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Cato Corner Farm

Cow friends Name: Cato Corner Farm
Owners: Elizabeth McAllister and Mark Gillman
Location: Colchester, CT
Animals: Milking 18-25 Jersey cows
Cheeses/Products: Dutch Farmstead, Hooligan, Brigid’s Abbey, Black Ledge Blue, Bloomsday, Vivace, Vivace Bambino, Womanchego. These are their most regularly produced cheeses- to see the list of seasonal or less frequently made cheeses check their website.
More info: www.catocornerfarm.com

Elizabeth began farming in the late 70’s when she bought the land that Cato Corner Farm stands on today. She started out raising sheep and goats for meat. This was a largely seasonal business cycle- the animals were born, raised and then slaughtered in the spring and summer. Seasonal is not ideal economically and unfortunately it doesn’t mean that once your season is over you get to take the rest of the year off as there are always things to be done on the farm and the ewes, does, rams and bucks have to be fed throughout the winter. So after a decade of producing meat Elizabeth began thinking about other ways of farming. In the early days she was working with 150 sheep and 40 some odd goats who produced lamb and kids each year. She talked to us about her meat farming days while she was waiting for their vet to show up to do some routine checks on their herd. A neighbor who has goats pulled into the drive to wait for the vet as well and Elizabeth couldn’t resist asking them to tell Mark (who was at the hardware store when everyone arrived) that these were goats that Elizabeth had bought for them to begin milking. None of us could hold a straight face longer than about 20 seconds when Mark showed up and restrained from freaking out about the goat kids in their driveway.

Cato Corner Cheese House

After this introduction Mark took us on a tour of all the cheese areas. It is very common on our visits for us to go through all the cheese areas before taking a step out into the field with the animals- simply for sanitation reasons. Mark started us out in the cheesemaking room- a space that seemed small when I thought about the volumes of cheese Cato sells at NYC Greenmarkets and various regional retailers. But clearly it is getting the job done. Mark and his cheese crew are making cheese four days a week now (up from 3) and batches are typically around 1250 lbs of milk. Its not that the cheesemaking and maturing rooms are shiny and new but they are satisfyingly clean and organized. Maybe I was preparing myself for the return to New York sized spaces but there was a certain efficiency to both the make and maturing rooms. The cellar was fascinating to me because it is one large room that holds all of the styles they produce from rough-edged tommes to washed rinds and blues. There is enough space to separate cheese types “geographically” if you will but they are still all sharing the same air. You can imagine that with the range of cheeses the aroma in the cellar is complex- the heavy air reminds you of milk and a damp basement at the same time.

Bloomsday shelves in caves

Although Mark grew up on this farm, he didn’t stay here all the way through the evolution from meat to cheesemaking. Elizabeth was manning the meat production when she found out about a value-add incentive program being offered by the state of Connecticut and she sought more information. Interested by what she had heard, began the transition from meat to milk producer in the mid-90’s. She sold her livestock, purchased cows, and invested some capital to add on a cheesemaking room, an aging and cold storage area, and an updated milk parlor. Her cheesemaking officially began in 1997. The switch to cows was both for personal taste reasons (she isn’t wild about some varieties of goat cheeses) and for the versatility of cow milk. The decision to make raw milk cheeses was an easy one for Elizabeth because she grew up eating fine cheeses- her father was a food enthusiast with a passion for cheese- many of them raw. You can see the influence of her cheese-infused childhood in the variety she chose to produce. The in-ground cellar that we toured with Mark was an expansion they did a few years ago as their production and variety increased beyond what they could do in the small space allocated for maturing upstairs. The former “cave” upstairs now serves as greenmarket cold storage- it is lined with the standard, gigantic coolers that many producers to haul their goods to market.

Mark down in the cellarElizabeth basically ran the farm on her own for a few years; she moved the cows around in their 40 acres of pasture, milked, made and aged the cheeses. Meanwhile Mark was working as a schoolteacher across the country. He found that his interest in farming was increasing and that although he enjoyed teaching he was feeling a pull to return home and reacquaint himself with the land he knew as a boy. It was 1999 when Mark came home and partnered with Elizabeth in her ambitious operation. Through a series of events, Mark and Elizabeth’s roles on the farm became more defined. Mark had a natural interest in the cheesemaking and gradually began spending more of his time on that than out with the animals. Elizabeth focused her energy on the herd.

A couple years ago I had the pleasure of hearing Elizabeth speak at an event in New York and the one thing I distinctly remember her saying was, “we make the cheese because it allows us to keep the cows.” I know for a fact that, although she is a big fan of her cows, she also enjoys making and eating Cato Corner cheeses. Their operation illustrates the miracle of cheesemaking- through the same basic process milk can be transformed into so many different tastes and textures. Beyond their cheeses, something I appreciated about Mark and Elizabeth was the bold moves they each made to get to their current positions. Elizabeth took her farm in a totally new and yet sustainable direction and Mark allowed himself to follow his gut which was pulling him back to the farm. Their farm feels like family- the good part of family that his close enough to make you feel comfortable and still loose enough to give you room to grow.

