Organic dairy family turns to cheese making

[caption id="attachment_22970" align="alignright" width="360" caption="The Lafranchi siblings surround Mrs. Lafranchi, with their Swiss consulting cheese maker and his wife in the foreground."][/caption]

West Marin milk producer looks for stable source of revenue in new venture

WEST MARIN COUNTY – Seeking relief from wildly fluctuating milk prices, another organic dairy family has turned to cheese making.

Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. is a brand-new operation, but the idea had a long maturation period, according to co-owner Rick Lafranchi.

"My brothers and sisters and I have been thinking of making cheese for over thirty years, ever since some of us visited the Swiss village our grandparents left 100 years ago," he said.

Plummeting milk prices steered the Lafranchis to switch to organic operations five years ago, but the roller coaster ride continued to keep the family in doubt about whether it could keep the 1,100-acre, 400-cow operating going.

"To give you an idea, the price of a hundredweight of milk in 1946 was $6, or a market value of $46, and it's been going down ever since. Last year [the market value] was $10," said Mr. Lafranchi.

In 2007 five of the six siblings returned to Maggia in Switzerland and got seriously into cheese under a local expert, who they invited to come out and help them get started in their own operation.

He arrived in January of this year, and one month later the first Nicasio cheeses appeared at farmers markets. Since then distributors have placed the family's four organic cow's milk cheeses in Whole Foods, Oliver's Market, Mollie Stone's and other upscale markets all over the Bay Area.

Foggy Morning is a fresh, fromage blanc-like farmer's cheese, long in flavor. Formagella is a Swiss-Italian bloomy rind cheese similar to Camembert. Nicasio Square is a creamy, tangy Taleggio-like cheese; and Black Mountain is a firm, traditional mountain cheese, which can take a couple of years of aging.

Consumers of these newborn cheeses are enthusiastic. One Yelp contributor who found the place by accident commented on how well it fit the area; another liked the observation window into the cheese-making operation.

"It's too soon to talk about revenues, but we expect to make a profit," said Mr. Lafranchi.

[caption id="attachment_22971" align="alignleft" width="360" caption="Some of the Lafranchi's 400 happy cows munch on coastal grasses."][/caption]

About 10 percent of the milk produced on the ranch currently goes into the cheese-making operation, which takes place on site from mixing, aging and packaging to retail sales. The family sells the remainder of its organic milk to Clover Stornetta.

With the exception of one sister, Kim, a silent partner who lives out of state, the ranch and Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. are operated by the Lafranchi siblings.

Randy Lafranchi tends the dairy and acts as backup cheese maker, Scott Lafranchi is head cheese maker and Rick Lafranchi does the sales and marketing.

Janice and Dianne take care of retail and farmers markets: Marin Market, Fort Mason on Sunday and the Davis market on Saturdays.

Western Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties have developed a reputation for artisan cheese.

"Most of the large dairy operations have moved down to the Central Valley, although at one time Marin supplied most of the dairy products for the Bay Area," said Mr. Lafranchi.

North county dairymen credit the local climate and the grasses it fosters with the special quality of their animals' milk.

Cowgirl Creamery, Marin French Cheese, Redwood Hill Farms, Cypress Grove Chevre and Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese are some of the North Bay producers touting the benefits of their coastal locale.

"Even with the temporary help of our Swiss expert, we never could have gotten this operation running without the community of cheese makers," he said.

"You'd think they wouldn't welcome another cheese maker in the area, but just the opposite was the case. It's a great group to be a part of."

For more information, visit Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. at 5300 Nicasio Valley Road or call 415-662-6200. The company will have a website soon.

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