November 2008

Cheese for charity

By Mark Godfrey

Thanks to its original product, socially minded Snowland Cheese Company is paying for poor children in Qinghai to go to school 

Aherder arrives in the August sunset to drop off two milk cans, one roped to each side of the bike, the red of the Honda machine and the orange of the fading sun play off the green pastureland.

This is the idyllic setting for Snowland Treasure Yak Cheese Co, a small firm in the high-altitude pasturelands of China's western Qinghai province that aims to revolutionise traditional Tibetan cheese-making and pay for better schooling for local children.

Cheese makers from Italy and Switzerland have travelled up here with advice on manufacturing and marketing techniques to a company that was born out of a remarkable collaboration between European gourmands, American altruists and a dynamic Tibetan monk.

Snowland's top export product by sales volume is its Tibetan semi-hard cheese, sold in round, 8-kilogram blocks 35 centimetres in diameter, according to Paola Vanzo of Trace Foundation, the American non-governmental group that helped found the company. Snowland's other product, toma cheese, a mild Alpine variety, is "more targeted at the domestic market," says Vanzo. The factory also makes mozzarella on request for businesses in Xining, the provincial capital, and surrounding areas.

Despite goodwill and international media exposure, distributing the cheese has proven difficult. Production was halted earlier this year while the company reconfigured its distribution to the US, its key market. Negotiations with a new importer and distributor couldn't be completed before the start of the summer production season - the factory is in production for only three months each summer. "We decided to wait until next year," explains Vanzo.

Snowland produced less than 2 tonnes in its first year of operations but the factory has capacity for up to 6 tonnes. In its first two years the company relied on the US for 90 percent of sales, but it wants to grow sales in China - this year the cheese was sold in China only, says Vanzo. Distribution in China, which has never had a cheese tradition, is thus far confined to two expatriatefocused Beijing supermarket Box chains, but there are plans to get the cheese on shop shelves in Shanghai and Hong Kong. The cheese also sells at the Black Tent, a popular restaurant in Xining, and several other locations in town.

Snowland started when staff of the Trace Foundation travelled through various Qinghai villages in 1998 to listen to local herders talk about the need for a stable source of cash to maintain their herds in an increasingly urban China. Andrea Soros Colombel, the daughter of financier George Soros, founded Trace in New York in 1993 to assist development in ethnic Tibetan regions after spending a period teaching English in Qinghai.

Blessed cheese makers

Basing the idea for Snowland on cheese factories in Tibetan communities in Nepal, Trace found a local partner in a social-minded and wellrespected monk who needed money for a school. While Snowland's milk purchases put hard cash into the pockets of local nomadic herders 4,300 metres high in the Qinghai plateau, profits go to a 400-student primary school established by Jigme Gyaltsen, abbot of the Ragya Monastery in Golek prefecture. Located on summer pasturelands about an hour from the Ragya Monastery in stunning scenery 4,000 metres above sea level, Snowland's factory was completed in 2007 for US$171,474 (€132,233), of which Trace contributed US$151,087.

The cheeses are a dramatic update of the traditional local cheese, a flaky substance called chura made from drying skimmed milk in the sun. Established to promote unique regional food and drink products, the Italian-based Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity provided marketing advice. Thanks to Slow Food's know-how and prestige, - and technical support from the regional government of Valle D'Aosta, one of Italy's cheese-producing areas - a fledgling Snowland has outdone most of China's much larger dairy firms by securing the approval of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Snowland's experience suggests that it is not easy to get an artisan food product onto store shelves in the US, particularly in an era of rising food prices. The company is switching US distribution away from supermarkets towards speciality cheese shops and is focusing in particular on San Francisco and Canada. "The quantities we supply are too small for large supermarkets, and unless they have a specific cheese section it would be difficult for them to sell our product," explains Vanzo. "That said, several smaller and co-operative grocery stores are interested in carrying our products." Ironically, given the assistance from Europe, the cheese can't be sold on the continent, thanks to a blanket EU ban on Chinese dairy products.

The recent scares about melaminetainted milk from China mean the ban is "not likely to change any time soon", Vanzo says. That's a pity, as the cheese has proven popular in Europe, and Snowland would potentially have "a huge market there".

Less scary than dairy

Snowland may ultimately benefit from the recent dairy troubles, though. While more expensive than mass-produced cheese, every bucket of milk that goes into Snowland cheese is milked by hand with no chemicals added and is 100 percent traceable, says Vanzo.

While avoiding industrial methods, the project has trained 12 cheese makers and two master cheese makers to run a factory operation, though on a small scale. There is also a manual detailing how Tibetan cheese is made, so the skill is never forgotten.

Qinghai-based Snowland sales chief Geng Deng Duoji is quick to point out that yak milk is richer than cow milk (though also saltier).

It contains eight types of amino acids that the human body needs and nine times the iron content of other cheeses. It also has more protein and twice the fat content. He suggests it improves bone strength and wards off diabetes.

A diet of grass, herbs and mountain water makes yaks' milk more pure, while the beasts' "semi-wild" living style makes them more immune to diseases, he says. Yaks need little of the antibiotics mass-farmed dairy cows require to keep them healthy.

Milking quantities are lower than those from dairy-breed cattle, however - a female yak can produce at most 2 kilograms of milk a day. The Jersey, a popular high-yield breed milked on UK dairy farms, produces an average 8 kilograms a day.

The cheese project also allows locals to resist considerable pressure to fence their yaks in and farm on a commercial scale. Reliant for centuries on the yak's lean meat, rich cheese and downy undercoat for their food and clothing, local herders have had to make some compromises to modernity to supply Snowland.

The Veterinary Association for Cooperation with Developing Countries has sent vets to advise herders on how they can better care for the animals.

It's questionable whether Snowland will be able to buck the slow growth of the cheese market in China - just 11,000 tonnes of cheese were sold in 2007, according to Euromonitor, compared with 1.2 million tones of drinkable yoghurt. But the project is nevertheless a sensible way to sustain the livelihoods of some of China's most economically disadvantaged communities.

Snowland's wholesome sales pitch perhaps needs to be emphasised in the wake of the recent scandal. China's consumers "will appreciate that the milk we use comes from a very pristine and untouched environment, from animals that roam freely on the grassland and eat only what nature produces," explains Vanzo. "You cannot get a product more organic than this."