Friends of Farming
San Diego County
You’ve heard it said that things come and go in cycles; that observation holds true in agriculture too. San Diego County was once home to hundreds of vineyards which disappeared with prohibition and are now returning to the landscape. Now, Van Ommering Dairy is bringing something old back to San Diego County, and it’s been gone so long it feels new again: local cheese.
San Diego County was once peppered with dairies - historically, nearly two hundred of them - supplying fresh milk and dairy products. With time came changes in regulations, the environment, the economy, and milk pricing, and dairies disappeared. One at a time they sold their cows or moved north where land and water was cheaper.
“What made them go away was economies of scale in San Diego,” explains Dave Van Ommering, who operates the dairy in partnership with his brother, Robert. “It doesn’t make economic sense to stay in the area from a feed growing point of view. Bigger farms have acreage to grow feed for their cows.” Van Ommering Dairy has not stayed in business because of the amount of land the dairy sits on, but because of new ideas and diversification.
Dave and his brother supplement feed for their approximately 400 cows with what grass they can grow on five acres at the dairy, and with spent brewery grain from Coronado Brewing Company. Alongside diverting one industry’s waste into feed for the cows, the biggest boost to Van Ommering Dairy has been agritourism. “Brenda and I draw income from agritourism, and my brother gets the dairy farm income. Diversification has allowed us to stay in business. It’s what keeps us going. We would not be in business any more without it.” Dave and Brenda give dairy tours throughout the year to the public and school groups. They also operate seasonal pumpkin and Christmas tree patches which have grown to draw thousands of visitors each year.
Those visitors and the dollars they brought with them to the farm, kept the idea of a creamery always on Dave and Robert’s minds. “Visitors to the farm want to buy a product. We saw that a natural way to get more income from the family farm is to produce cheese. We’ve been working for the last 12 years to try and start a creamery,” says Dave. “Now, it’s just one of those things where the timing has worked out for us. We knew we needed to start something. The dairy cows just weren’t enough income for our family. We want to ride this wave of consumers wanting to buy local.”
John Hicks was trained as a brewer and worked as a winemaker in Temecula for four years, but has always been fascinated with fermentation, brewing, and winemaking. Hicks worked a brief stint in biotech but, “I was looking for something next. I started making cheese at home in my kitchen and my friends really liked it. I really loved the whole aspect, working with fermentation and that whole process. I didn’t want to go back into wine or brewing, and cheese making was a natural fit,” he says.
To make cheese Hicks needed a steady supply of milk, and that was hard to come by. “I worked briefly with a goat dairy in Ontario, but that wasn’t a long term solution. I drove out to Van Ommering Dairy one day and started talking with Dave. He said they were interested but didn’t have the resources to get a cheese making business off the ground. We started talking about what we could each bring to the table, and what we could provide in terms of how a partnership would work out. Those talks continued and finally we got together and made a commitment to go forward with it. It was about July 2014 that we decided to go in a make a financial commitment.”
Van Ommering and Hicks submitted plans for a cheese making facility to the county early in March, and have already secured a director’s determination from the county planning office that will allow them to make cheese at the dairy property so long as there are no retail sales on site, and cheese can only be made from milk produced at Van Ommering Dairy. San Diego County planning and development staff is currently reworking portions of the county code that pertains to agriculture. Hicks hopes changes may come that will allow them to sell cheese on site in the not too distant future. For the initial marketing effort, says Hicks, “We plan to sell at farmers markets, and we’ve talked to retailers like Venissimo Cheese, and four or five other outlets in San Diego. We’d like to get into specialty grocery stores. We will really concentrate heavily on San Diego first and build a good mass of business here. We will try to get into local restaurants that offer a good cheese board, and that highlight locally grown foods. It’s a little tough for us because there’s a good amount of people who visit the farm, but we’ve just got to stick with our marketing plans until we can get the ag code changed.”
Hicks and Van Ommering have drawn up two scenarios dependent on financing: one that would allow them to make 35,000 lbs of cheese a year and the other about 96,000 lbs, running five batches a week. Consultants agree that by year five 100,000 lbs of cheese a year is reasonable. Planned offerings include a triple cream brie, manchego, cheddars, and eventually gouda. “The main consideration of a startup is what’s going to help with cash flow. We can’t afford to do a two year aging of cheddar or gouda at the front end,” explains Hicks. “Initially it will be mostly cheeses that we can make and sell quickly.”
Friends of Farming San Diego County 1670 E. Valley Parkway, Escondido, CA 92027 760-745-3023 Casey@sdfarmbureau.org