Posts filed under 'Travel'

Bleu Mont Dairy

Willi LehnerName: Bleu Mont Dairy
Owner: Willi Lehner and Quitas McKnight
Location: Blue Mounds, WI
Animals: Bleu Mont purchases cow milk from local, certified organic dairies practicing rotational grazing.
Cheeses/Products: Bandaged-wrapped cheddar, various styles of washed rind cheeses. Some are aged just 60 days and others are aged out over a couple years.
More info: Bleu Mont Dairy

We first met Willi at the Madison farmers’ market which is the largest market of its kind in the U.S. (it has the largest number of producers). There are many cheesemakers at the Madison market and Willi has a prime piece of real estate there. It is a priority for him as he only sells his cheese at the market- to both retail and restaurant customers alike. He is a natural salesman- at least in the cheese world- because he understand that the fastest way onto someone’s cheese plate is via their taste buds… he samples his cheese to you immediately when you approach the stand. I first heard about Bleu Mont Dairy from Mike Gingrich. Mike suggested that we visit Willi on our tour of Wisconsin because he is doing things differently than anyone else on our Cheese by Hand roster.

How is Bleu Mont different? Well, there are no animals at the dairy- not so unusual- and there is no cheesemaking room. There is a curing room (Willi’s term for a cave or maturing room) that he swears is the smallest one in the state of Wisconsin. There is also a skeletal structure in place for a curing room that is soon to become a reality and the envy of many cheesemakers around the country for sure. So how and why does he do it this way? Let me take a step back and tell you a little bit about Willi’s entire cheese career.

New Curing Room Structure

Willi’s mother and father are both first generation Swiss immigrants and his father is also a cheesemaker. His father made cheese in Wisconsin for decades, largely in his own facility, and Willi worked with him on and off for years. Armed with a Swiss passport Willi set out to travel in his early 20’s and managed to last for approximately ten years alternating between exploring and working. One of the things he mentioned doing that peaked my interest was the summer he spent with his brother making cheese in the alps. The two of them took a herd of dairy cows up into the mountains to graze on open pastures and turn their milk into cheese each day. This is a traditional practice in the valleys in and around the Alps. There is not enough pasture in the valleys for farmers to graze their animals year round and put up enough feed to take them through the winter months. Often a number of dairymen will pool their milkers together and send on or two delegates up the mountains for the summer months to make cheese. The beautiful word that encapsulates this entire concept is called transhumance. Regardless of how romantic and pastoral it sounds it amounts to a summer of awesome views and incredibly hard work.

I get the feeling that for Willi it makes sense to have each person to focus on what they do best- the farmer produces the milk and the cheesemaker selects the best milk and produces cheese from that milk. Although he had years of experience making cheese with his father and also with his brother in Switzerland, it wasn’t until 1988 that he made his first batch of cheese under his own name. Fortunately, because of his background in the Wisconsin cheese industry with his father, Willi found people who were willing to allow him to use their facilities to bring in milk and produce his own cheeses. He has done this in a number of cheesemaking facilities in the area near his home, most recently he used the facility at Uplands Cheese to experiment with different recipes using the Pleasant Ridge Reserve shaped forms for the resulting wheels.

Quitas on the cheese tour

In 2002 Willi and Quitas secured a grant from the Wisconsin Dairy Business Innovation Center to visit cheesemakers in the UK and learn the art of aging or maturing cheeses, specifically clothbound cheddar. Armed with this additional knowledge they installed a small cave on their property in 2003. Walking through his in-ground greenhouse and cheese cave is fascinating because in addition to getting information about his aging techniques you get to learn about Willi’s use of and commitment to alternative energy. He uses a great amount of solar energy for his home and his greenhouse and aging facilities and more recently he installed a wind generator that is currently the main source of energy on his property.

Current Curing Room

As amazing as this first facility is, it is kind of put to shame by the new curing room that is currently under construction. In all fairness, the existing curing room functions beautifully it is just space-challenged. We walked down a short dirt road over to the edge of the construction site. When you stand up at the edge of the rubble you are looking down onto the oblong web-like structure that will soon be covered with concrete and a layer of earth to help regulate temperature and even humidity. It is cool to look at and walk around in but even cooler to think about what it will allow Bleu Mont to do in terms of increasing their cheese production.

Cheddar & Lake Louie brewskieAfter hanging out with Willi and Quitas for the afternoon it makes sense that Bleu Mont Dairy is like no other- and it is clear that this is not done for the purpose of distinguishing themselves in the market as unique it is just the way of living and producing artisan cheese that makes sense to them. We ended our visit with the interview which was conducted over a pint of local Lake Louie beer and tastes of their curing room ripened cheeses- quite a way to spend an afternoon in the rolling hills of Blue Mounds Wisconsin.

