Evaluating starting a cheesemaking business in Italy, are we crazy??

Started by meyerandray, July 15, 2019, 03:57:35 PM

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Hi all,  I haven't been on the forum in a while, unfortunately haven't been making much cheese lately, but...

My husband and I are very seriously considering starting a dairy farm and cheesemaking business in Piemonte, Italy (where we live)

I would like to know from you experts a ton of info, but the very most important:
1.  Can we reasonably believe that we will make enough money to maintain our family (2 kids)
2.  Can we be successful learning on our own, or will we just be set up for disaster?

We are thinking some sheep and mostly goats.  The initial idea was the opposite because goats tend to get into more trouble, but it seems that they yield way more milk than sheep do.  My husband is convinced that if we want to make enough money tow maintain our family we need a lot of animals, he is thinking 800 goats and 200 sheep, which to me sounds like an insanely large number especially for people who don't have a lot of experience raising these animals.  I have NO experience, and my husband used to go to the Alps in the summer with some cows and like 10 goats for the season, but he was little and was essentially a helping hand, I don't consider him to have experience.  Obviously with these numbers we will need help, so we will also need money to be able to pay a couple of helpers. 

I am the one who will be making the cheese, and am trying to decide exactly which cheeses to make, but we will definitely make fresh cheese (robiola) a Toma, a blue, and maybe 1 or 2 other aged cheeses.  I would like to know if one produces one type of cheese each day, and you produce on rotation, or do you produce the fresh everyday plus 2 other types?

How much milk can one person realistically work alone each day?  How much time would we have to consider to make the cheese?  Would I have enough time to actually sell the cheese?  Would we have time to spend with our kids or would we be slaves to the farm? 

We have found a covered stall near our house (6 covered stalls each one is 1,200 square meters, the owner said they used to have 1,000 cows) and are negotiating a rental agreement, the owners are evaluating if they would be interested in renting because they wanted to sell, but haven't thought about prices for either type of solution. 

Does anyone have some resources to point me to to really study this?  I know that not many people on here are from Italy, but I've seen some Europeans, and a lot of my questions are probably international-time and experience necessary to not be shooting ourselves in the foot.

Thanks to all, I'm trying to keep this short enough to get some answers


Hi--I'm not exactly your target audience (am not a professional cheesemaker), but have watched several family members and friends start and own their own businesses, including livestock-related ones.  Based on this, I have a few thoughts to share:

1. The most successful businesses I've seen are those that know they have a market for their product.  In other words, they don't just make something they want to make and then try to sell it; they know what product is in demand and learn how to fill that need...also anticipating what that market will be at least a decade out. 

2. Folks I know that are still in business a decade or more later, started small and grew as their success did.  All livestock-related ventures ended up with slightly different breeds than they started with, for various reasons.  With small numbers this is more easily accomplished.

3.  A lot of your questions will be answered by drafting up a business plan.  There are very many books out there that can guide you through the process.  For me personally, when I was contemplating starting a small business, the answers to some of those questions made me realize I was not ready to do so...which I'm glad I figured out prior to investing a lot of time and money.

What an exciting time for you, to be contemplating a new cheese business!  I wish you success in your endeavors.


It's hard to reply to this.  I once seriously thought of starting a brewery and after I did the business plan I decided not to do it.  I wanted a business where I could be creative and work with my hands, but a brewery is a factory and you have to sell so much beer that your job is really sales and marketing.

Let's start with the 1000 animals you are thinking of.  With that, you are going to be getting at least 2000 liters of milk a day.  How are you going store that milk?  How are you going to transport it?  2000 liters weighs more than 2000 kg.  Do you understand all the cleaning processes and equipment you need?  What is the capital cost? (i.e. how much money do you need to buy the equipment).

Then 2000 litres a day would make about 250 kg of cheese every single day.  That's great, but that's about 90,000 kg of cheese a year.  If your margin is $1 or $2 a kg, you'll make a good living.  However, how are you going to sell it?  You are going to need at least 10,000 distinct customers to sell that amount of cheese.  The only way to do that is to get into the grocery stores.  To do that, you need to buy placement in the stores.  But even if you get into the grocery store, you need to have marketing and sales plans to get people to buy your cheese.  In Italy, the stores are already overflowing with cheese.  Why will they buy yours?

And if you are only making $100K or $200K of money, do you really have the ability to milk half your herd (500 head) every day?  And also have time to make cheese?  And also have time to prepare marketing plans?  And also have time to wheel and deal with the stores?  And also have time to package and transport the cheese?  Or are you going to need more help?

There will be several sizes of businesses that will work and many more that will not work.  You have to run the numbers with all of them.  What about a herd of 10?  What about 100?  How does the capital cost change?  How does the labour cost change?  Does it give you time to learn the skills you needs, etc, etc.

There is the old joke: the easiest way to make a small fortune is to start with a large one.  These kinds of ventures are a bit like that.  Sorry if I sound negative, but the truth is that there is a ton of risk.  I've been thinking of expanding my small consulting company for a while and I talked to a restaurant owner that I know about it.  He took over from his father, but he totally stripped out the old restaurant, made it upscale and changed the entire clientele.  Eventually he was successful.  I asked him how he decided to take the risk.

He told me that his whole family was against it.  His father didn't want him to continue the restaurant because it never really made that much money.  His wife wanted him to get a proper job with a stable income to look after their kids.  He was going to take their advice, but then changed his mind because he *really* wanted to run a restaurant.  He felt that even if it all failed and there was a lot of hardship for his family, it would still be worth it.

And I think that's why I didn't start a brewery and why I won't expand my consulting company.  I don't really care enough one way or the other.  I just want a fun job that I enjoy and that pays the bills.  I'm not interested in risking the well being of my family to follow a dream (that I don't actually have ;-) ).  So I can't really give you good advice other than to work hard on that business plan and to show it to a lot of people to see if it makes sense.  Then decide if you are willing to risk everything to do that job.

River Bottom Farm

To answer a few of your questions it will be a full time job just to care for the animals and milk them and then another full time job to make cheese and age it and then probably another half to full time job to market and run the business side of things.

As far as goats vs sheep I would let your market dictate what animal you went with. While goats give more milk sheep milk yields more cheese per fluid measure so you will likely come out around the same amount of cheese from a similar herd or flock size.

Although I am in Canada and most information I am aware of is for North America I would recommend the book "The small scale Dairy" by Gianaclis Caldwell and her other book "The small scale cheese business". They are good starting points for someone thinking of getting into cheese and milk production. Her other book "the farmstead creamery advisor" is an earlier version of the small scale dairy book so don't buy it unless you can't find the other

I hope you can make something happen for your family there. Family farming is the greatest life imaginable.