Bob and Debbie at Westfield Farm are a rare find. They slipped into the artisan cheese business more serendipitously than many. After spending hours talking to them we felt lucky that Bob had followed his instincts right on out to Hubbardston, Massachusettes. Their frankness and candor get right at the heart of what it is to make a product with your own hands and then educate the public about it.
Westfield Farm Interview
Check out our other posts about Westfield Farm here.
Next up: 3 Corner Field Farm
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June 2nd, 2008
One of the general sessions this year was about cheesemaking in the Northeast. Clark Wolf who has a NYC based company that does restaurant and hospitality consulting was our moderator and did a great job of synthesizing information from the three presentations and posing broader questions to us all at the end. Louis Aird of Saputo in Montreal shared the history of cheese production in Canada with us and Jeff Roberts, author of the Atlas of American Artisan Cheese shared some facts and statistics about cheesemakers in the Northeast that he’d collected during his research for the book.
My ten minute talk was based on findings from our tour last summer. Below is a basic outline of my talk with audio pieces laid in where I played them. Have a read and a listen.
The Cheese by Hand lens: Our project only looked at producers making cheese by hand. We made every effort to cover the major milk types- cow, sheep, goat- and to represent the density of cheesemaking in certain regions (i.e. we saw more dairies in Wisconsin, Vermont, and California than anywhere else).
In the Northeast we visited the following farms in this order: Jasper Hill Farm, Twig Farm, Vermont Butter & Cheese, Willow Hill Farm, Appleton Creamery, Westfield Farm, and Cato Corner Farm. All are first generation cheesemakers, two are farmstead, three use milk from their own herds and buy in milk to supplement, and two are purchasing all of their milk.
These producers are, in many ways, representative of those we visited around the country- they come from diverse background and face many of the same issues as their colleagues in the Midwest, Pacific Northwest, and even the South. I’ll cover three larger topics that came up everywhere and explain to you how the Northeasterners had a unique perspective on each.
First: The loss of landscape. This includes not only the land but all the services that support farms- large animal vets, mechanics, and slaughterhouses). The audio clip below features Michael Lee (Twig Farm), and Willow Smart and David Phinney (Willow Hill Farm).
Loss of Farms
The terminology- working landscape- is something we only heard in the Northeast. Maybe their connection to the landscape comes from an awareness of the rich history of dairying and farming in the region? Ultimately on this issue we felt that the producers in this area were ‘on message’ meaning that everyone had similar thoughts and desires to see the land back in use for agriculture.
Second: An eye towards their competition (Europe). Cost of Business clip starts with Allison Hooper (Vermont Butter & Cheese), Caitlin Hunter (Appleton Creamery), Michael lee (Twig Farm). Educating the public starts with Caitlin (AC), Debbie Stetson (Westfield Farm), Mateo Kehler (Jasper Hill Farm), Michael Lee (TF).
Cost of Business Educating the public
Cheesemaking is expensive everywhere but the reference point for NE cheesemakers is always Europe- whether they are discussing healthcare, cost of infrastructure, or subsidies. This may happen because the two big markets are NYC and Boston, both of which have a bounty of imported cheeses. One stinging factor is that there is a perception that most European cheeses are made by hand- Michael Lee pointed out in another part of our interview that EU cheeses that are made in the way he makes his cheeses in Vermont would not be cheaper. There is a serious educational component for these cheesemakers- not just about cheese but about the state of agriculture in our own country.
Third: The concept of local. This word is as loose as “natural” or “artisan”- listen to how differently it is used by these producers. Some call their products local when all the inputs are local and some use the term local to define the inputs and the market where it is sold. In this audio clip you will hear Michael Lee (TF), Mateo Kehler (JHF), and Mark Gillman (Cato Corner Farm).
The NE region is going to push the word local and possibly force it to be defined. Again, this has a lot to do with the two big metropolitan markets within (NY, Boston) because clientele there can support the reclaimation of the working landscape. NE was the only place where we heard producers talking about AOC cheeses- about products that must be created in a specific place- maybe also a result of the proximity and comparison to European products in the market.