3 comments September 18th, 2006

Uplands Cheese Company

Mike conducting vertical tasting of Pleasant Ridge ReserveName: Uplands Cheese Company
Owners: Mike and Carol Gingrich
Location: Dodgeville, Wisconsin
Animals: 200 cross-breeds. Started with 50 Holsteins and bred in other breeds.
Cheeses/Products: Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Pleasant Ridge Reserved Extra Aged
More info: www.uplandscheese.com

Even fourth generation Wisconsin cheesemakers will tell you that the Gingrichs are the ultimate artisan cheese success story. Mike worked at Xerox for years when the Gingrichs lived in Southern California where they were both raised. At some point along his corporate path Mike realized that he was ready for a different lifestyle. Having enjoyed time he spent on the farms of his aunts and uncles when he was a boy, he thought that farm living would be an interesting experience for his own family. Needless to say it was an adjustment- but one that in the long-term they are glad they made. Mike started out raising beef cattle for a few years and eventually switched to dairy farming. He and Carol milked 30 cows for years before they began talking with friends Dan and Jeanne Patenaude their community about becoming partners in a larger dairy.

Although Jeanne had grown up on a dairy farm, Dan got into dairying when the woman who lived across the road from his family was milking 30-40 cows on her own and needed some assistance. Gradually Dan transitioned to running the farm for her. Mike and Dan had a vision for a rotational grazing setup which was possible in their region of Wisconsin if they could get enough contiguous acres to do it. They got together in 1994 and found a 300 acre parcel that they felt could support 200 cows. The acreage was parceled into 19 pastures with all of the buildings, and the original farmhouse, in the center of the property. By the spring of 1995 they were selling fluid milk. Within a short period of time it became apparent that running the farm efficiently, from a managerial perspective, did not require both Mike and Dan full-time. Thus Mike began looking at value-add products that they could produce from the farm.

One unique factor for aspiring cheesemakers in the state of Wisconsin is the requirement to complete an apprenticeship. In order to get a cheesemaking license in the state, you are required to complete specified coursework at the University of Wisconsin and also to spend a certain number of hours working in a licensed cheese plant. The requirements have changed considerably within the last 10 years to create a more flexible program for people looking to get into the cheesemaking industry. As Mike pointed out- if he hadn’t had a partner in his dairy business, fulfilling the requirements would have been incredibly difficult for him to do while running his dairy. Mike spent a year and a half(not exactly full-time) working at Cedar Grove, a cheesemaking facility about 15 miles from his farm.

Many fans wonder how Uplands came up with such a unique and successful recipe…Methodically, of course! Mike looked through the Cheese Primer and identified cheeses that were made with milk produced when the cows are out on high quality, sCheese shrinepring and summer pastures. The seasonal aspect of Uplands’ cheese production is key to Mike’s philosophy on producing award-winning cheeses; they make cheese only when the pastures are in excellent condition because they feel that this produces the best kind of milk for aged, raw milk cheeses. Once he identified a group of cheeses, he ordered chunks of each one from Murray’s Cheese and then invited all of their friends over to select the winner. The group unanimously agreed that Beaufort was their favorite. The next step was to learn how to make Beaufort so Mike went to the University of Wisconsin to work with cheese experts there who helped him learn the ways of Beaufort production. Of course they made some changes to the recipe to account for the difference in wheel size (traditional Beaufort is usually about 90 lbs per wheel and Pleasant Ridge Reserve is about 10 lbs per wheel). They were ready to begin making cheese but not quite ready to construct their own plant so Mike made an arrangement with Cedar Grove to use their facility.

This worked wonderfully for a starting point. Mike and Carol followed the truck filled with their milk up the road to Cedar Grove each day to make cheese. The schedule was a bit tough given that they started their cheese make after the folks at Cedar Grove were finished which meant long days for the Gingrichs. There were also some equipment challenges- for example the press they used at Cedar Grove was a cheddar press and the wheels of Pleasant Ridge Reserve are quite small for that style of horizontal press. Mike said that a couple times they had wheels that would “pop” out of alignment and that to avoid this they had to develop a system of straps to keep the wheels of newly made cheese in place. However- both Mike and Carol are incredibly grateful for the learning time they spent at Cedar Grove. This time afforded them the opportunity to learn what equipment and setup was going to make the most sense for them before they invested capital to build their own facility.

Carol describing Pleasant Ridge Reserve

As many of you know, Pleasant Ridge Reserve can be aged for a period of 5-20+ months (read: a long time). Although Mike and Carol had many people who could help them with cheesemaking there weren’t resources or great bodies of information about maturing cheeses. They are largely self-taught and continue to tweak things year to year. There is an immense amount of time and labor involved in maturing Pleasant Ridge Reserve- and keep in mind that as you begin making in the spring of a new season, you are still tending to most of the wheels from the previous year’s production. The Gingrichs were fortunate enough to get their friend of many years Joe Milinovich to come on board at Uplands as their cave manager. He and his two staff members are in the caves 7 days a week washing and turning wheels, cleaning boards and monitoring the environment. Everyone knows that Joe and his team are rocking their job in the caves but we also found out that Joe is quite a talented pig roaster.

Joe Milinovich the cave master at Uplands Cheese Co.

