“Last year we sold 312 tons of cheese to the island of São Miguel”
On December 31, 2021, Hospital A Uniqueijo – União de Cooperativas Agrícolas da Ilha de São Jorge, founded in 1986, underwent a profound restructuring in 2009 and 2010 and currently has three associates: A Cooperativa da Beira, Cooperativa dos Lourais and Cooperativa Finisterra do Topo, which are responsible for the production of one of the most emblematic and commercialized products of the Azores, the famous Queijo de São Jorge.
Speaking to Correio dos Açores, António Aguiar, President of Uniqueijo, said that although the year 2021 “is not yet fully closed”, the cheese production numbers will be very close to those achieved in the previous year.
“Contrary to what has been happening everywhere, in these two years of a pandemic, we have managed to have good results. We are among the 10% of Portuguese companies that have increased their turnover. The years 2020 and 2021 were the first times in which we exceeded €14 million in turnover”, he emphasizes.
Pointing to a sales volume of over 21 million euros last year, António Aguiar highlights the fact that the Cooperative has also managed to increase the price of milk paid to the producer. “We are in a situation above the region’s average and, last year, this average price paid was 28.8 cents per liter of milk and, this year, we want this value to exceed 31 cents per litre of milk. We know that it is not enough and that the farmers deserved much more, but it is what we can guarantee at this moment”, he laments.
Returning to the registered profits, the President of Uniqueijo considers that the fact that the Cooperative is one of the few companies that did not register large drops in the time of a pandemic is related to the very nature of its business.
“Agri-food products did not suffer so much and we know that with the pandemic many companies had to close and we never stopped (…) In addition, São Jorge cheese has gained notoriety in recent times that it did not have in the past. We have been working with many renowned chefs, we have won many awards, contests and we are meeting the market, namely, providing cheese in smaller portions and we have created some limited special editions in this sense”, he stresses.
Despite the good numbers achieved in recent times, António Aguiar shows some concerns about the future of the sector on the island of São Jorge, starting from the outset by emphasizing “the fact that we are getting a very aging population and in which there is a great difficulty in the workforce, which could lead to a drop in milk production. There is also beginning to be some conversion from milk to meat and if this occurs in large quantities, it could jeopardize the viability of the Cooperatives”. Still, on this last point, the President of Uniqueijo stresses the need to take into account the specificities existing on islands such as São Jorge.
“We are dedicated to the production of milk and the manufacture of its famous cheese. I understand that these measures must be taken with some caution because they can jeopardize the economy of some companies and, as a consequence, the economy of the island itself”, he warns.
Recalling an issue addressed in the last interview given to our newspaper and in which the possibility of the Cooperative to make a big deal with a Spanish coffee company had been advanced, António Aguiar explains where this process has reached.
“Portuguese and Italians drink coffee without milk but other countries do not. This company would like to have a special milk to add to its coffee and it should be noted that the national and international data we have point to the fact that we have a milk with a much superior quality. However, we had the pandemic and there was a waiting period here to let this situation pass”, he says.
When questioned in relation to the markets, the President of this Cooperativa Jorge shoots; “By chance we just closed a deal today (yesterday) and we are going to send 21 tons of cheese to the supermarket chain Biedronka, a branch of Pingo Doce, in Poland. It is a market to which we had already supplied but which we had not done so for 2 years”.
Still on the main markets for Queijo de São Jorge, António Aguiar explains how they are positioned.
“I can say that 58% of our cheese goes to mainland Portugal; 23% are in the Azores; 10% goes to the US; 7% for Canada and the rest for other markets in Europe or Asia. Of course, in the Azores, São Miguel is the one that takes the ‘biggest cake’ and last year we sold 312 tons to that island”, he emphasizes.
Finally, António Aguiar says that “marketing needs to be improved and whenever I meet with our government officials, I put that on the table. I understand that Queijo de São Jorge can be an ambassador for the cheeses produced in the Azores and, if we make Queijo de São Jorge known, this will take away the rest of the cheeses produced in the region”.