Dairy Marketing Practice | Contributing Columnist


American Cheese Society:
Looking Backward, Looking Forward

Dan Strongin ASQ CMQ/OE Uncorporate Consultant

July 20, 2018


The first conference I attended was in San Francisco in the early 90s. I loved it, a ragtag collection of rebels conspiring together to create a market, improve the quality of American cheese, all inside a big fancy downtown hotel.

It was cognitive dissonance of the type that many small producers have told me they share when thinking about the current American Cheese Society Conference. I understand, my lifelong work has been about the importance of rural development through family farming.

At the initial meeting of the ACS, I am told, a group of 30 or so friends and colleagues gathered at Cornell University, in 1983, at the invitation of Dr. Frank Kosikowski; they were a kind of anti-establishment underground movement at the time. They produced artisan cheese at a time when American cheese had earned a global reputation for thin, individually packed, orange-colored slices of processed cheese. It was the height of rebellion.

Dr. Kosikowski warned of the undue influence of money from commercial interests if the Society depended on them to underwrite a conference. In fact, the apparent conflict between the idealistic goal of continually improving the quality of American Artisan Cheese and the practical need to sell it continues to define the American Cheese Society, and in some ways always will.

When I became president of the Cheese Society in the 90s, we struggled with the fact that many small producers could not afford to attend the conference and that smaller goat cheese producers could not participate as it was the height of the milking season. The struggle remains. Many producers still cannot attend as there is no one to foot the bill but them.

Struggling to meet the needs of all of the members, not just cheese makers, but aficionados, consultants, and sellers, the Society has taken into account those who have the money to help sponsor the event in the upscale venues where the conference has taken place since the 1980s, as warned by Dr. Kosikowski. July and August work best for those who market cheese, not necessarily for all cheese makers. Do not get me wrong, marketers and sellers have contributed mightily to the tremendous growth of American Artisan Cheese. They deserve respect.

But I find myself longing for those less commercial days. The second American Cheese Society conference I attended was in Madison, hosted by the University of Wisconsin. We ate, we drank, we made new friends, and we learned from some fantastic presentations, including one where the University made cheese from both good and rancid milk so that we could taste the difference. We felt like we were in a secret society.

At one point, Prof. George, Lynn, Andrea, Theresa, Bob Spotts and I made the pilgrimage to the Cheesehead store to buy those incredibly indelicate hats and ties made to look like wedges of cheese. George and I had a running joke for many years where one would send the cheese head tie to the other on their birthday, depending on which was the poor sucker who had gotten it the year before. By the grace of God, one year it got lost in the mail.

Everyone in that group had strong opinions. They had a right to, having worked in the trenches and having done a tremendous amount for the growth of the American Cheese Society on their own time. Like boisterous relatives, some were marginalized — their contribution never truly recognized. But we had a lot of fun together that year.

Later that year, I was invited to present at the Dairy Goat Association conference. For me, it was heaven. It took place when goat cheese producers could attend, and with little means and no sponsorship, the event was the definition of frugal. We shared dormitory rooms at the University which was kind enough to host the conference. The educational presentations were in-depth, timely, and incredible because it had the luxury to focus on its core members: producers of dairy goat products. What it lacked in amenities, it made up for in content.

Unfortunately, because of commercial challenges small goat cheese producers face until today, the organization chose to be swallowed up by the American Cheese Society. The tension between focusing on the quality of the cheese made, versus selling enough to survive struck again.

This year, the ACS tribes are gathering in Pittsburgh, the birthplace of America Steel, and a hub for health care services and robotics. Have the rebels become established?

When I became president in the 1990s, the pendulum had begun to swing too far in the direction of commercial interests. So we made some adjustments to the bylaws so that cheese makers would make up the majority of the board.

One cannot argue with success. The ACS is thriving, with an ever more extensive and diverse group of members, successive Presidents have tried to maintain a balance between Cheese Quality and Commerce. Their programs have to reflect the needs of these different groups. For instance, while I have no particular interest in motivational speeches, others do.

As in any apparent conflict, there is no easy or perfect answer. You do the best you can, and someone takes it on the nose from time to time for the greater good. But, there is something to be said for those days of rebellion and conspiracy, especially not having to pay a ton of money to attend, make friends, share experiences, and sleep in the shared rooms. I cannot help but feel nostalgic.

Ironically I found echoes of the conflict in the official documentation, freely available on the ACS website.
From the By-Laws: http://www.cheesesociety.org/about-us/bylaws/

Section 1. The Mission and Purpose of the Association shall be:
1. To uphold the highest standards of quality in the making of cheese and related fermented milk products.
2. To uphold the traditions and preserve the history of American Cheesemaking.
3. To be an educational resource for American cheesemakers and the Public.
4. To encourage consumption through better education on the sensory pleasures of cheese and its healthful and nutritional values.

From the Mission and Core Values: http://www.cheesesociety.org/about-us/missionandvalues/

Vision Statement
ACS is the leader in promoting and supporting American cheeses.

Mission Statement
ACS provides the cheese industry with educational resources and networking opportunities while encouraging the highest standards of cheesemaking focused on safety and sustainability.

Core Values
Engagement: Support, promote, connect, and represent cheese makers to the broader community and industry.
Education: Create and provide access to resources, programs, and education for our evolving industry.
Sustainability: Commit to a holistic approach to sustainability ensuring long-term physical and financial viability, so members survive and thrive.

If you read between the lines, you can see the subtle shift brought about by success: a larger, more mainstream organization. Every successive president has and will have to struggle with the challenges of harmonizing the need for outreach to those whose businesses are marginal, and those new producers on the rise, who cannot afford the cost of attending the conference. It is a delicate dance.


Dan Strongin is a former president of the American Cheese Society, chef and business coach for small to medium value added businesses. Dan can be reached via email at dan@danstrongin.com




The views expressed above do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Reporter.



Dan Strongin

Dan Strongin is a former president of the American Cheese Society, chef and business coach for small to medium value added businesses, and the owner of the sites learn.managenaturally.com, and the Facebook group Enjoy Cheese. His online course: “Cheese: How to Buy, Store, Taste, Pair, Talk About and Serve”, is available at enjoycheese.net. Dan can be reached via email at dan@danstrongin.com.

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