The day after we conducted our formal interviews with Mike and Carol we attended the annual pig roast they hold with Dan and Jeanne at the farm. Over 150 people from their community come out for it each year with potluck contributions in hand. We not only had the opportunity to meet other Wisconsin cheesemakers but also some of the original tasting crew that helped determine the cheese Uplands would produce. A great honor indeed. Even with amazing pig parts, noodle salads, freshly picked pears, and pies available at every turn, I still found myself returning to the cheese tent to sample the multiple ages of Pleasant Ridge Reserve…go figure.

1 comment September 12th, 2006

Faribault Dairy

Jeff and Randy in make roomName: Faribault Dairy
Owners: Jeff Jirik, Randy Ochs, Mike Gilbertson- these are the three employee shareholders and there are also two non-employee shareholders
Location: Faribault, MN
Animals: The creamery gets their milk via a milk coop who collect milk from numerous dairies.
Cheeses/Products: Amablu, Amablu St. Pete’s Select, Amablu Gorgonzola
More info: www.faribaultdairy.com

When Jeff Jirik says that the Faribault Dairy is a national treasure I wholeheartedly agree. Although the space was first used to produce beer, as a result of its natural characteristics it is ideal for maturing cheese. Faribault Dairy is located in the small town of Faribault, MN. The buildings that are visible from the outside run along a small river and the majority of the facility is built into a tall sandstone bluff. It is not your run-of-the-mill sandstone, rather, it is St. Peter Sandstone. St. Peter’s Sandstone is beach sand deposit from the glaciers of the last glacial age. This sandstone allows water to migrate through it both horizontally and vertically and has a natural capacity for absorbing ammonia just to name a couple of the traits that make it valuable for cheese maturation.

faribault cave

In the late 1930’s Felix Fredrikson, a food scientist for KRAFT, stumbled upon the facility which had been used as a brewery since 1854 and he immediately understood the value of that particular real estate for food production. Blue cheese and this facility have a long history that began with Felix in the late 1930’s (it was the first blue cheese plant in the U.S.) and carried right on through into the early 90’s when the plant was closed down by the conglomerate that took ownership of it in the 80’s. The cave capacity have been expanded over time. The majority of the caves (14-ft wide and 22-ft tall) were dug with basic tools like 4 inch wide chisels. The total cave capacity at the time the facility was closed in the early 90’s was 29,000 square feet. During the time it was open, the creamery produced one of, if not the most appreciated blue cheeses made in the US. The creamery collected milk from approximately 70 local family farms and employed many residents in the community.

One of the employees was Jeff Jirik. He got a job at the creamery after graduating from college. He started out in the group that scraped mold off the outside of the wheels of cheese to make them look more appealing before being sold. Managers quickly realized that Jeff had skills that were useful to them- like knowing how to use a microscope and speaking German with equipment vendors. He advanced steadily in the company, working in many different areas to gain a full understanding of how the business and processes worked. When the plant closed in 1993 he was disappointed- seeing it as a huge loss to the industry and his local community. During the next seven years, Jeff couldn’t get those caves out of his mind. The caves and the attached facility passed through a number of hands after cheesemaking ended and Jeff kept track of the use of the land during those years. When Jeff decided that he wanted to get a blue cheese plant up and running again he decided to call the the property’s owner- a long shot- to see if he was interested in selling.

Call it fate or a big coincidence, that owner was looking to sell. Jeff contacted two of his former colleagues from Faribault and then signed on the property only to begin the mammoth task of cleaning the facility. They did this work in addition to holding other jobs. What made the re-establishment of this facility so intense was the sheer volume of space involved. Once they had finished hauling out mud and junk they sanded and cleaned all of the caves and other facility surfaces. The former cheese plant colleagues were clear that they needed to start in this facility with an absolutely clean slate. Every surface was carefully sanitized before being whitewashed (caves) or covered with USDA approved coatings (work areas).

cheese in cave

In early January of 2001 they made a small vat of cheese at the University of Minnesota for a market test. The response was positive and exactly one year later they made their first vat in the old plant. Although it was not possible to contract for milk with the family farms that had supplied the creamery in former years, Jeff secured a sound relationship with a milk coop. This relationship gives Faribault the opportunity to expand their operation and also to specialize batches… for example one of their current projects is to develop a line of organic blue cheeses with local organic milk. Faribault continued with many of the practices that made the former plant so successful- a prime example of this is their testing program. They have an in house lab where they examine moisture and salt contents but they also test every load of milk not only for antibiotics but also for any potentially harmful pathogens. They feel that as producers of raw milk cheese, this is their responsibility to ensure a safe product for their consumers.

I have immense respect for the commitment of Jeff and his colleagues. When you talk to them about their own paths through the cheese industry they all give tremendous credit to the individuals who taught them. There is immense respect for those that came before them and many of those former employees stop by to visit because they are so happy to see the plant running again.

With three large vats designed to crank out over a hundred wheels each day, Faribault intends to put its blue back at the top of the American Blue Cheese list. They began with Amablu- their classic blue- and from that they developed a blue for the more adventurous palette- St. Pete’s Select. The most recent addition to their product line is their Amablu Gorgonzola. These are cheeses you can look for in your local stores- possibly even some supermarkets. Faribault’s access to large quantities of milk and expanding space for aging cheese benefits all of us cheese enthusiasts because it means that their cheeses will be more widely available across the country.

