By Kelley Atherton

From Italy to a dairy farm in Willows to a cheese factory in Crescent City, Rumiano Cheese Company has evolved into an international cheese company.

President Baird Rumiano said that in the last couple of years the company started selling its cheese overseas, particularly in Asiathe Philippines, Korea and China. It was already sent across the country. The company also buys other cheese and distributes it throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Rumiano even sells its products to Organic Valley, which is based in Wisconsin, the andquot;Dairy Stateandquot; and home to andquot;Cheeseheadsandquot; in Green Bay.

Apparently, people like California cheese. That's part of it, Rumiano said, but with a drought in New Zealand and Australia, cheesemakers can't supply enough to Asia. Overall, cheese is becoming a more important food commodity, he said.

andquot;With food production getting less and less, people need some kind of protein,andquot; Rumiano said about the desire for cheese worldwide.

The company has undergone a few changes in the last few years. Three years ago it built a wastewater treatment plant, making the factory self-sufficient. It also moved its retail store from the fairgrounds back to 511 9th St., next to the Rumiano factory.

Rumiano is not only geographically local, but philosophically localall the milk is bought from eight dairies in Del Norte County and 28 in Humboldt County.

Agriculture remains one of the last fully functioning industries on the California North Coast. Mining and timber have fallen by the wayside and a large majority of land belongs to the national and state governments.

But lush green fields, aided by plentiful rain, keep cows well-fed and farmers in business.

Most of the milk that becomes Rumiano cheese or butter comes from grass-fed brown Jersey cows. As the advertisements say: andquot;Happy cows come from California.andquot;

andquot;In this area, most definitely,andquot; Rumiano said about local cows that aren't feed with grain or pumped up with growth hormones. andquot;That's one of our selling points, being natural.andquot;

The milk is also antibiotic and rBST (bovine growth hormone)-free, Rumiano said.

Steve Kirby, a lab technician for Rumiano at the Crescent City factory, sticks a long plug into a block of white-yellow cheese like a syringe. He pulls out what looks like a a cylinder of pull-string cheese. Every batch of cheese is randomly sampled for taste, acidity, moisture, and to andquot;see what it looks like.andquot; On this Monday, it's organic mild cheddar, aged five days.

This particular cheese is going to Organic Valley and requires a certain pH level and salt conducteach cheese and company Rumiano sells to has different requirements. For example, the low-fat varieties should have a lower salt content.

The state also has strict requirements. The milk has to be free of antibiotics and bacteria. Kirby displayed a petri dish died red with little dots that would indicate coliform or fecal matter. A clean sample is a sea of red.

Usually a sick cow is not milked, which keeps antibiotics out of the product. Bacteria can get into the milk just from dirt on udders.

If a driver tests a milk sample and finds antibiotics or bacteria in the milk he can refuse to take it and the dairy has to buy back its milk, which can cost thousands of dollars. The dairies get an extra monetary incentive if they consistently have clean milk, Rumiano said.

Kirby shreds a small chunk and places it on a sheet of circular paper. The fine strings of cheese are heated for a few seconds to see how evenly it melts.

This is especially important for the cheese that eventually tops a pizza (Rumiano also sells to Pizza Hut).

andquot;They used to put it under a heat lamp,andquot; Rumiano said about the old method for testing cheese. andquot;It would take 24 hours.andquot;

Kirby continued to explain how every batch is tested from the milk to finished product.

andquot;It's to make sure each piece of cheese is the same,andquot; Kirby said. andquot;We go through all these stepschecking, checking, checking.andquot;

Furthermore, it's to prevent a disaster like a recall.

andquot;A recall can kill you in the food industry,andquot; Rumiano said.

The milk is first pasteurized, which means it's heated to 163.5 degrees fahrenheit for 16 seconds. It's then transferred to a large vat where the cultures are added.

This is where the andquot;bugs get going,andquot; Rumiano jokednot literally bugs, but good bacteria. A vegetable enzyme is added to cause the proteins and sugars to reproduce and coagulate or clot into a custard-like substance.

