California Artisan Cheese Guild
Michael Salzman, Scholarship Recipient
Post-Conference Essay – ACS Conference Scholarship 2018
It was my honor to accept the California Artisan Cheese Guild’s 2018 American Cheese Society Conference Scholarship and Travel Stipend. I am very grateful to the Guild’s Scholarship Committee for their time and consideration in reviewing the applicants’ submission materials and selecting me for the scholarship, and to our Guild Executive Director and Treasurer for coordinating the process. I am also grateful to the company which I work for, Sierra Cheese Manufacturing Company, for agreeing with me that attending the conference is time away from production well spent. To those future scholarship applicants, my advice is to book a hotel room well in advance of the scholarship deadline—you can always cancel it later; and of course, seize every opportunity to meet people and make new contacts at ACS.
At the conference, I attended several panel discussions mostly on topics central to the mission that I described in my scholarship application essay, the topics of sales and operations. I heard leaders speak from varied supply chain perspectives on launching new products, conveying our message to consumers, and tips for keeping the distributors happy. I also heard industry-leader insight on the roles of the sales manager in making sense of new sales avenues beyond the brick and mortar stores that can reach new customers and grow sales, or not. Such avenues included club programs, online giant retailers and the subsequent drop-shipping sector, higher service models, and more traditional ones like farmers markets. I met with a trademark expert, I reveled in tasting amazing cheeses and talking with their makers at Meet the Cheesemaker and the Festival of Cheeses. I toured a commercial bakery that supports heritage grain producers and active yeast fermentation; an olive importer and Italian foods producer who wants to develop marketing partnerships with cheese manufactures (think whole-cheeseboard product marketing); and a new cidery whose mission is to foster local cultivation of cider-bound apple varieties. Seeing their operations and hearing the business owners talk about their passion and challenges was like a reflection of what we often express in the cheese industry and it reminded me how important it is to connect with other artisan food producers and retailers to share and celebrate what we are doing. The awards ceremony proved to be the emotional and professional zenith of the conference, and while I sat in the California cheering section and waved the bear flag every time a California cheese won an award, I also smiled and clapped, as did many Californos, in support and cheer of many cheesemakers from across the country. That is the comradery and mutual support displayed via friendly competitiveness that brings us together—beyond the conspicuous tension of competition for sales and rumors of copy-catting, it remains true that what’s good for one is good for all in this industry and it is important to celebrate that together, congratulate winners, and strive even harder to make better and better cheese.
For the last session, I broke from my track of sales- and operations-oriented sessions to hear about the important work that is being done in the field of heritage breed livestock conservation and management. Organizations such as The Livestock Conservancy are working to promote heritage breeds and conserve their genetic diversity and integrity, and works in conjunction with artisan cheese producers to connect dairies with heritages breeders and other livestock associations. Part of their mission and message that is clear: with climate change and monoculture come food scarcity and quickly disintegrating biodiversity. Maintaining biodiversity in livestock interlocks with ensuring our food supply as heritage breeds are often better equipped to thrive and perform better in a multitude of ways than highly specialized breeds like the Holstein. They also promote several heritage ruminate breeds that produce higher-yielding milk that makes better cheese and also provide high quality meat—all with less input. The focus on biodiversity and the need for preserving and promoting means and methods that shift our food pathways away from commodity markets and cash crops is a message that Friday morning’s guest speaker, Simran Sethi, also made clear. Her talk, “Save by savoring: how to sustain the diverse foods and flavors we love,” was less how-to and more call-to-arms. Maybe this message was clearer to me because I had previously read her book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate, The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, where she chronicles the massive loss of biodiversity of the plant varieties, food pathways, and cultural knowledge specific to those foods and sheds light on the systematic forces active in the commoditization and monoculturization of those foods. At ACS, Simran acknowledged that the food that she overlooked in the work for her book is cheese (at least industrially produced cheese, in my opinion) but she acknowledged that cheesemakers and the artisan cheese industry in general are already on a path towards strengthening sustainable food pathways. It is clear that in order to continue on this path, we must grow and promote grass-based, farmstead cheesemaking with the mirrored mission of growing and promoting biodiversity. This is the most important message that I came away with and a message that I will share and a goal that I will work towards fostering throughout my career.