North Carolina’s growing cheese industry has gotten a welcome boost from the annual N.C. State Fair Cheese Competition.
“We started the competition in 2011 to help small dairy farmers and give consumers exposure to what great cheeses we have,” said Steve Lathrop, head of dairy marketing for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
There are nearly 40 creameries producing cheese across the state, and many of them enter the fair’s cheese competition, Lathrop said. Entries are judged according to their class, or type, and the winners in each class contend for Best of Show. After the competition, the winning cheeses are displayed at the fair, and many are available for sampling or purchase at the Got to Be N.C. Dairy Products booth.
Some competitors are well-established, such as Goat Lady Dairy in Climax, which has been in business for 21 years. Others, such as Boxcarr Handmade Cheese in Cedar Grove, are more recent additions to the local cheese scene, but are quickly making names for themselves.
Boxcarr took home the Best of Show honors in 2015 with its creamy, earthy Cottonseed cheese. It marked the first time the honor went to someone other than Chapel Hill Creamery, which had swept the competition since it started.
“We were pretty surprised, but happy,” said Boxcarr co-founder Samantha Genke. Her small operation offers “more intense, Italian-style cheeses” influenced by native Italian and Boxcarr employee Alessandra Trompeo.
Boxcarr’s cheeses stand out because of their unusual cultures imported from Italy, Genke said. Although the business is barely a year old, Boxcarr Handmade Cheese products represent N.C. in states from New York to Colorado.
Winning Best in Show boosted Boxcarr’s reputation and sales. Having the State Fair Winner sticker on each Cottonseed cheese package has given the brand a new level of authenticity, especially to out-of-state customers, Genke said.
Interest in local products boosts dairies
Goat Lady Dairy’s cheeses are found nationwide, too, and have won several blue ribbons over the years at the fair competition. Co-owner Steve Tate appreciates the competition because it has “given us great visibility to cheese-lovers from all over the state.”
Tate sees the market for specialty N.C. cheeses as only going up.
“People are realizing good dairy fats are not harmful as once reported,” he said. “And more people are interested in local, artisanal products.”
That interest in local products has helped dairies find shelf space in chain grocery stores. For example, Goat Lady cheeses, which used to be sold strictly at farmers markets, are now available at Whole Foods, Harris Teeter and Lowes Foods.
In addition, creameries are becoming tourist destinations, even offering unique opportunities to involve the public in their businesses. Goat Lady Dairy offers periodic “Dinner at the Dairy” events where guests enjoy a farm tour and gourmet meal featuring its cheeses. Some areas have created travel guides, such as the Western N.C. Cheese Trail, which is available online and helps connect cheese enthusiasts directly with cheesemakers.
Goat Lady, Boxcarr, and other creameries are already gearing up for the 2016 State Fair Cheese Competition.
“One of our strategies in the fair competition is to enter cheeses unique to our dairy,” Tate said. “For example, Providence is an aged, natural-rind goat milk cheese.”
Last year’s runners-up think they can clinch the Best of Show title, but Genke is hopeful Boxcarr Handmade can hold onto the crown.
“We’ll enter everything again,” she said. “Our cheeses have gotten better, but we still have a ways to go before we perfect things.”