When Robert Ralyea M.Sc ’98 walks into work, instead of sitting at his desk and answering emails, he buttons his white coat and pants, puts on his hair net and heads to the processing plant to begin the day’s batch of yogurt. Some days he begins as early as 3 a.m.
Ralyea is a senior extension associate and pilot project manager in the department of food science and the project manager for the Cornell Dairy’s Big Red Cheddar.
“What I do is support the number one agricultural industry in New York state [Cornell Dairy],” Ralyea said. “I try to keep New York state on the map with dairy. I’d like to have New York kick Wisconsin’s ass in cheese production.”
While Ralyea’s career is currently focused on cheese, he said he didn’t anticipate dairy as his career of choice when he was a young man.
“I wanted to be a veterinarian originally, but that didn’t work out,” Ralyea said. “Probably [in] high school was when I realized I didn’t want to be a vet. Growing up on a farm contributed to why I wanted to originally do that.”
The deciding factor for Ralyea was his 21 years of military service in the veterinary corps, when he realized he might not be cut out for permanent veterinary work, he said.
“I ran out of money, joined the Army and took part in a program that allowed me to finish a degree at the next level, so I came to Cornell,” he said “I would have been a good veterinarian. I am a big dog-lover.”
Ralyea earned a master’s degree in food sciences in 1998. After a six-year deployment, he returned to Cornell, where he said he was offered a job in the University’s dairy facility.
During his career as a pilot project manager, Ralyea revitalized Cornell cheese production — a program that he said had been dormant for several decades.
“In 2013 we started making Big Red Cheddar; that was the first cheese Cornell started making and selling,” Ralyea said. “They used to do it many, many, many years ago but it fell off the radar. There was a year of figuring out what we want to make it to be, but then we just started making it. We’ve tweaked it over the past couple of years, but now we think we have a great product.”
Although Big Red Cheddar was initially only sold on campus, it is now being sold in the Ithaca branch of Wegmans. Ralyea said he hopes to expand the product’s reach further.
“We’ve talked with Murray’s Cheese in New York City,” he said. “It’s more about figuring out the logistics of where things need to go from here. We have permission to sell off campus. We’re looking outside of the box.”
While acknowledging that dairy production and military work are quite different, Ralyea said he believes the skills he gained in the military helped him gain level-headedness and perspective which help him in his current role.
“[The Army] taught you that not every day is a sunny day. You just dealt with it,” he said. “You tend to look at things from a little bit of a different perspective when someone comes to you with a bit of an emergency and you’re like, ‘Well I’m not quite sure that’s an emergency so to speak.’”
Along with his passion for cheese, Ralyea labels himself as a “gear head,” or someone who likes collecting and fixing up old cars. He said his pride and joy is an 1984 Mustang.
“My father was a mechanic after the farm, so that’s probably where some of the gear-headedness came from,” Ralyea mentioned. “We’re building a new garage [for my cars] and [my wife] is not happy about that.”
Ralyea encouraged students to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves, no matter how surprising they appear.
“You never close the doors because you never know when that opportunity is actually going to strike for you,” Ralyea said. “I’m always looking for the next vision. No matter how rickety the bridge looks, you never kick the bridge down, because one day that could be the bridge you take.”