UC Davis

UCD cheese: a lost legacy

By From page A1 | April 22, 2014

Did you know?

It takes 21.2 pounds of whole milk to make 1 pound of butter, and 10 pounds of whole milk to make 1 pound of cheese

Gone are the days in which UC Davis made its own cheese, milk and ice cream.

Those wanting to study the art of making dairy products from a practical — and not theoretical — standpoint have to hike down to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, which still has a dairy processing plant.

Theoretical sciences of processing cow’s milk still takes place at UCD. The university’s dairy production currently supports a small staff of 4 1/2, plus four undergraduate pre-veterinary students. The students provide the behind-the-scenes, around-the-clock care for the dairy department’s 110 Holsteins and jerseys, who produce about 1,000 gallons of milk per day, 365 days a year, said Ed DePeters of the Dairy Teaching Research Facility — “Dr. D” to his students.

Samantha Eisner, 19, a freshman animal science major, works to milk, feed and care for milk cows in the department.

“It’s a great opportunity — one you can’t get anywhere else. Part of the reason I took calf-feeding is because of how unique it is,” said Eisner, who plans to become a small animal veterinarian. “It’s unlike anything you could do here and you get a lot of hands-on experience you wouldn’t get just sitting in a lecture hall.”

All of UCD’s milk today, and for roughly the past decade, has gone to the Hilmar Cheese Company. The Northern California company employs 1,000 people in a town with a population of about 5,000. UCD’s milk is a small fraction of the 2 million gallons of milk per day and 2 million pounds of cheese per day produced by Hilmar.

Before Hilmar, UCD’s milk went to Crystal Creamery in Sacramento.

Under perceived pressure from California dairy producers, UCD closed down the campus’ dairy processing plant in 1959. Local dairy operators believed it unfair that a public institution could cut into their profits.

Lost to history with the closing of on-campus milk processing was UCD’s hallmark “brick cheese — a light cheese, white and soft, like a pepper jack — that was our reputation,” said John Bruhn, emeritus UCD Cooperative Extension specialist, who handled outreach education and research in the food sciences and began working for the university in 1962.

Similar reputations are still found in land-grant universities like University of Wisconsin, Washington State and Penn State, who produce signature ice creams and cheeses, he said.

According to Ann Scheuring’s 2001 publication, “Abundant Harvest: The History University of California, Davis”: “After WWII, when scientific research intensified in every field, the dairy division changed the organization of its subject matter for instruction. By the early 1950s the previous emphasis on the manufacturing of major commodities — butter, cheese, ice cream and market milk — shifted to a modified chemical engineering approach, with emphasis on the application of specific processing techniques to products in general.

“Many firms in the dairy industry were by this time large and prosperous enough to offer their own training to new employees, and enrollments in the UCD non-degree dairy program, so long a mainstay at the campus, began to wane. When the university officially terminated the two-year curricula in 1959, the department of dairy industry was administratively merged into the department of food technology, and the historic unit, after 51 years, ceased to exist as an entity.

“The commercial operations of the university creamery, which had sold campus-manufactured dairy products to local customers for many years, also ceased in 1959.”

George Waye, 73, sometimes reminisces about UCD’s dairy production facility in its heyday.

“All of the production that our campus used to give to the town — it’s not like it used to be,” said Waye, a lifelong Davis resident. “When a crop was done and it was time to harvest, they managed to find ways to provide (food) for the campus workers. The dairy industry used to make ice cream on campus and sell it to the citizens on the town with a UCD logo at a rock-bottom price.

“They weren’t just learning fermentation, but they were learning marketing to make the sales, and the town loved it because they could send it to their friends, and they were proud of Davis,” Waye added.

Bruhn remembers the old times as well.

“People would come around Christmastime and ask where the dairy store was,” he said. “They operated a creamery and a store. Campus and the city could come in and buy ice cream, cottage cheese, milk and cheese.”

Bruhn said there were about eight milk brands available in Davis in the 1950s such as Borden and Crystal, as well as a local drive-in dairy processor at the site of the current downtown Subway restaurant at Second and G streets.

“These companies were upset that UCD was competing with them for their market,” he said. “We weren’t really putting anyone out of business, but the companies said we were a public institution receiving tax dollars.”

Additionally, profits made from UCD dairy sales went into the university’s general fund and not back to the creamery itself, which made the creamery appear to not be profitable. In reality, it was profitable, he added.

“I don’t have numbers, but it was relatively small volume because we weren’t in a commercial setting,” he added. “We wanted to make enough so that the students learning how to do this would have a learning experience — just enough to teach them.”

Bruhn said there has been some talk of bringing back the UCD-logo brick cheese, perhaps made by a nearby cheese maker under the original UCD recipe.

— Reach Jason McAlister at [email protected]

Jason McAlister

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