Tuesday, April 4, 2017

What do You Call Cheese in Nicaragua? Reflections from Louella Hill

Above: Creamery owner Marilyn Cisne (left) gathers with worker Jamilette (near left), her daughter Alexandra and worker Helen for a taste-testing of yogurts. We worked on adjusting the tanginess, the density of the yogurt body, sugar, amount of flavoring and coloring. Asking the opinions of everyone in the creamery (and family) helped to include everyone in the new production process and give them ownership of the future product. Note the use of cheap and expired plastic containers. This was common as disposable and high quality stainless-steel products and equipment are less available here than in the U.S.

The answer is queso fresco. It is a similar cheese to queso blanco, but with a creamier and softer white texture. It’s popular in Spain, Portugal, and across many countries of Latin America, including Nicaragua. This is the same type of cheese that is used to make dishes like cheesecake, enchiladas, as well as distinctively Nicaraguan cuisine like cuajada frita and Güirila.

This type of cheese is not only delicious and nutritious, it is also an important source of additional income for many impoverished farmers. Across Nicaragua, as in other areas of Central America, small-holder dairy farmers are increasingly turning to cheese manufacturing as way to turn their surplus milk into a transformed value added product that can diversify and increase their incomes. Despite the recent successes of the artisan cheese industry in Nicaragua, many local dairy producers still lack the knowledge and technical skills to properly produce and market their cheeses. In light of these challenges, in February, the Agriculture & Food Security (AFS) team at Partners of the Americas sent Louella Hill, a U.S cheese manufacturing specialist, to Nicaragua to assist some producer groups in tackling the existing gap of technical knowledge in the cheese value chain. This trip took place as part of the USAID-funded Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) program and its Nicaragua Dairy and Livestock project.

The Dairy and Livestock Project aims to build the capacity of Nicaragua’s dairy and livestock producers, processors, and marketers in the area of agro-enterprise development, in order to improve their competitiveness in the domestic and international dairy and beef markets. F2F, in coordination with national cattle organizations helps develop and promote a brand that guarantees good agricultural practices of grass-fed beef and dairy farms. Through these engagements, we empower producers to transform their raw materials into high quality, value-added product for sale. By providing technical training and helping producers to obtain certifications, F2F volunteers will link producers and their value-added products to the national tourism industry and other niche markets.
Above: At “El Norteño” Creamery, it was difficult to tell how much of what we saw was put together for our visit. Regardless, the Creamery was in fairly excellent shape. Their biggest challenge is ensuring the quality of their milk sources. We watched outside as milk was delivered by horse, foot and bus. None of the milk had been chilled. None was stored in a stainless steel container.
For this specific Dairy and Livestock F2F assignment, a volunteer was needed to conduct interactive workshops for dairy farmers on proper cheese processing techniques to ensure a safe, high-quality product. The volunteer would also be in charge of training local hosts organizations on proper methods for evaluating the quality of various gourmet cheeses during the National Dairy Congress, including queso fresco (artisanal basic cheese), mozzarella, hard cheeses (e.g. parmesan), and specialty cheeses (e.g. goat cheese). The volunteer was expected to train dairy producers on how to improve their processing skills to make higher quality cheese.

During her two week visit, Louella spent her initiating and improving cheese production on several dairy farms. The vast majority of her time was spent working with the Cisne Family. However she visited a number of other organizations that included: 1) Delait Yogurt, a small agribusiness located in Matagalpa that produces milk and yogurt for sale in local markets, 2) GRINSA, a small agribusiness that produces milk, cheese, flavored milks, and sour cream, 3) The Nicaraguan Dairy Chamber (CANISLAC), an umbrella organization that works to improve processing and marketing of milk and dairy products for producers and processors that target local and international markets, among many others. At the end of her travels, she attended and presented at the “Congreso Nicaragüense de Sector Lacteo” in Managua.

Above: The creamery beyond this door was built in 6 days and in anticipation of my arrival. The benefit of starting from scratch in a new space—working with dairy farmers who up until then were not officially cheese-makers—is that there were few processes that had to be corrected. The challenge was more getting the producers to commit to a system that was more laborious (such as not allowing outside traffic through the creamery or asking workers to wash hands multiple times throughout the work day). This sign shows three top “Creamery Rules” that we collectively decided upon as a beginning for food safety practices.
By the end of her travels, Louella had three critical recommendations for the businesses she met:
  1. Set up a match-making program that connects U.S. and Nicaraguan creameries. This program could allow for more permanent and in-depth cheesemaker-to-cheesemaker relationships as well as a convenient transfer (through donation) of used (but quality) dairy and creamery equipment. 
  2. Invite a F2F volunteer to stay for a longer duration (6 months, for example) with a focus on running trainings in milk handling. This will help improve the milk supply in a more strategic manner. Distribute milk handling training kit to improve milk supply to cheese manufacturers. 
  3. Connect with the “Universidad Agronoma” in Esteli to set up a multi-day “Milk Handlers Certificate Program”. The program could be open to all producers. This university already has a herd of cows and a creamery. The agenda for the program could be something such as assigning a day for "Milk Handling," one for "Best Management Practices in the Creamery," and lastly one on "Increasing Sales and Business Sustainability." The goal could be getting more people trained at once as well as bringing neighboring creameries into the same space. If in the same space, these creameries could potentially figure out ways to collaborate.
Above: Marilyn Cisne and I worked through ideas for a label. The goal was to communicate to the customer the added value of this product based on it coming from a local family farm where the cows eat a pasture-based diet. It was also important to communicate the pureness and the wholesomeness of the product. A graphic design friend of mine whipped together the ideas into a label that the Cisnes fell in love with and plan to use.
As Louella notes, the best application of her skills occurred when she was assisting the “Ganadería Cisne” dairy near Matagalpa. Their goal was to create a line of value-added dairy products and they worked on yogurt, quesillo and mozzarella recipes. Furthermore, this work would professionalize the creamery and allow it to produce cheese styles that offered longer shelf life. It was the farm’s first experience making these varieties though they had been previously producing queso fresco as well as cuajada which they distributed informally within their community.

