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Greenmarket Vendors Say Cheese Slicing Ban Stinks

By Amy Zimmer | June 27, 2011 6:47am

By Amy Zimmer

DNAinfo News Editor

UNION SQUARE — Cheesemongers at Union Square's greenmarket say the state's new crackdown on rules banning them from slicing their product in public without a license stinks like Gorgonzola.

Under rules now being enforced by the state's Department of Agriculture and Markets, farmers are no longer allowed to slice and wrap their cheese wheels at markets in New York unless they have a license to process food. They can only get that license if they have, for instance, a three-basin sink and hot water heater.

"It eliminates the personal touch, the beauty or freedom, if you will, of the farmers' market," said Jody Somers, of Dancing Ewe Farm, which makes artisanal caciotta, pecorino and ricotta in Granville, New York.

"We try to do the right thing on the farm. We try to treat the animals well. We trudge four hours to get here," Somers added. "We're under everyone's thumb."

Cheese vendors say that the state will kill off their success at local greenmarkets by subjecting them to similar rules as delis or grocery stores — since it's impossible to get access to the same running water in their temporary stands as delis do at a store.

In addition, unlicensed cheesemongers are supposed to cut cheese samples with a disposable plastic knife, an impossibility with hard cheese, Somers said.

"We have cheeses aged over a year," Somers said. "I have to use a double knife to cut them. How do I use a plastic knife?"

Some cheesemongers, like Somers, have been trying to pre-slice cheese for sale for greenmarket customers. But they say it's been hurting their business.

"You can never predict how much people will want to buy," he said, adding that wrapping cheese in plastic ahead of time "smothers the flavor" compared to fresh cheese.

"Cheese has a lot of microbes. It's alive, if you will."

Farmers say the crackdown began over the winter and that officials from Agriculture and Markets have been gradually approaching stands, one by one. Some cheesemakers, who apparently haven't been approached yet, said they hadn't heard of the rule.

The Agriculture and Markets department did not immediately respond for comment.

One cheese stand at the Union Square greenmarket got a $600 fine in November for not having a sink, said goat cheese maker Ellie (she said she goes by one name) at Patches of Star.

Ellie has always been packaging her goat cheese, so she hasn't been affected, but she was sympathetic to her colleagues' wrapping dilemma.

"For raw-aged cheese, that's ridiculous. You have to let that breathe," she said.

Jonathan White, who makes cheese at Bobolink dairy in New Jersey, has decried the rules, telling Grub Street that he's been slicing cheese for "22 years, and so far nobody has died." He had to sell off his prized cheddar at a sale price because of overcutting it.

Cynthia Wennstrom, who was working at Bobolink's stand on Friday, said the pre-packaging took them an extra eight hours of labor.

After she placed a bag of pre-packaged cheddar for customers to select, she said, "It's completely unromantic now." She lamented the loss of the "huge, beautiful" wheel of cheese they used to have on display.

"I doubt what they need is more rules to follow," said Wendy Chamberlain, who buys from Bobolink. "It's got to be hard for small farmers."

The packaging, however, won't deter her from buying there. "I don't buy cheddar anymore from anywhere else."

Since 90 percent of Somers' income comes from famers markets — and 90 percent of that is from Union Square, where Dancing Ewe has been selling for five years — he has no choice but to pre-package. He said he can't invest in a trailer to house the sink and other equipment, which he estimates would cost upwards of $7,000.

"We can't afford to get shut down."