Elizabeth walking cows in for milking

I’m looking forward to stinking up my tiny New York city apartment refrigerator with a wedge of Hooligan.

1 comment October 5th, 2006

3 Corner Field Farm

Lambs out browsingName: 3 Corner Field Farm
Owners: Karen Weinberg and Paul Borghard
Location: Shushan, NY
Animals: Milking 120 ewes and raising hundreds of lambs each year for meat and some for replacement milkers.
Cheeses/Products: Brebis Blanc, Shushan Snow, Feta, Ricotta, milk, yogurt, grass-fed lamb meat, sheep skins
More info: www.dairysheepfarm.com

Karen Weinberg has always known that she wanted to be a farmer. She didn’t grow up on a farm, she didn’t spend time working on a farm- yet somehow she just knew that farming was in the cards for her. Being the ambitious woman that she is she lobbied hard for her dream with her husband Paul and yet she was humble enough to take his coaching. He explained to her that in order to be a successful farmer she needed to have capital and an education. Once she had her PhD, her first baby , and the couple owned a small apartment in Brooklyn they began looking for farmland in New York state.

They settled on the farm they own now after renovating and selling another property in Washington County. Shortly after purchasing their farm Paul took advantage of an offer to work in Paris and they moved to France with their two young daughters. During their years in France Karen fell in love with cheese and began to dream about making cheese herself someday. When they returned to New York she hit the ground running to transform their property into a sheep dairy; rennovating existing farm structures and evaluating the pastures. Their initial plan was to milk sheep and sell all of the milk wholesale, they had an outlet for this nearby- Old Chatham Sheepherding Company. This plan got them started milking sheep and eventually they transitioned to making yogurt and cheese on their own. In recent years they expanded their offering by raising their annual crop of lambs on pasture to add meat to their list of products.

3 Corner Field Farm is approximately 100 acres with about 40 acres of grazable pasture. Karen has worked with neighbors over the past 5 years to expand their grazing land to 120 acres through leases. Many people in their community were doubtful when they began, they said that running sheep on the land would destroy the pastures (this is the reputation of sheep). 3 Corner’s pastures are luscious, verdant- teeming with variety and life. Karen explained that after a couple seasons neighbors noticed the transformation in the pastures that had been grazed by the sheep and began to approach her to offer up their fields for grazing.

Karen with lambs

As we strolled around the farm before dinner, Karen talked about he meat side of her operation. All 3 Corner lambs get milk from their mothers for a few weeks and then they are transitioned carefully onto pasture. Lambing is the only part of the year when the animals (ewes and lambs) spend time in the barn. Male and female lambs are separated and rotated through different pastures- each of these paddocks is protected by a guard dog. Beginning in September, groups of lambs are selected (by size) every few weeks to go to slaughter. Either Karen or Paul drives the lambs to the meat processor (who has been carefully selected)- they do this in large part because they are committed to knowing that their animals are handled well throughout their entire lives, right through to the end.

Sheep at 3 Corner Field Farm are out on pasture their entire lives except when they are first born and then when they give birth. During the winter months their long coats protect them from the cold and the frozen ground provides them with a dry and solid surface which is good for their hooves. Bales of feed are strewn about in different sections of the pastures so that the sheep’s manure is spread across the land and not overly concentrated in one area. The pastures are hayed periodically throughout the growing season, in between the times they are grazed by the ewes. There is a great, detailed explanation of the cyclical/seasonal progression of the ewes and the farm on the 3 Corner website.

Ewes lining up for milking. Paul milking

The next morning we headed out to the milking parlor. Paul is the designated milker and is enjoying the arrival of fall because it means they have recently dropped to one milking per day. When the sheep come through the parlor they get a bit of grain to supplement the forage which makes up most of their diet. We were visiting the farm during a damp weather spell so while Paul milked he was also closely examining the ewes’ feet for soft spots. This is something that happens to their hooves when they don’t dry out completely- little irritated spots crop up in the crevices of their hooves. It is something he can treat quite easily when the ewes are all in the stanchion.

After milking the ewes are walked out to pasture; they are put on a new section every day. We followed them with Karen and their trusty sheep dog Sweep. The pasture was amazing- the alfalfa was at least knee high and there were numerous other species growing up around it. While we watched the sheep wade into the green that touched their bellies Karen debunked myths about sheep destroying pasture. She explained that sheep love the most tender parts of the plants they eat evidenced by the previous day’s pasture where we could see that all that remained were stalky, woody shoots of grasses and legumes. Sheep who are turned out on meager pastures will get close down to the earth and nip at the tender, fresh beginnings of grass thus their reputation as pasture ruiners. Like any other ruminant sheep will overgraze an area if they are not managed properly and given enough pasture to eat.