The legend goes that cheese was discovered by an Arab trader who carried milk in a sheep's stomach (commonly used for storage) across the desert and discovered it had become cheese. The lining of any mammal's stomach is made of rennet or enzymes that cause milk to form into a semi-solid.

Once it gets to a certain thickness, it's cut into chunks. The process is similar to a mixer set on low, slicing curving lines through the whitish yellow milk semisolid that will become Dry Monterey Jack.

andquot;In the old days they used to cut it by hand, but now it's all automated,andquot; Rumiano said, pointing out the computer screen that sends signals to the machines to start their work.

andquot;It's the brains of the operations. It tells the machines what to do, for how long.andquot;

Now the milk has turned into what looks like rich yellow cottage cheese. It's actually curds and whey at this point. The curd is yellow from not only the type of cow, but from all the grass it eats, Rumiano said.

Laid out on a long draining table, it's stirred until the curd become heavy. The whey drains off to be reused later into butter. Rumiano makes four varieties of butter.

The company goes through about 40,000 gallons of milk a day, which makes roughly 40,000 pounds of cheese. Rumiano makes 63 varieties of cheese, but sells about 300 kinds through Rumiano in Willows.

As the fat content increases through this process the curd becomes more compact and full of protein.

Once the pH is at the right level (which varies from cheese to cheese) and it has the right amount of moisture, the curd gets dusted with salt.

Sufficiently salted, the curd is sucked through a vacuum to a machine that forms it into 40-pound blocks. From there the blocks are sent to Willows, to be cut up into the smaller packages for sale in stores.

All the water used throughout the process is treated in Rumiano's wastewater treatment plant adjacent to the factory and reused. The city gave Rumiano a $700,000 grant and he put up another $300,000 to build it.

The plant has increased efficiencies for the company, treating 20,000 gallons a day, Rumiano said, but is allowing the company to make twice as much cheese.

Rumiano started off as an independent family business and it's managed to stay that way for more than 80 years.

Richard, Fred and John Rumiano immigrated from Italy to America at the beginning of the 20th century. They worked in the mines of Amador County in central California. In 1919, the brothers purchased a dairy farm in Willows.

Throughout the 1920s, the Rumianos experimented with making butter and cheese. By the mid-1930s, they had became one of the largest cheese manufacturers in the state with eight factories scattered throughout California, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington, but have since downsized to just California.

As technology changed with the times, the brothers realized they needed larger factories and sold off all but two of their plants. Rumiano's grandfather Richard bought the Crescent City cheese factory in 1941 from the Zottola family. But the connection to Del Norte goes back farther than that. Rumiano said his family has been buying milk from local dairies for four generations.

The company was passed from generation to generation until 1980 when Baird and John Rumiano bought it from the rest of their family. In the 1980s, they started focusing more on distribution and modernizing the local factory. Now, operations are almost entirely automated, but Rumiano still employs about 35 workers at the factory.

Walking into a smaller room off to the side of the main factory, Rumiano explained how this was the original set-up of about 800 square feet The factory and warehouse have grown to 16,000 square feet.

A wholesale facility in Willows packages and distributes butter and cheese worldwide. Rumiano produces 300 types of cheese, specializing in Dry Monterey Jack.

The United States placed on embargo on Italy during World War II, Rumiano said, which meant people here couldn't get Italian cheese. However, Dry Monterey Jack was discovered and became andquot;the poor man's parmesan,andquot; Rumiano said.

andquot;After letting it sit in a cellar for six months it had a nutty, buttery taste,andquot; that Italians in San Francisco loved, he said.

The company has survived on the backs of good employees, Rumiano said. Most have been with him for at least 10 yearsthey take pride in what they do. But without quality milk from local dairies, there can't be a quality product, he added.

The company has gone from annual sales of $1.2 million in 1973 to $12 million now, Rumiano said.

andquot;The rest is history,andquot; he said summing up the company's progression.