Blue cheese rubbed in salt

1 comment September 7th, 2006

Shepherd’s Way Farms

BarnName: Shepherd’s Way Farms
Owners: Steven and Jodi Read
Location: Nerstrand, MN
Animals: Total number of adult ewes, approximately 450, 100 ewe lambs. All are East-Friesian crosses.
Cheeses/Products: Friesago, Queso Fresco de Oveja, Big Woods Blue. Several other cheeses are available on a limited basis: Hidden Falls, Harmand, and traditional Ricotta.
More info: www.shepherdswayfarms.com

I think that most of us have had an experience in life where we think we are set… we think we are finished with the struggling and on our way to something until we find out, that like some kind of cruel joke, the counter has been set back to mile one. And not only are we back at the beginning but usually we are suffering too- not only from our setback but also disbelief and frustration at our own bad luck. Imagine that you managed to get yourself through the multitude of hoops on the route to farmstead cheesemaking. You pooled enough resources together to get an adequate piece of land, developed a product that sells, settled on a distribution plan, and grew your herd from the ground up, and held a strong place in the market for a solid decade only to be thwarted by an incident that was worse than most you could have imagined. This is what happened to Jodi and Steven at Shepherd’s Way Farm. An arsonist set fire to the barn that housed all of their ewes and new lambs. Overnight they went from an operation milking approximately 550 with 200 new lambs to a family dealing with the loss of 325 ewes and 200 lambs. This event was incredibly upsetting on an emotional level and a tremendous setback in their business. We wanted to visit Shepherd’s Way because they have become known as “the farm that lost their herd in a fire”, and given that the fire happened a year and a half ago and they are still in business, we felt compelled to learn and share who they are now.

Jodi and Steven are acutely aware of their reputation. When we started our farm tour, Steven set out an aerial photo of the farm pre-fire and said, “let’s just get the fire business out of the way.” He is completely comfortable talking through the events because he has gone over it so many times and I’m slightly uncomfortable for the exact same reason (I’m another person asking them to tell the story). It is the elephant in the room, something that could be problematic for them when talking about their business and instead, because Jodi and Steven are so up front about it, you really get a feel for how these this family and business has begun to accept this as part of who they are. They have been at their current location for about 5 years- before we dive into the farm tour let me give you a bit of background on them and their path to cheesemaking.

Both Jodi and Steven are Minnesota natives and, as is the case with many of our cherished American cheesemakers, neither of them grew up farming. Steven had worked in a number of jobs involving agriculture and education, eventually concluding that teaching in a conventional system would not be fulfilling for him. He gained an incredible amount of knowledge about agriculture through travel, his graduate degree and a job that he held as a nutritional consultant for a feed company. Both before and after developing his own farmstead operation, Steven travelled around the country visiting small farms and cheesemaking operations. The Reads had been looking for some opportunity that would shift their lifestyle more towards having time with their family; Steven read and article about the feasibility of sheep dairying and thought it might be the right solution for them. Jodi was maybe slightly less certain that this was the perfect opportunity at the time and so she gave Steven the green light to proceed with a few conditions: he had to find a place to keep the sheep that didn’t cost him anything, he needed to figure out how to buy the sheep (given that, at the time, the Reads didn’t have money beyond what they needed to cover their living expenses), and there was a loose agreement that he would buy a “reasonable” amount- you know- “some” sheep. Steven found a friend to help him finance the purchase of the sheep, bartered for a place to keep them and got a “great deal” on 40 sheep within a couple weeks- this should give you a sense of the level of determination the Reads have when they set their sites on something. They wrote down their goal at that time- it is simple and direct and yet broad enough to house an expanding dream- “We believe that there is a way to live that combines hard work, creativity, respect for the land and animals, and a focus on family and friends. We believe the small family farm still has a place in our society. Everything we do, everything we make, is in pursuit of this goal.” That statement is the basis for their farm’s mission statement today.

Jodi in the pasture

In 1995 they began milking and by 1996 they were doing it full time and selling their milk via the Wisconsin Dairy Sheep Coop- Jodi contributed some of her time to the development of the coop. 1998 rolls around and the contract guaranteeing their milk seems uncertain by early spring so they begin to consider other options. Keep in mind that with their growing herd and new farming lifestyle, Jodi is still a full-time employee at the University as an accomplished technical writer. So Steven takes a soap making class and although they produced a batch of beautiful soap with their milk, they realized just how much soap they would have to make to use the milk of their entire herd. Thus they began an informal, regional market survey about cheese.

Shepherd’s Way produced their first batch of cheese in August of 1998. They didn’t have their own facility so they had to rent a space - meaning that they made large batches less frequently to make it more economical. I think about Jodi, who has established herself as a capable and talented cheesemaker over the last decade, working with that first vat of 4500 pounds of milk. Tremendous pressure indeed. Granted she was not alone for those initial batches- she was assisting- but at some point she did take over as the lead cheesemaker and has been doing that since then. The original plan was to allow the cheese to wait for five months before tasting and selling but no one except Steven was actually patient enough to wait so they tasted at 2 months, and with positive feedback from local retailers, they sold out quickly. In the background, their herd was growing and Jodi and Steven were looking seriously for a farm where they can have their herd and cheesemaking operation together.

