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Why is goat milk (and cheese) more expensive than cow milk?

“Why is goat milk more expensive than cow milk?” This is a question we hear from time to time, and if you’ve ever compared prices, you might have experienced some sticker shock — but there’s a good reason why goat milk products come at a higher price. Buckle your seatbelts — you’re about to learn […]

“Why is goat milk more expensive than cow milk?” This is a question we hear from time to time, and if you’ve ever compared prices, you might have experienced some sticker shock — but there’s a good reason why goat milk products come at a higher price. Buckle your seatbelts — you’re about to learn a whole lot of goat facts!

The price of cheese in the marketplace can vary for numerous reasons: scale of production; season of the year; special production techniques; age and affinage; miles travelled to reach the consumer; and milk source. The four animals most widely known as the sources of milk for cheesemaking are cows, goats, sheep, and water buffalo.

To understand why goat milk cheese is more expensive than cow milk cheese, consider the availability of the milk, the production process of the cheese, and the supply chain (or ‘path to market’).

Milk: Supply vs. Demand
As with cheese, the answer to this question starts with the milk. In the United States dairy industry, cows are king — or rather, queen. In 2020, there were nearly 9.4 million milk cows in the US, producing approximately 224 billion pounds of milk to fuel the cow milk dairy industry. Contrast that with goats: as of January 2021, there were 420,000 milk goats and kids in the US — about 4% the number of milk cows. Furthermore, goats are smaller animals that produce about 10% of the total milk output of cows. Demand for goat milk cheese has grown consistently over the past several years as consumers explore alternatives to cow milk, and goat cheese has become more commonplace. All of this points to the fact that there is less goat milk available in the US from which to make cheese, and high demand for it, leading to a higher price on the shelf.

Cow dairies also receive a substantial amount of funding and subsidies from the government and marketing support from state associations traditionally known as “milk marketing boards” or “milk advisory boards” (like Real California Milk and Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, for example) while goat and sheep milk dairies are not included in such programs.

Cheese: Production and Aging
Another key factor in the cost of cheese is how it’s produced. Are traditional, artisan methods employed by a farmstead producer (i.e., a producer whose dairy is at the same physical location as their creamery)? Or is it a large-scale, high-tech operation that can achieve economies of scale? The number of employees involved (labor) and the time necessary to produce the cheese is key. Fresh cheeses that don’t require special production methods and extended aging will, in general, be less expensive than their aged counterparts. Cheeses that do require aging become more expensive because:

  • They require love and attention from experts: cheeses like Humboldt Fog require special attention from cheesemakers every step of the way, but the process of affinage, or ripening, is critical. To have trained experts (or affineurs) closely monitoring humidity, temperature, pH, wheel rotation, rind development, air flow, invasive molds, and numerous other factors is expensive. We rely on secondary cultures, or friendly bacteria, to do the work of ripening Humboldt Fog, but our affineurs set them up for success.
  • They take up space: aged cheeses must be kept in a special facility (generally an aging room or cave) for a specific amount of time. Lamb Chopper (3-6 months) and Midnight Moon (6+ months) take up real estate, and their rent is reflected in the price of the cheese.

The Supply Chain
The miles a cheese must travel to reach the consumer, the number of times the cheese changes hands, and the work those hands must do all impact the final price of the cheese to the consumer. At retailers near our creamery in Arcata, Calif., our cheeses can sometimes be found at around half the price as they are on the East Coast!

Looking more closely at the supply chain, there are several factors that can drive up the cost of Humboldt Fog at the counter (spoiler alert, none of them are particularly sexy):

  • Our remote location makes it difficult to achieve a streamlined supply chain. We do a darn fine job, but since we cannot fit full sized trucks up Highway 101 (which is our only north-south highway) and we are far away from any trucking nexuses, we rely on cross docking operations most of the time, where our products are dropped off in one location to be picked up by someone else. This comes with a surcharge to the customer that ends up adding to the cost of the cheese.
  • Shipping highly perishable cheese from these cross docking operations in California to the rest of the country via refrigerated trucks is costly as well — this is the “freight” cost.
  • Along the way (at the distributors’ warehouses and then sometimes at the retailers’ distribution centers), the cheese must be stored, and these parties add their own margin to the product for their services. It is also more costly and involved to store perishable goods than dry goods due to the refrigeration necessary.
  • Lastly, once our precious cheeses make it to the retailer, labor from yet another integral expert (the cheesemonger) is needed to cut, wrap, weigh, and label our soft-ripened and aged cheeses. The labor cost is a serious consideration for retailers. All of these factors drive up the price of cheeses like Humboldt Fog at the counter.

Ready for the quiz? Kidding! Thanks for following along and learning more about all of the factors that go into the price of goat milk and cheese — hopefully it’s given you a whole new perspective of the behind-the-scenes world of goats and cheesemaking, and some valuable information for your next trivia night, too.

Sources:

USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Milk Cows, 2011-2020
USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service: Milk Production, 2011-2020
USDA, Sheep and Goats Report
Kamin, Charlotte & McElroy, Nathan: A First Course in Cheese (10)

 

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