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The big cheese

New food trends didn’t compel Rogue Creamery to make organic cheese.

Longtime commitments to quality and the community are behind the Creamery’s new line of organic blues, cheddars and curds, says owner David Gremmels. Operating its own certified organic dairy “really connects our visitors to traditional agriculture,” he says.

“It’s been a decade and a half of working toward our values.”

The Creamery’s 2002 transfer to new owners came with their pledge to uphold the values of founder Tom Vella, whose business brought stable employment during the Great Depression and renewed small farmers’ lease on their livelihood. The Rogue Valley offered primarily seasonal work in orchards and lumber mills during that difficult era.

More than 80 years later, artisan cheesemaking is helping to put Southern Oregon on the map. Several smaller creameries have joined the region’s “big cheese” over the past decade. And the Creamery has furnished no small amount of encouragement and support for start-ups, who have used its equipment and gained exposure at its Central Point cheese shop.

“We’re open to helping others start their business,” says Gremmels.

About a dozen small dairies were candidates for the Creamery’s milk supply when Gremmels took over with former partner Cary Bryant. But as the Creamery quickly garnered industry accolades, local dairies were closing at a similarly rapid rate, recalls Gremmels.

“It was really a difficult market for dairy people.”

The Creamery kept Rogue View Dairy of Grants Pass in business for about a decade until its owner wanted to retire. The neighboring property afforded an ideal site for the Creamery’s own dairy and the opportunity to manage every aspect of herd management and milk production. After several years of improvements, including a transitional year to obtain organic certification, the 75-acre Rogue Creamery Dairy opened for public tours last year.

“Oregon is known for its quality in dairying,” says Gremmels. “We hope to inspire others.”

Industry-wide, more and more dairies are becoming certified-organic, says Gremmels. As new farmers return to traditional methods of agriculture and uphold sustainable principles, he says, Southern Oregon is fertile soil for the growth of dairies. More goat dairies should emerge, he adds, and the region is ripe for its first sheep dairy.

Nigerian dwarf goats are behind the state’s first “off-the-grid” dairy. A farmstead creamery near Rogue River, Pholia Farm earned early acclaim for its small-batch, Old World-style cheeses, which were snapped up by big-city cheese shops. After several years of shipping nearly all its inventory to metro markets, Pholia re-evaluated its mission and decided to keep its very limited quantities closer to home.

“I don’t mind the cheese going elsewhere, but it always seemed sort of silly,” says Pholia co-owner and cheesemaker Gianaclis Caldwell.

Home to “so few” small, local creameries — Mama Terra, Oak Leaf and By George, chief among them — Southern Oregon has a developing taste for artisan cheese, says Caldwell. Among the most recent and exciting developments are winemakers branching out into cheesemaking, she says, citing Crushpad Creamery at Wooldridge Creek Winery in Grants Pass. As artisan foods pervade the mainstream consumer consciousness, she adds, customers will visit more local farms to observe the animals and to buy products.

“More of us will have farm stores,” she says. “We’re open more than we ever used to be.”

Recognizing more value in organic and sustainable enterprises, says Gremmels, consumers are prepared to pay more. Converting cheese to organic increases costs by as much as 20 percent, he says. But that pricing is far less “volatile” than pricing for conventional counterparts, he says. While customers will pay more for the Creamery’s products, “per pound, it’s not a lot,” he adds.

“There’s great opportunity and great demand,” he says. “Right now, there’s a void in the shelf space that is in need of products in retailers nationwide.”

The Creamery’s ultimate goal is to meet demand with an entirely organic operation, says Gremmels. Next year, he says, will bring an organic pedigree for the Creamery’s flagship Rogue River Blue, which made history in 2003 as the first American cheese to win World's Best Blue at the World Cheese Awards in London. Still other signature cheeses, including Chocolate Stout and Hopyard cheddars, likely won’t be organic because ales that flavor them are not, says Gremmels.

Beyond cheese, a new treat awaits customers of the farm stand at Rogue Creamery Dairy. Organic, custard-style ice cream is sweetened with honey from the dairy’s own hives. Absent from the Central Point cheese shop, Rogue Creamery ice cream can be tasted only at its source, open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

“For us,” says Gremmels, “it’s really full-circle.”

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

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Cheesemakers at Rogue Creamery in Central Point are up to their elbows in product. 2008 Mail Tribune file photo
Cheeses available for tasting at the 2010 Oregon Cheese Festival at Rogue Creamery. Mail Tribune file photo