After a three year long farm search, Jodi put an ad in a small paper and got a phone call from a Alan Hope who thought she had placed an ad for a piece of farming equipment. When she explained that her ad was for a farm, he said that he had one of those for sale too. Jodi doesn’t strike me as the impulsive type at all and yet when she drove out and saw this farm for the first time she had a strong feeling that this was the one. Based on the drive out to their farm I can understand the appeal- rolling hills dotted with trees and the occasional home. It took them at least a year to pool the resources to close on the farm which they did in 2001. As Steven walked us through the milking parlor he designed (it is the only sheep parlor I’ve seen yet where the milker is in a pit and the sheep are at ground level), it is obvious that he set it up to flow with a considerable volume of sheep. He explained that their current plan will have them expand to up to 1400 ewes. The parlor, milk, cheesemaking, maturing and packing rooms are all housed in the original barn- a beautiful old building with some additions off one side. Creating a new space for housing the sheep and the nursery allowed them to do two things that were important to them: they got to allot spaces big enough to grow into (not to mention work in comfortably), and to create a long corridor with windows into each part of the operation: a built-in educational walking tour. As we walked through the cheesemaking room, Jodi explained that they are working to add onto the cheesemaking portion of their facility so that she can produce their famous Big Woods Blue on site as they do with all of their other cheeses. Until they have that addition, Jodi will continue to make and age the blue cheese in another facility because of concerns about blue mold contamination of their other non-blue products.

Shepherd's sheep

The ewes are moved to different pastures daily, this chore is often handled by their eldest son- with some assistance from the younger boys. We walked out to see the ewes in the pasture and Jodi explained that building the herd back up is a slower process (even more so than usual) because the health of many of them was compromised as a result of the fire. They are all Friesian crosses- some with black faces, some with white- every once in a while you’ll see a spotted ewe in the mix. Shepherd’s Way is making cheese a couple times a week at this point as a lot of their time has been focused on figuring out what happens next. When you walk around the farm and out onto pasture with the ewes it is abundantly clear that the fire was not just a setback to a business, the farm and the herd are also an integral part of their family’s life. Listening to Jodi and Steven talk about their future plans you can see that they are planning something beyond a business, they are planning to shift their community’s relationship to the landscape- how they think about food, the land, and sustainability. As a result of the fire, Jodi and Steven have gone through an extensive evaluation of what they want to spend their lives doing. Remember that they could have decided to step out of the farmstead cheese business and instead they’ve elected not only to continue but to expand making more cheese and creating opportunities for education on their farm. Through this process they have renewed their commitment to the values that lead them to this lifestyle and livelihood in the beginning.

After our day at Shepherd’s Way what stuck with me most about their experience is that it could have played out so many other ways, many of them less desirable. Spending just a day with Jodi, Steven and their boys, it was so apparent that something incredible and fruitful will come from their loss solely because that is the kind of people they are. They have been generous enough to allow others to participate with them through their entire process- from the acquisition of the first herd in the early 90’s, to dealing with the loss of their herd, and now rebuilding. I want to encourage all of you to watch for them in the future. We hope to see the slow and steady resurgence of their product on the shelves in 2007.

Shepherd's sheep

2 comments September 3rd, 2006

Amaltheia Dairy

AmaltheiaName: Amaltheia Dairy LLC
Owners: Melvyn and Sue Brown
Location: Belgrade, MT
Animals: Milking almost 300 goats, the herd is made up of various breeds- recently certified organic.
Cheeses/Products: Chevre (Plain and flavored), Ricotta, and Feta
More info: www.amaltheiadairy.com

We stopped by the cheese facility to see Sue late in the afternoon on the day before our official visit. She talked to us a bit about how Amaltheia got started and took us on a tour through their cheese plant which is located in the town of Belgrade in a small industrial park. Originally the Browns wanted to build the cheesemaking facility on their land but the state wanted to do a $13,000 EPA study before they would give them the green light to apply for building permits so they secured a spot at an industrial park close to the farm. They’ve got the standard setup- a bay to park their milk truck which collects from the farm every 2-3 days, a 1,000 gallon vat pasteurizer, a large mixer for their flavored chevres, a large walk-in cold storage space and a packaging room. There is additional space for packing materials and they do have an additional cold space that could potentially serve as a maturing area for other styles of cheese.

Sue and Sasha

We interviewed Sue and Melvyn separately because, in their current situation, Sue is at the cheese facility most of the time and Melvyn is at the farm. Although a division of labor like this is typical in a cheesemaking operation like theirs- you can see the added complexity they deal with in having two locations. The Browns met each other in the late 70’s in Guatemala where Sue was teaching and Melvyn was working as an embryologist. Melvyn was one of the pioneers in the practice of harvesting eggs from top quality cows, fertilizing them and implanting them in other heifers. This allowed access to the top genetics without having your best animals undergo intensive breeding not to mention the ability to get a much higher reproductive yield from your best animals. Melvyn was sent to a number of different countries because of the value of his knowledge and skills in embryology.

