Dean Feaser is a dairy farmer, a “dirt farmer,” a school principal, a trucking company executive and a cheesemaker.
None of those roles comes with as much frustration as the last. Feaser, of Monroe Township, Cumberland County, bought Berkshire Farmstead Creamery from Solomon Meyer last summer. He then hired Meyer to run the renamed Cumberland Valley Creamery from renovated facilities just outside Mechanicsburg.
Since then, Meyer and Feaser, and various family members who work at the business, have struggled to get their cheeses into the marketplace. Production capability and the quality of their products, which include several all-natural artisan and premium cheeses, are not issues, Feaser said.
Instead, both men are realizing the only realistic route to large-scale food sales is to get on the shelves of major grocery store chains such as Weis Markets and Giant Food Stores. And that shelf space is prime real estate not easily obtained, even for local producers.
“It's a whole lot more cutthroat than I thought it would be,” said Feaser, an executive with Clouse Trucking in Dickinson Township. “The market behind the scenes that makes it go is a whole lot different than your perception watching the evening news.”
Meyer grew up on a farm in Berks County. He began making cheese after his older brother bought a cheese-making kit. It would eventually become Berkshire Farmstead Creamery.
“We had excess milk and about the only thing you could do with excess milk is make cheese,” Meyer recalled. “I made my first batch of cheese when I was 8.”
Berkshire grew to commercial levels, producing and marketing a complete line of artisan cheeses and fresh dairy products. A 2001 fire devastated the operation, but the Meyer family rebuilt a modern production facility.
By 2013, Meyer was feeling burned out from his many responsibilities — he also owns Dutchland Marketing Group and is a pastor with accreditation from Obadiah School of the Bible outside Bethel, Berks County.
So he sold his cheese company to Feaser and agreed to remain as the head cheesemaker. Terranetti's Bakery offered building space rent free for about six months, and Feaser renovated the space last summer.
Using milk from Feaser's dairy farm, as well as a few other local dairies, CV Creamery is producing several varieties of cheese under the Dutchland Homestead and Cumberland Artisans labels. The big vats are producing mainly hard cheeses for now, Meyer said, and are running at about 20 percent capacity.
The company received a big break in the fall when Karns Quality Foods had an opening for a local cheese supplier. CV Creamery was in the right place at the right time, Meyer said, and even got a placement in the Karns weekly circular.
“All of a sudden our sales just took off,” he said. Sales “more than doubled,” he added, a surge that has held steady in the weeks since.
Andrea Karns, vice president of marketing for Karns, said the local chain “works with a lot of local companies,” where it is feasible, to stock local food products.
Wegmans Food Markets carries locally produced food products that meet certain criteria, said Jo Natale, director of media relations for the Rochester, N.Y.-based company.
“If it's a small producer and they feel they can supply us chainwide, then they would present that product to one of our merchants,” she explained. “Some of the things we would look for is what is the product? Why do you see a demand for that product? How does it fit in with the products we already carry?”
An advertising/marketing plan is a big factor in the equation, Natale said. “We've always been very happy to offer these products in our stores,” she added. “But they do have to meet all of the standards that these other products do.”
Giant Food Stores holds a supplier diversity vendor fair for two days every September, said Chris Brand, company spokesman. Store officials met CV Creamery at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, and talks are ongoing to see if the product is a fit for Giant, he added.
“We've been a leader in the Buy Local movement for many years,” Brand said.
Weis Markets did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Meanwhile, Feaser and Meyer are being creative in order to stay alive financially while they seek success in the grocery stores. They are producing cheese products for various farms to market and sell under their own brand.
Feaser recently contracted with a sales team to market CV Creamery products on a commission basis. An advertising plan is in the works. New products, such as drinkable yogurts, are under consideration.
Getting into the big stores remains the long-term goal.
“In order to play ball in their stadium, you've got to play by their rules,” Feaser said. “By the same token, they do let you add a very big market segment.”