New York State knows that nothing beats homegrown, hand-crafted and local food and beverages. While New York is only 27th among the states in terms of size, it ranks among the nation's biggest producers of agricultural products including dairy, fruits, berries, maple syrup, and many vegetables such as sweet corn and pumpkins. In fact, nearly one-quarter of the state's total land area is used as farmland.

As a result, visitors to the state's various vacation regions can enjoy a variety of culinary experiences ranging from beer and wine trails to visiting the farms where a growing number of highly skilled cheese makers are creating quality, artisanal cheeses.

While the Finger Lakes have become synonymous with wineries and wine trails that weave throughout its eleven lakes, what you may not know is that the region has a fabulous cheese trail featuring 16 small, family-owned farms throughout the Finger Lakes region. Be prepared to sample everything from Gouda, Colby and cheddar to mozzarella, Swiss, Brie, Jack, along with local goat cheeses, and even some very unusual choices like Irish washed-rind cheese. Many of the operations invite the public to come right to the farm, and see how the cheese is made. Check their Web sites for hours, as many are seasonal, and some only sell at farmers markets.

The Trail also has open houses throughout the year, offering tours, tastings and family activities. Upcoming dates include Columbus Day Weekend, October 6-7; and a Holiday Open House, November 17. or "like" the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail on Facebook.

Highlighted below are some of the farms along the trail that offer interactive experiences year-round and not just during Open House weekends:

Side Hill Acres Goat Dairy, is located in picturesque Candor, a short, scenic drive from Ithaca or Binhmton. Since 1987 Russell and Rita Kellog have been an established goat dairy. In 1994, they also became a goat cheese processing plant.

Visitors can tour the farm, go into the goat barn which contains 138 head of dairy goats and even learn how to milk a goat by hand! Guests can also tour the cheese plant and learn how their cheese is made, taste their award-winning cheeses and cheese products and shop their farm store for their cheeses and a wide variety of other local, artisan foods including fudge, gluten-free and organic foods, herbs, bulk foods, honey, maple syrup and more. They're open year round, nearly every day of the week!

  • Sunset View Creamery
    The Hoffman Dairy, in Odessa, is a 5th generation operation. There, Carmella Hoffman has been crafting Cheddars, Monterey Jack Style Cheeses and Fresh Cheese Curds for nearly six years, while husband Ron and son, Jeremy, tend to the herd. Sunset View Creamery offers tours both of the farm and the Cheese house.

Visitors should call ahead at (607) 594-2095 and schedule a tour so they can ensure there is staff available to give the time needed for a quality tour. Tours are free for children. Prices for adults are $2 for farm or creamery only and $3 for both. The farm's hours are:

September & October, Friday, Saturday & Sunday 11-3
November - May 24, 2013 Open Friday & Saturday 11-3

A first generation dairy farmer, Tom Murray has been running his Registered Holstein Farm since 1991. In 2007, they started their cheese business, and currently produce over 15 varieties of cheddar-based cheeses, along with Gouda, blue, Asiago, and Colby at their cheese making facility in Cooperstown, age it on their farm in their extensive cheese cave, then sample and sell it in their immaculate farm store. The farm store & tasting room is open 7 days a week year round. And you can always convince one of the Murrays to give you an impromptu tour of their immaculate farm.

At Sprout Creek Farm in the Hudson Valley, visitors can see cheese making at this double creamery and taste how good the cheese is! It's made on site from their own cows' and goats' milk. Culinary Institute of America graduate Colin McGrath is the resident head cheese maker. They also emphasize education through summer camps, workshops and lectures and programs such as "Mommy Goes to Camp", even in the winter months. Sprout Creek Farm programs offer kids a fun, educational experience at a real working farm. They learn cooperation skills from real farm experiences, and learn by doing things themselves. The farm setting is a wonderful way to teach environmentally-responsible ways of caring for animals, working the land, and living a simpler, more environmentally integrated way of life.

Their three bedroom cottage Cottage with complete kitchen, dining room, and living room, den with a working fireplace and lovely garden just outside is available for vacation rentals for those who want to get way from city life and return to the natural rhythms of the country. Those looking for something to make their stay even more memorable can make a reservation to join their head cheese maker in a hands-on workshop and learn how cheese is made.

Stop by the farm market & pick up other locally made food products and picnic items as well! 34 Lauer Road, Poughkeepsie. 845-485-9885