Although Melvyn has a sort of high-tech animal husbandry skill, his farming methods are based on the small, family farm he grew up on in the Lake District of Northern England. His family and many of their neighbors had small farms to supply themselves with much of their food. The methods used on these farms would be considered organic today- no use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides, and attention to all aspects of the ecosystem- water, soil, animal and bird life. When Sue and Melvyn moved to Southern Michigan (where Sue grew up) and started a family, they cultivated a small farm much like the one Melvyn’s family had. Just as a hobby they got a “small” herd of goats… for the Brown’s this means 50 head.

Melvyn

Years later, Melvyn was offered a job in Montana, so the family relocated. Melvyn had always had this idea about being a goat farmer so when work for him dried up and they heard about a small cheesemaking company that was doing some private label cheese for a west coast outfit and in need of goat milk they decided to put their herd to work. On Thanksgiving day in 2001 the Browns began teaching their goats about milking equipment and selling milk to the local cheesemaker.

Six months later, the Browns had the opportunity to take over the private label cheesemaking business, instruction included, and that is when they became cheesemakers. Not long after they began making cheese they decided that they would like to have their own label and a facility upgrade was necessary. At that time they moved into their current space and developed the Amaltheia label. One of the more interesting names on the market… For anyone who is not familiar with the word Amaltheia you can read about it on the dairy’s website. Sue has been a teacher for 19 years and at the time they needed a name for their label she was teaching Greek mythology. More importantly though, I think the name illustrates how the Browns feel about goat milk- that it is an incredibly nourishing and miraculous food source.

The Browns were awaiting their organic certification documents when we visited. The farm and dairy have been in the the ladiesfinancially challenging 3-year transition where they have been spending more dollars for organic feed and yet unable to reap the benefits associated with organic certification in the market. Most interesting to me is that when I asked Melvyn if the transition presented difficulties for them, he explained that they didn’t actually have to adjust much. He pointed only to two things that they changed: the first was replacing the standard teat-dip with highly diluted hydrogen peroxide and the second was that any newborn kids that were given medication not approved by organic standards had to be tagged and sold. Their herd is generally in good health so their losses during kidding season were approximately the same as they’ve been in previous seasons. Their organic feed is coming from farms within a 10-15 mile radius- enabling them to support their neighbors.

Transitioning to certified organic was not something they decided to do solely for the edge it might give them in the market. The way they live their lives day to day is in line with the basic tenets of the early organic movement. Every time Michael or I made a comment about the benefit of providing organic food to the market Melvyn would respond by emphasizing that their decision to go organic is about more than the goats or the milk or the cheese; it is about the soil, insects, air, water, and wildlife. The Browns are passionate about the natural resources in Montana and the opportunity that the state has to be a leader in more sustainable methods of food production and bio-fuels. Amaltheia Dairy reminds me that although certified organic is a label that provides consumers with a baseline of information about a product, it doesn’t give a robust picture of the producer and in Amaltheia’s case this is unfortunate. I know the organic certification will help them in markets where they are less well known I just hope that people will take time to learn even more about them as I think they are an excellent example of “beyond organic” practices.

floppy

Add comment August 29th, 2006

Rollingstone Chevre

Chuck and KarenName: Rollingstone Chevre
Owners: Chuck and Karen Evans
Location: Parma, ID
Animals: 90 milking, 120 replacements- all pure bred Saanens
Cheese/Products: Chevre (in logs or rounds) flavored and plain, Tortas in multiple flavors, Aged Anise and Lavendar wheels, Idaho Goatster, Orange Zest Pecan Wheel, Late Harvest Wheel, Blue Age, Brandywine
More info: RollingstoneChevre

Rollingstone Chevre is celebrating its 18th anniversary this month! Many congratulations to Chuck and Karen Evans. I can only imagine what the chevre market was like when they started out in 1988 and they were the first Grade A goat dairy in the state of Idaho- true pioneers. They don’t seem to see themselves as pioneers though, their move into dairy was a gradual one and it all began with the family goat they purchased because their daughter was allergic to cow milk. All of this began in Michigan where they lived with their first goats until moving to the town and home where Chuck grew up in Parma, Idaho.

The Evans’ milked their goats by hand until they were up to a herd of 50 (note: this would take a very, very long time). While they were growing their herd, Karen was making cheese on a small scale, entering it into competitions at the goat shows and getting a lot of positive feedback. With a bit of encouragement from a food critic, Karen and Chuck began to entertain the idea of having a goat cheese business.

When we arrived at Rollingstone they took us on a quick tour of their family farm. Both Chuck and Karen have people helping them most days of the week- this is one of the niceties that comes with being in the business for 18 years- so Chuck doesn’t have to milk every morning and night and Karen gets some assistance with packaging and even turning cheeses that are still draining. This meant that they could take a little bit more time to walk us through their operation. The first room in the cheese facility is still under minor construction because it is being turned into an on-farm tasting room, something Karen has wanted for some time now. The tasting room opening day is scheduled for August 28th- their official cheese anniversary.

