Farmstead. Artisan. These two little words are thrown around a lot in the cheese world and on cheese packaging - sometimes reverently, sometimes carelessly. I thought I'd take a moment to unpack them and see if I can give some guidelines to interpreting these terms.
Farmstead Cheese In order for a cheese to be a farmstead cheese, the dairy animals that give the milk used to make the cheese must live on the same farm where the cheese is made....so the cheese you're eating is literally from the farm. It's sort of (but not exactly) analogous to the term 'estate bottled' in the wine world. More on this below.
Artisan Cheese Artisan cheese is cheese made by hand in small batches....though there's no objective standard to quantify 'by hand' or 'small batches.' See a more detailed discussion of this below.
If you think about it, a cheese can be both farmstead and artisan, or either of the two separately. Or it can be neither of the two.
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To fully understand farmstead and artisan in reference to cheese, take a moment to ponder how cheese is made. How it's really made. You've got a milk source of some kind. You've got a facility with various types of equipment used to make and store cheese. You've got business infrastructure. How each individual cheesemaker makes all of that work will depend on a huge number of variables both individual and regional...and whether or not she can use the terms farmstead and/or artisan will to some extent be determined by those choices.
The choice to become a cheesemaker may be made by a farmer who already has dairy animals wondering how to add value to the herd - in which case it would be a farmstead operation. The farmer builds a cheesemaking facility on the farm and goes to work making cheese. Would this farmer be an artisan? Probably, since this will likely be a small scale operation.
Or, the choice to become a cheesemaker may be made by a few people in a large metropolitan area with an idea to make a wholesome food product - in which case it would likely not be a farmstead operation. Would it be an artisan operation? Probably. It's highly unlikely that anyone is going to be able to set up an industrial-sized cheesemaking operation from scratch without a huge amount of money and a huge source of milk.
What's the significance of the term farmstead anyway? I think it's fair to say that farmstead operations are close to their animals' day to day existence. They'll notice nuances in day to day health, conditions, general herd moods and changes. Non-farmstead operations are typically contracting for milk and thus are one step removed from the action. There is likely some hauling of milk from place to place. Still, the non-farmstead operation is contracting with a farmer who IS close to the herd and spending a lot of time on the animals' care. A farmstead operation is not necessarily small and pastoral, though it can be.
The upshot is that you can't really use the term 'farmstead' by itself to decide the quality or the integrity of the cheese. You'd need to visit the farm where the milk comes from, make some inquiries and decide for yourself.
The world 'artisan' is used so often these days in connection with food and other products that I'm afraid it's becoming meaningless, so eager is everyone to claim its metaphorical wholesomeness. If an artisan is someone who makes cheese by hand in small batches, where do you place the dividing line between small and large? I think it's fair to say that Tillamook Cheese is not an artisan producer, strictly speaking, but that's not to say they don't make good cheese. (Tillamook produces multiple millions of pounds of cheese/year). Washington State University makes just under a half a million pounds of cheese in a year. Does that take them out of the artisan category? Compare that to the average small farmstead cheesemaker's output, which will probably not exceed 100,000 pounds of cheese per year.
What does it mean to make cheese by hand? Strictly speaking, it's really not possible to make cheese without some sort of equipment, be it simply kettles and a heat source or a full fledged pasteurizer. Most people would agree that cheese made entirely by machine - as is the case with industrial cheese production - is definitely NOT artisan. I think what most people mean when they think of an artisan is someone who devotes a lot of time and personal energy, not to mention elbow grease, to the process of producing their products.
You might think that you'd know an artisan if you saw one...and that may be the case. The term evokes a commitment to craft, to quality and to the integrity of the product. Once again, I have to emphasize that this is something to investigate and decide for yourself, as you see this term used in conjunction with almost anything these days.
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In summary, the terms "farmstead" and "artisan" can be useful but neither gives you the whole story of a product. If you want to understand a cheesemaker you've got take the time to understand the story of the individual farm and the complexity behind what that cheesemaker is doing. What's their philosophy and approach to animal care? To cheese production? To affinage? Decide for yourself - don't let the terms or the packaging make your choices for you.
The moral of this story: 1) read labels critically and don't make assumptions 2) use the terms 'farmstead' and 'artisan' as informational only, as a jumping off point for further investigation.