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Cheese and Dairies in New Mexico

By Phyllis Eileen Banks and Carla DeMarco

Last updated on Wednesday, January 08, 2003

Cheese is a beloved food around the world. As New Mexico is often associated with cacti and desert, many people do not realize the Land of Enchantment is the fastest growing dairy state in the nation. In Roswell, Leprino Foods has the world"s largest mozzarella cheese factory.

Today we take cheese production for granted. But how did cheese originate? Was Miss Muffet's "curds and whey" version near the beginning of cheese's enduring evolution?

According to legend, cheese was first discovered 4,000 years ago when an Arabian merchant journeyed across the desert, carrying a supply of milk in a pouch. The lining of the pouch, combined with the heat of the sun, caused the milk to separate into curds and whey, leaving him with an original entree for dinner.

Clay tablets have been found mentioning cheese from about 4000 B.C,. and cheese molds and pots for making cheese have been found in an Egyptian tomb at about 3000 B.C. Butter is mentioned in the Old Testament and translators believe the word refers to curds. Roman soldiers carried cheese as a staple part of their diet and the Chinese used yogurt, a dehydrated form of cheese, as a main meal.

The United States is the largest producer of cheese in the world, and the per capita cheese consumption in the U.S. has steadily increased. Leprino Foods chose Roswell because of the availability of a plant that was adaptable to cheese making, but also because of the milk supply from the 48 dairies located in Chaves County. Milk is also available from Portales, Clovis, Albuquerque, Las Cruces and other places in the state. Statewide, dairies number about 80.

If you've ever wondered how many gallons of milk it takes to make a pound of cheese, the answer is that it depends on the type of cheese. One hundred pounds of milk makes 9 1/2 lbs. of cheese or 13 lbs. of mozzarella. The balance is 87 pounds of whey, the liquid. The whey is then made into powdered protein and powdered lactose. These are used in manufacturing operations all over the world to produce infant formula, ice cream, doughnuts, cookies, low-calorie sour cream, yogurt, powdered creamers, seasonings, sweeteners and pharmaceutical products.

The Roswell plant has sixteen 50,000 pound cheese vats capable of processing up to 290,000 pounds per hour of milk into four types of cheese on two production lines with eight vats each. Many cheese manufacturing plants wrap their cheeses. Leprino, however, uses a different process. It quick freezes the cheese, similar to the way coffee is freeze dried. Each kernel of cheese is frozen separately then stored in quantity in boxes. Because of this process, thawing time is reduced and the cheese doesn't stick together.

So when you eat your pizza, remember the mozzarella cheese on it may well have been produced in Roswell, New Mexico. And be kind to your counter or delivery person; they just may be a reincarnated Little Miss Muffet with a bad case of arachnophobia.

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