While we are totally behind the development of MORE cheeses from Rollingstone we are relieved that Karen is not likely to drop many (if any) of the varieties that she is currently making. Her chevre- plain and in all varieties- is that of someone who has honed their craft over time. We thoroughly enjoyed the tortas, and also her fromage blanc with basil. Of course we wanted to know how many one hit wonders she has made over the years and surprisingly she said that most of their cheeses have such staying power that the bigger challenge was to reign the product line back in to a manageable number of styles. I would bet that Karen’s experience as an artist (both she and Chuck are accomplished artists), showing and selling her work, helped her with sales in the cheese world.

Karen with Brandywine

We proceeded to the cheesemaking and aging rooms. Karen and Chuck built their cheese room using pieces of a barn in town that was being dismantled- a testament to the resourceful nature of cheesemakers. Karen still wonders how she and Chuck did all that work themselves, climbing up into the rafters of this old barn to get the beams that support their cheese facility today. Although not every door opens and closes with perfect ease, the facility has worked wonderfully for them for the past 18 years. The only thing missing in their original construction was adequate space for maturing their cheeses. They have a good deal of space for the cheeses they are making now but not enough space to create different environments (temperature and humidity) which would allow them to work on different styles of cheeses.

The Evans’ have plans to build two additional aging rooms this summer. Sounds simple enough until they mention that they are using straw bale construction to dot it. Now I don’t know that this makes what they are doing inherently more complicated but it is definitely interesting and I look forward to reading all about the construction and their experience using these new maturing rooms in the chronicles they promise to keep and share with us. With this added maturing space Karen hopes to make more aged, tomme style cheeses. Although her clients are largely satisfied with the cheeses she produces today, she explained that she wants to experiment with new recipes to challenge herself as a cheesemaker.

Strawbale location

In order for Karen to expand her cheesemaking, Chuck will need to expand the herd so that she can continue to fill all her orders for fresh cheese while experimenting with aged products. He is considering an expansion of his milking parlor which is different from most other setups we have seen in that there are no stanchions (bars that lock their heads in place while they are milked) or clips to keep the goats in place. Fifteen goats come into the parlor at a time and stand in a row with access to grain while the milker works the line with multiple milking units along the line. Chuck is definitely a herdsman who focuses on breeding and has and knack for it. His aim is for his goats to be excellent in both form and function.

Chuck’s skills as a herdsman come from years of experience working with all sorts of animals. He shared many Pony Kidsfascinating stories about the people he met and places he visited when he was breeding and showing all types of horses. As a result of his patient and inquisitive nature, Chuck had the opportunity to learn from many veterans in the business of showing animals. One of the most interesting things he learned was the practice of managing your animals by learning how they think. This may sound odd but in watching how Chuck manages his herd I can see that he doesn’t use force to get the goats to do what he needs them to do rather he makes the desired behavior the goat’s best and most comfortable option. It is a skill that allows him to be sensitive to animal comfort and still get the results he needs from his animals.

I also got a peek at Chuck’s latest animal project: his chickens. They are incredibly interesting to look at and I can attest to the quality of eggs they produce as I was lucky enough to taste them both scrambled and as part of Karen’s homemade scones (which are to die for)! Luckily Chuck recently found an outlet to sell his eggs as he and Karen are not able to keep up with the chickens’ production levels on their own. Given that both the Evans’ are trained artists they will design a label on their own, as they did for their cheeses, and the eggs will be sold under the name Chuck’s Cheerful Chicks. Solid.

Add comment August 27th, 2006

Monteillet Fromagerie

Joan tastingName: Monteillet Fromagerie
Owners: Joan and Pierre-Louis Monteillet
Location: Dayton, WA
Animals: 30 milking Lacone/East Freisan sheep, 35 milking Alpine goats (this means they have about 2-2.5x that amount total on the farm- because they are raising replacements and finding outlets for the young males)
Cheeses/Products: Larzac, Mejean, Cardabelle, Fresh Chevre, Fresh Herbed Chevre, Fresh Sheep Cheese, Causse Noir
More info: www.monteilletcheese.com/

Joan Monteillet warned me multiple times that I would not want to leave Walla Walla once I had witnessed firsthand all of the amazing things happening there. She was right in all ways except one, it was largely what was going on right at Monteillet Fromagerie that make me want to stay. When we arrived Joan and Pierre-Louis were just finishing up a late lunch (4pm) with some friends who had stopped by for an impromptu visit. Pierre-Louis had just returned from the weekly trip to Portland and Seattle to drop cheese and restaurants and, most importantly, sell their cheeses at the farmers’ markets. So we settled in at the table, brought in a bottle of California Pinot Noir (Papapietro Perry) and sampled some of their delectable cheeses. The Monteillets’ close friends Clare and Jim told us about their recent purchase of two older buildings in the neighboring town of Waitsburg where they will open a small gallery and tapas bar and still have enough room left over for a studio (they are both artists) and living space. This is the kind of thing Joan meant when she talked about the buzz in the Walla Walla Valley.

