Turning cheese into profit in Costa Rica's Central Valley

International Living
John Michael Arthur
A woman produces cheese according to organic farming procedures at the farm La Esperanza in Platanares de Moravia, 12 km north of San Jose.
Mayela Lopez | AFP | Getty Images

Misty, dream-like cloud forests…Olympian mountaintops with fertile river valleys…miles of pristine, empty beaches… Despite its small size, Costa Rica is one of the most beautiful and biodiverse countries in the world. It has everything a nature lover like me could want.

But every utopia has its imperfection. In Costa Rica, it's called queso. In most Spanish-speaking countries, queso means cheese in the generic sense. But in Costa Rica, queso refers almost exclusively to a bland, white cheese. In fact, most Ticos (as Costa Ricans call themselves) have never even heard of gruyère, gouda, or gorgonzola. And don't even get me started about brie, blue, or butterkase.

I could have simply accepted my new cheese-less existence, but instead, I saw this as a grand opportunity. I've always admired the Renaissance Man—a person accomplished in many interests and hobbies—but I never had time during my work-a-day life back in Texas to indulge all the things I wanted to do.

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Learning to make cheese was on the top of that list.

Growing up in Texas I knew how much work cows could be and I was not ready to take that on. Goats were my answer. Keeping goats is much easier and cheaper. Much smaller spaces are needed, and they need less to eat. I grow all the grass they eat right on my farm. All that adds up to a decrease in expense.

When all the costs for keeping a goat are added up, a gallon of milk costs me just about 50 cents.

Women who had only moments before entered the house arm in arm were now elbowing each other out of the way as they grabbed and snatched at marinated feta, ricotta, and manchego.

My new passion keeps me in plenty of cheese. It wasn't long before I was adept at making several common cheeses: colby, feta, chèvre, mozzarella, camembert, and cheddar. My gringo neighbors were also delighted. By a strange coincidence, their visits began to increase in frequency.

It wasn't long before folks started suggesting I sell my cheese. But I didn't want my hobby to turn into a wearisome job. After all, I came to Costa Rica to unwind, not to start another stressful 9-to-5. So, I gave the idea a trial run with a "cheese party." The host gets free cheese, I get a free place to hawk my wares, and the guests get cheese…for a price.

On the night of the first party, I gave a short description and a sampling of each cheese. I held my breath to see if anyone would come forward to buy. There was a stampede. Women who had only moments before entered the house arm in arm were now elbowing each other out of the way as they grabbed and snatched at marinated feta, ricotta, and manchego.

I sold out of every morsel of cheese I'd brought. The "Cheese Man" (as I've been dubbed) returns about every six weeks for another party. It stays fun for me because I can make whatever cheeses I want. I don't feel constrained because I don't take any orders.

My cheeses now yield an average income of $1,200 every six weeks. I could easily grow this into a full-fledged, large-scale business—there is a niche that could be filled selling at markets and stores if you wanted to create a full-time job for yourself. But I like to keep my hobby/business limited to friends and cheese parties.

I love my life in Costa Rica. I live in a mystical, harmonious valley surrounded by majestic, mountain giants. At daybreak, shimmering, bubblegum pink and saffron-orange rays set the early morning mist aglow. At night, the lights from nearby hamlets flicker and blink in the foothills like lightning bugs dancing across the sky.

It's beautiful…but cheese makes it better.

Commentary by John Michael Arthur, an American doctor who relocated to Costa Rica.

This article was originally published on InternationalLiving.com.

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