Talk about a cheese legend! Mary Kheen is the creator of one of if not the most widely recognized American original artisan cheese: Humboldt Fog. Our conversation with Mary left us with a lot to think about in terms of how much the industry has changed since she started making cheese. If you listen carefully you will also hear that while Mary loves cheese, her business offers her the opportunity to fulfill dreams beyond producing delicious products. This encourages us to see cheese as a vehicle- a vehicle for building a wonderful workplace in a challenged community and even for creating better possibilities in agriculture. Food for thought while your palette ruminates on that nugget of Truffle Tremor…
Cypress Grove Chevre Interview
Find previous posts about Cypress Grove Chevre here.
Up next: Rogue Creamery
Again, if you want to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes, just search for Cheese by Hand in the iTunes store and click “Subscribe.”
May 5th, 2009
Name: Cypress Grove Chevre
Owner: Mary Keehn
Location: Arcata, CA
Animals: Purchases goat milk from multiple dairies locally- occasionally reaches farther than local for milk when needed.
Cheese/Products: Chevre, Chevre Logs, Fromage Blanc, Humboldt Fog, Fog Lights, Pee Wee Pyramids, Bermuda Triangle, Mad River Roll, Goats Milk Cheddar, Mt. McKinley. They also have three products that are part of their Creamline selection- Midnight Moon, Lamb Chopper and Ewe-F-O.
More info: www.cypressgrovechevre.com
We had one of those is-this-really-our-life mornings the day we went to see Mary Keehn. Up at 6AM in our tent deep in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. We had some charred toast and cantaloupe with our friends Rose and Dave before winding our way out of the Redwoods to Highway 1. Of course all of that took a lot more time than we anticipated so we arrived at Cypress Grove at 9:30 instead of 8:30. Mary held no grudge- major props to her as it wasn’t just any Monday morning, it was July 3rd.
All of you Humboldt Fog fanatics must be dying to know about the origin of your favorite food… I will begin by saying that the name represents the locale quite well- dense fog hangs on everything in Arcata. The interior of the creamery is a fantastic contrast to what is outside: the walls are painted bright yellow and red. Mary took us on a tour of the receiving, pasteurizing, cheesemaking, aging and packaging areas. One of Mary’s most endearing qualities is her genuine surprise at the incredible growth and success of Cypress Grove. She decided to get licensed as a cheesemaker (over 20 years ago) because one restauranteur in town wanted to buy cheese from her. Because she had an ever-expanding herd of award winning goats and needed an outlet for the milk, she did it.
The creamery recently acquired a used 2000 gallon pasteurizer and it is obvious when Mary laughs wholeheartedly about the contrast between this tank and where she started years ago that she is the ideal person to be at the helm of this chevre ship. Over the years she has been willing to suspend her disbelief and grow the business yet she has held tightly to the importance of certain cheese-related tasks being done exactly as they always have been. In addition to staying true to the fundamental points in their cheesemaking process, Mary has also created an environment, both in spirit and economics, where people in her community want to work. This was something Michael and I thought about a lot after leaving Cypress Grove- we realized that within the growth of the company Mary saw that while it was different than what she had originally envisioned, it allowed her to create the kind of workplace she believed in.
Early on in the development of the cheesemaking, Mary realized that she couldn’t manage a herd of goats, make the cheese, and run the business. Artisan cheese did not exactly used to sell itself so she spent a considerable amount of time driving to the two major metropolitan areas “nearby”- San Francisco (6-7 hours), and Portland (8-9 hours). She decided to sell her herd and found an opportunity to sell the entire group in-tact, the only way she wanted it, to someone she was confident could care for them well. This was not an easy decision and even through it was the best situation she could have hoped for, she still couldn’t bring herself to walk into the barn for at least a year after the goats were gone.
The shift away from their own milk did mean that they could support other farmers in their own community. Currently they do their best to fulfill their milk needs locally. Because they’ve grown so much and high quality milk is the foundation of their business, they now have staff devoted to working with local farmers on streamlining their business expenses. For example, local farms might be able to save money if they pool together to collectively purchase feed. Cypress Grove is also looking at possibilities to streamline their own business by partnering with the students in environmental engineering at Humboldt State to implement energy saving technology and look at innovative things to do with whey- which is considered toxic waste because of its pH level.
So I won’t make you wait any longer… when I asked Mary where she got the idea for Humboldt Fog she said it came to her in a dream. This seems oddly appropriate considering the white exterior and fluffy texture. What stuck with me after our time with Mary was one thing she said during our interview, “People say you can’t change the world but I figure I can make change happen in my own little community here.” She figured absolutely right.
August 3rd, 2006