Before becoming dairy farmers the Monteillets were conventional wheat farmers, the two of them worked 2,000 acres for over a decade. They have definitely taken a sharp turn away from monoculture even though they both admit that their former way of live was indeed more profitable than the operation they have today. I find it almost hard to imagine them doing anything other than what they are doing today because they are so passionate about their craftsmanship and their facility and land illustrate their attention to detail. They saw a wonderful opening to create cheeses to accompany the bevy of wine being produced locally and also to begin to preserve some of the rich agricultural land in the valley of the Touchet River.

the ark

Joan and Pierre-Louis have not only crafted a number of beautiful cheeses that can stand alone or accompany local wines, but they are quietly transforming their little pocket of the Touchet River valley into a sustainable farming oasis. When we finished lunch they walked us out through the myriad of non-milkers, kept close by the house along with chickens and ducks, to the sauna they built themselves on a gentle bend in the river. These two started out with just 3.85 acres and have expanded to 31.5 contiguous acres by creatively financing the purchases of land that has gone up for sale around them through the years. Talk to them for a few minutes about their farm and you will understand their level of commitment to diversity in agriculture and the preservation of old buildings and barns that are often left to fall to disrepair.

We walk up the road a bit with Pierre-Louis to see the house where we’ll be staying- yes, an entire house. The home was on one of the pieces of adjoining land they purchased and it took years for them to slowly bring it back up to a livable space. Joan has her glass studio in the room off the kitchen and there are gorgeous glass pieces throughout the house. This home now serves as a place for guests to stay but also as a rental for people interested in having a farming experience. The Monteillets understand that every additional income stream is useful to them- as with agriculture, even financial diversity is beneficial.

The next morning we walked a bit further up the road to the cheesemaking facility. When you walk in there is a small, beautiful counter for cheese and wine tasting and doors that go off in many different directions. The Monteillets are forward thinking and Joan has obtained a license for them as a specialty wine tasting room which allows them to legally do events with local winemakers right in their facility. This supports the Monteillets’ belief that if people see all the aspects involved in producing their cheese while tasting their products it has a bigger impact.

We suited up in our cheese room boots and head coverings and hovered around Pierre-Louis as he pasteurized first the in the make roomgoat and then the sheep milk (read: time consuming). I stepped into the cheese room to assist Joan by flipping some cheeses and then was allowed to help her ash and finish off molding the Larzac. The Monteillets are making cheese twice each week and yet each day there is work to be done on previous batches like flipping, salting, and packaging. By the time we thought about lunch we were too hungry to walk past the cheeses in the tasting room without sampling and Joan upped the ante by opening a couple bottles of local wines for us to taste- Bergevin Lane Viognier and Pepper Bridge Cabernet Sauvignon. Both were smashing with the cheeses. We enjoyed the sampling so much that we bagged the idea of lunch and planned for an early dinner at the Whoopemup Hollow Cafe in Waitsburg which is run by two friends of Joan and Pierre-Louis. If you ever find yourself in the Walla Walla neck of the woods I would highly recommend this spot for some bangin’ Southern/Cajun food.

The following morning I trekked up to the cheese plant and met Mave, the daughter of a local winemaker and part-time worker for the Monteillets. I worked with her on packing up Larzacs and Cardabelles for the upcoming weekend markets. While we did this Michael and Joan began ladling the curds which had been set by Pierre-Louis the previous day (remember all that pasteurizing?). I realize that this sounds like quite a charmed life the Monteillets lead however it is not without considerable sacrifice on their part. In addition to impromptu meals with friends, great wine, saunas and acreage along the Touchet River are the 20 hour days spent tending to milkers and replacements, pasture, cheesemaking, cleaning, packaging, and farmers’ markets that are 250+ miles away. Spending time with the Monteillets was a reminder for us that many of the farms we have visited over the last few months are at the tipping point; they have borrowed more than ever before in their lives to create the infrastructure of a dairy farm and a few years in they are nearing make-or-break points in their businesses. I’m not pleading for sympathy votes on their behalf, just reminding you that there is a tremendous amount that goes into these products because these smaller farmers are creating their industry as they go and that requires effort and money.

I encourage you, not only in principle, but in the spirit of gustatory pleasure to partake in what the Monteillets are doing. Although they sell a tremendous amount of cheese in Portland and Seattle markets there is cheese available for the rest of you too- just give them a buzz and place your order. Cheese by mail is a modern miracle.

Joan & Pierre-Louis

Add comment August 22nd, 2006

The tables are turned…

So while we were in Portland we were interviewed for Cooking up a Story by Rebecca Gerendasy. Cooking up a Story is an online, short documentary site about food and the people obsessed by it….

The Cooking up a team followed us around the Portland farmer’s market while we met cheesemakers from the local community. It was good for us to be interviewed… to know what it is like to have people ask us about what we do… Being interviewed is stressful. It makes you very conscious of your words… and your voice. Holy crap is my voice really that nasally!?! Why didn’t anyone tell me!? You all suck.

www.cookingupastory.com

So take a look - and check out Rebecca’s other segments - she does really beautiful pieces on a variety of food-related topics.

3 comments August 20th, 2006

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