In closing- some thoughts from NE producers about unifies them and what they imagine is in store for the future of artisan cheesemaking… You will hear Willow Smart (WHF) and Michael Lee (TF).
August 9th, 2007
Below are three snippets from our conversation with Bob and Debbie Stetson at Westfield Farm. They talk about their decision of buying the farm (literally) to antibiotic in cheese…
Buying the farm
Antibiotics in cheese
July 2nd, 2006
Name: Westfield Farm
Owners: Bob & Debbie Stetson
Location: Hubbardston, Massachussetts
Animals: Westfield Farm gets it’s milk from four local goat dairies and cow dairies
Cheeses: Hubbardston Blue, Blue Log, Fresh Goat Cheeses (with various flavors - we highly recommend the Wasabi and Chocolate), Bluebonnet, Camembert, and many others
More Info: www.chevre.com
When we called Bob Stetson to confess that a 3pm arrival at Westfield Farm was a long shot, he graciously invited us to join him and his wife Debbie for dinner that evening. So we slogged through Boston rush hour traffic and pulled into a hotel near their farm where we had an interesting chat with the receptionist about the cheeses at Westfield Farm. She is a native of Hubbardston (where the farm is located) and said that one of her childhood friends who now lives out in California called her one day to tell her that a cheese was not only being made in their hometown but also written about in a national food magazine. This was clearly a point of curiosity and pride for them both- as she said, “Almost no one even knows where Hubbardston Massachusetts is, let alone that there is cheese being made there.” Kind of the classic tale of many small American cheesemakers- people across the country might know about them before members of their immediate community do.
The Stetson home is situated in a clearing near the top of a rolling hill in a town called Hubbardston. The house they live in is literally as old as our country and still in beautiful condition. Bob and Debbie moved here from Boston approximately ten years ago to take over the cheesemaking operation from Bob and Letty Kilmoyer who started the farm approximately ten years prior.
As the story goes, Bob Kilmoyer (a university math professor) was asked by one of his students to watch a few of his goats for the summer and the student never returned- at least not for the goats- and thus began Westfield Farm. The herd grew, an entire line of cheeses were developed (not to mention a market for specialty goat milk cheeses), and a number of employees came on to work the farm and live with the Kilmoyers. Nearly a decade later, the workload and cooperative living got to be too much for the Kilmoyers and they decided to sell the goats and place a small ad in the Boston Globe for a goat cheesemaking business.
The Stetsons had been working in shipping in Boston and Bob had an increasing interest in shifting his work away from selling services- he wanted to produce something tangible. He saw the ad in the Globe and it piqued his interest. They drove out to visit and although they had never even tasted goat cheese, they saw the creamery as a viable business. So they moved in with the Kilmoyers shortly after that and learned about milk collection, cheesemaking and distribution. Approximately one month later the Stetsons were living the dream. Over the last ten years they have nearly tripled the volume of cheese produced on the farm. They made additions onto the cheesemaking facility shortly after taking over and now use the old barn for packaging and cold storage.
Westfield gets milk from four local goat dairies. These dairies have evolved because Westfield Farm created a local market for goat milk. A couple of the dairies they work with shifted from cow dairying to goats because there is now more money in selling goats milk for cheese than selling fluid cows milk. The weekly make schedule seems relatively set and since most of the cheeses are fresh (less than 60 days old) the majority of their cheese are pasteurized.
Ten years into the business Bob and Debbie are still encouraged by the tactile nature of what they do. They modestly give nearly all the credit to the Kilmoyers who, for all intents and purposes, established the farm, the vision, and got the cheese on the radar of retailers and restaurants. That said, it is rare to find people willing to take over an established business who understand which pieces they should tinker with and which they should leave alone. Lucky for all consumers of Westfield Farm cheeses, the Stetsons are indeed that kind of people. We will take their modesty so long as they continue to pump out their delectable line of goat and cow milk cheeses.
May 19th, 2006