Louella took account of a number of observations in her research.


The F2F program has a strong and positive presence within the communities I interacted with. This is likely due in large part to Noel and Eliza’s extensive efforts to facilitate and maintain relationships. After my presentation at the Dairy Congress, I was approached by a dozen farmers who said they wished they could participate in the F2F program. That’s a good sign!


Nicaragua had surprisingly distinct socioeconomic strata. It was clear to me which people were in positions of power and who were deemed the lower ‘worker’ class. Many times I had to make an extra effort to ensure that everyone in the room was included in my lessons. I felt a certain reverence for myself as a kind of ‘foreign expert’. I was catered to by the upper class, and I was to an extent kept away from the more worker class.
Above: Creamery workers Jamilette (front) and Helen (back) of Ganadería Cisne weigh out portions of the fresh cheese “Cuajada”. This cheese—which the Cisne family was making before I arrived—took  approximately 4 hours from start to finish (for approximately 10# of finished product). It was very labor intensive to make but Jamilette—who made the cheese-- wasn’t interested in updating the process because she only trusted making it the way she was taught. The benefit of teaching new recipes was that there was no ‘correcting’ another version. It was a clean slate for setting more efficient practices into motion.


At a basic level, there is a resistance to change and technology. Julio Cisne explained to me that he had purchased a milk chiller—and that he understood the benefits of chilling the milk—but that his customers wanted to purchase their milk while still warm. They preferred that the milk not be chilled! To the customers, warm milk meant it hadn’t been watered down. You can see how Julio, despite being open to the recommendation to chill his milk, was at odds with the cultural standards within his community. Julio’s whole milk sold at retail for C$16 / L versus the corporate brand Lala whose skim sold for C$28 / L.


Several large corporations control nearly all dairy sales throughout much of Central America. This was most evident to me during the Dairy Congress, sponsored by the Lala brand. The real puzzle for me during my visit was trying to identify ways that smaller, family-run dairies could claim a niche in the dairy sector, given this monopoly.


Much like dreams of human migration, nearly all the cheese makers I observed also had dreams of exporting their cheeses to the U.S. The reality is that ‘FSMA’ (Food Safety Modernization Act) legislation puts extra strain on small scale producers to export into a market with regulations for safety on the food that the US consumes. It is imperative that Nicaraguan producers understand that US requirements on food imports are extremely stringent, and that the government should play an active role in supporting the exportation sector through frequent supervision. A more plausible goal would be to export cheeses to Central American markets or to focus on ex-pat communities and high-end hotels in-country. A future F2F project should be to clarify and summarize standards of exportation to neighboring Central American countries instead of to the US.

Above: Marilyn Cisne, myself, daughter Alexandra and Julio Cisne take a talk in the pastures. We look at the health of the cows and the types of forage plants available. We also talk about access to clean water and rotational grazing patterns, the integration of coffee growing areas and more. It was a true pleasure to work with such a dedicated and hard-working family farm. I wish them tons of luck on their future cheese-making endeavors.

Louella also wrote down a powerful reflection of the lives of the people with whom she came into contact with and her words best describe the issues at play here:

"Most cheese being made in the US is being made by Latin American immigrants. I feel this fact is ignored. My trip to Nicaragua was meaningful because I feel strongly that we need to acknowledge the presence of Latin American immigrants in the cheese processing industry. More specifically, understanding these workers’ cultural background and their need for adequate training and buy-in is crucial to advancing the US dairy industry to higher ethical and good safety standards.

Visiting Nicaragua is like unveiling the intricacies of US cheese production puzzle from the opposite direction; it was an opportunity to understand where cheese factory workers in the US originate. If all US creamery owners could have the opportunity to visit creameries in Latin America, especially Nicaragua, they could better understand the cultural context from where their employees are coming. I’ve worked in creameries where the workers had a hard time understanding the urgency for refrigerating milk and cheese. I’ve worked in creameries where workers have not innately understood the importance of having no gum or cell phones in the plant.

After two weeks in Nicaragua, any creamery owner would see that these tendencies that we might find unacceptable are completely acceptable in another cultural context. In Nicaragua the people WANT to buy their milk when it is still hot. They are not offended to buy non-refrigerated, unwrapped, and unlabeled cheese. This cultural difference should be respected.

My hope is that I can help become part of the bridge between these two deeply connected yet deeply divided places. Even the reason I speak Spanish is due to the nature of my work in a U.S. cheese factory where 40 Guatemalan employees speak little to no English and one American owner spoke no Spanish. My personal hope is to bring understanding to both sides of this equation.
Above: Hand milkers at Ganadería Cisne have no interest in transitioning to machine milking; despite the fact the owners have already purchased the machinery. This resistance to new technology logically stems from a fear that the machines will replace the need for worker.

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