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Cows graze in a pasture beside signage for the Muranda dairy, established in 1991 Photo courtesy of Muranda Cheese Co.
RICH DAIRY ROOTS: Tom and Nancy Murray were known for breeding great cows, including the world-record cow that produced 67,914 pounds of milk in one year, but they have transitioned their farm into a full-time cheesemaking operation.

Former dairy farmers find new opportunities in cheesemaking

Tom and Nancy Murray anticipate 20,000 tourists to visit their Waterloo, N.Y., cheese operation this year.

Building a better Holstein herd has always been the goal for Tom and Nancy Murray.

They bought their dairy farm in Waterloo, N.Y., in 1991, and right from the start they had registered Holsteins.

“We have been fortunate enough to make important breeding decisions that resulted in a cow that set the world’s milk production record in 1997,” Tom says. “For a number of years, we did a lot of genetic marketing through bulls and embryo semen.”

Muranda Oscar Lucinda, the world-record cow, produced 67,914 pounds of milk in just one year.

After the herd progressed in genetic makeup, Tom sold a portion of the milking herd in 2003.

He then decided to try the cheese business, opening Muranda Cheese Co. The numerous wineries, cideries and breweries in the area presented opportunities for cooperation.

This summer, the Murrays officially closed the book on dairy farming. Tom made the decision two years ago to get out of the milking business. A public auction at the farm was held Aug. 7. The auction was like what had been done in 2003, except this time the entire herd was dispersed.

“We had cattle go to several states and also here locally,” he says.

The farm’s rolling herd average was close to 30,000 pounds while the somatic cell count was below 100,000.  There were 90 head of milking cows, 200 head altogether.

Focus on cheese and retail

By August, the Murrays were using up all their farm’s milk for making cheese. As a result, they use three different cheesemakers off the farm.

They make 19 different kinds of cheeses, including blue cheese, cheddar and gouda.

All the cheese is cut and wrapped on the farm, and marketed through farmers markets, breweries, cideries, restaurants and wineries.

For a $5 fee a tourist can taste all 19 cheeses on the farm.

Joseph AlbinoTom Murray hold a large cheese wheel

NO TURNING BACK: Tom Murray says he doesn’t have time to miss the dairy business; he has enough on his plate making cheese.

Most of the business is on-farm retail. Using their barn that was constructed in 1891, they’ve constructed a tasting room and have branched out to include after-hours birthday and anniversary parties. The farm features live music on Sundays and, more recently, has been holding weddings.

In addition, the farm has added a farm winery license that allows them to sample and sell local craft beverages to complement the cheese tasting.

The farm purchases its milk from Cayuga Milk Marketing in Auburn and uses its own cheese recipes. The Murrays are also enrolled in a Cornell University program with the goal of developing new cheeses.

Tom says that he plans to continue aging the cheese on the farm.

Becoming a destination

The on-farm store sells other local products such as jellies, jams, local honey and homemade pottery to promote and support other local businesses.

It’s safe to say that the farm is now a Finger Lakes tourist destination. Tom anticipates close to 20,000 tourists this year.

More recently he put the farm on the Finger Lakes Wine Trail map, which is produced in Oswego. In addition, local craft beverage businesses in the area sell the farm’s cheese.

Life built through dairy

Tom left home when he was 17 and worked in the dairy business for a couple of years in Colorado.  He returned home and graduated from SUNY Cobleskill and continued studies in dairy science at Virginia Tech. 

He worked on his father-in-law’s dairy farm for six years. After their three children were born, Tom and Nancy purchased their dairy farm in 1991.

For the past 28 years, Nancy has been in the banking business. About 12 years ago, she and some of her banking colleagues began the Bank of the Finger Lakes with headquarters in Geneva and five branches serving the agricultural-residential market.

Two of their adult children are in the financial business: Kendra in Manhattan and Dan in Connecticut. Blane, their middle son, is a partner on the farm.

The Murrays lease 150 acres of land to a neighboring farmer who grows field crops on 10,000 acres.

Have a ready market

Having been in the business of selling dairy genetics, Tom says he’s always been comfortable with the marketing portion of the business. But there are other important things farmers need to know before getting into selling cheese.

“What you need to know to do cheesemaking is the importance of having markets and the expertise to make cheese,” he says. “The expertise to make cheese is to make sure to have a good cheesemaker or learn to do it yourself.”

One of the things that gave him an advantage is his location in the Finger Lakes region.

“I do think it is important to have markets lined up or at your disposal, so you can market your products,” he says. “Farmers markets are not going to be enough to generate income to make the enterprise worth doing unless you are very, very small and more of a hobby.”

Albino writes from central New York.
TAGS: cheese tourism
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