-making, Pennsylvania is not Vermont, concedes Kerry Kaylegian, but the dairy foods Extension specialist in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences is doing what she can to put the Keystone State on the cheese-making map.

The commonwealth has about 50 small-scale cheese-making operations — many that often turn out high quality cheese with distinctive tastes — Kaylegian noted, but most struggle with achieving product consistency. So she developed the “Penn State Cheese Tracking System” to guide them.

Funded by a grant from the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the system consists of customizable documents and spreadsheets to record, track and evaluate data for milk composition and quality, the cheese-making process, processing after the initial cheese-making day, cheese chemical composition, and cheese sensory characteristics.

The Penn State Cheese Tracking System is designed to help small-scale cheese-makers follow and document the quality and consistency of their cheese, said Kaylegian, who judges national cheese contests and was instrumental in starting an annual cheese contest four years ago at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg.

“By defining and monitoring measurable parameters, cheese-makers can understand how variation in raw materials and processes can impact the sensory characteristics and quality of their cheese,” she said. “This information can help them adjust their practices to consistently make better cheese.”

Kaylegian, who has conducted dairy research for nearly three decades, said she and Penn State Extension are trying to help small-farmstead cheese-makers because they often lack the personnel and resources to track important information related to production. The two or three people who work in a small cheese plant may also be running a small dairy farm, she explained.

“Sometimes they don’t have the time to put together a cheese quality system that you might see in a bigger company. The smaller cheese-makers don’t have a production department, a quality department, and a research and development department — in the smaller operations you have a few people doing everything,” she said “They produce a poor batch of cheese — or an exceptional batch — and they may not be sure exactly how they did it. I realized that there are a lot of things that I took for granted about cheese-making in working with some of the bigger companies that these guys just do not have time to record.”

Kaylegian worked with three small-scale cheese-making operations to develop the Penn State Cheese Tracking System. She thanked Birchrun Hills Farm, Caputo Brothers Creamery and Hidden Hills Dairy for their participation in the study that led to the system, which was presented during the 2017 American Cheese Society conference in Denver. Lisa Caprera, who graduated with a degree in food science earlier this year, also was involved in the research.

The system was created using Microsoft Word and Excel to provide templates that can be customized by each cheese-maker based on his or her needs. The formats of the templates vary depending on their purpose. Some of the Excel worksheets contain columns that automatically calculate measurements of interest, and some have tables that automatically create graphs to aid in visualizing data trends.

The Penn State Cheese Tracking System can be found online at https://extension.psu.edu/cheese-tracking-system.

A variety of online, noncredit courses for the public recently have been unveiled on Penn State Extension’s new website, https://extension.psu.edu, which provides a wealth of educational experiences and resources for the professionals and community members served by Extension. The new web experience allows consumers to access educational articles, videos, online courses and publications at their convenience, and to register for regional, in-person workshops and online webinars on a variety of subjects.