Blue sky and good eating for the milking ewes

In the afternoon we made Feta. Karen takes immense pleasure in the cheesemaking part of her day. Often she makes on her own although these days she gets some help from her eldest daughter Emily. Her vat is small and she does everything completely by hand includingKaren making cheese cutting the curd with a knife and stirring it for about 20 minutes with her hands and arms. She likes the direct, tactile interaction with the curd and feels it has helped her learn more quickly because she is working with all of her senses.

3 Corner Field Farm is made up of four small businesses: a sheep dairy (not to mention a haying operation- they put up a lot of their own feed for winter), a creamery, pastured-lamb production, and also sheep skin processing. The latter two bring in additional income and they honor the tradition of respecting the animals in that the farm provides them with the best life possible and then does not waste any parts of the animals once they are slaughtered.

During our trip I’ve thought a great deal about the lack of connection in the way that we think about dairy products and the animals it takes to produce them. There is not much to remind us of that connection in our day to day lives and at 3 Corner Field Farm the connection is completely visible. This farm reminded me to be thankful to the sheep for providing us with food and also to be thankful that people like Karen Weinberg and her farmily become farmers.

Knee deep in alfalfa

Add comment September 30th, 2006

Oakvale Farmstead Cheese

driving up to OakvaleName: Oakvale Farmstead Cheese
Owners: Dale & Jean King, Elizabeth and Randy Finke
Location: London, OH
Animals: Milking a herd of 70 cows- primarily Holstein with some Brown Swiss
Cheeses/Products: Farmstead Gouda- original and flavored
More info: www.oakvalecheese.com

Oakvale Farm is a beautiful example of a dairy farm and farmstead cheese operation involving multiple generations of one family. Dale King grew up on a dairy farm in Hilliard, now a bustling suburb of Columbus, OH. Until about 10 years ago, he and his brother had a successful 100 cow dairy and grain farm in Hilliard on a piece of land that had been in their family since 1853. When they decided to give up that farm they were milking their 100 cows in a parlor that was 100 yards away from a subdivision. Dale says that he and his brother could see the writing on the wall- urban creep was not abating any time soon. So they sold and Dale and Jean started over in a new community just 20 miles west of Columbus.

When they settled in London, OH to create a new dairy and grain farm their daughter Elizabeth and her husband Randy joined them. They farm approximately 600 acres- some owned by them, some leased from neighbors, and they milk 70 cows. The cows are fed a combination of feed grown on their own land including corn silage, timothy and alfalfa, and hay mix and grain. During good weather the cows are allowed out on pasture and when the weather is wet and the ground is muddy they are generally not allowed out in the interest of maintaining good pasture conditions and keeping the animals out of thick mud. Randy, who comes from a long line of dairy farmers in Southern Indiana, is the herdsman. In our conversations with him about their herd management decisions it was clear that he is committed both to milk quality and longevity in his animals. He does a lot of research and work on the genetics of his herd and because of his capabilities in this area he has been able to bring in a bit of extra money to the farm by producing and selling some desirable stock. While he is a firm believer that while genetics and breed are important, management and feed are the way that one influences milk production and quality.

Initially, the families were farming grain and selling fluid milk as they had done for years in their former location. Milk prices have not been doing well for quite a few years now and they were finding that the farm was not effectively supporting two families. When Jean read an article in 2001 about a family of dairy farmers in Georgia (Sweet Grass Dairy) who began making artisan cheese, she saw a possibility for her own family. Elizabeth began doing research on cheesemaking. She took a short-course at the University of Wisconsin and visited a number of artisan cheesemakers to get an understanding of what it would take for Oakvale Farm to produce cheese.

cheese cave

They built a cheesemaking facility that will be able to handle all the milk produced by their herd. Three years into it they are making cheese one day a week, usually the vat has about 2500-3000 lbs of milk in it. The day that we observed they were working with the production from just one milking- about 1600 lbs of milk which will yield approximately 160 lbs of cheese. Originally the plan was for Dale and Elizabeth to focus on cheesemaking while Randy would tend the cows and assist Jean with cheese sales. After a short time the families realized that the cows required more attention so Elizabeth has shifted her focus to working with Randy. Dale is now the head cheesemaker so we spent a good part of our day with him in the cheese room learning about the Oakvale Gouda process.

oakvale pressI’ve never seen a vat like theirs. It is shaped like the number 8 and it is amazingly quiet for a piece of equipment with some motorized pieces. Dale had come over to the cheese plant earlier in the morning (while we were drinking coffee with Jean) to culture and rennet the milk. By the time we arrived Dale and his assistant were attaching the cheese harps to the vat to begin cutting the curd. While the cheese harps sliced through the curds we looked out the cheese room windows to watch the latest set of Holstein and Brown Swiss calves stretching and feeding near their pens. After cutting and some stirring, the curd is washed, which means that about 1/3 of the whey is drained off and hot water is added back into the vat to raise the temperature and to reduce the acidity. While the water is being added the curds are stirred. At a certain point the stirring stops and the curds need to sit until they hit the target pH and have the proper texture. During this “sitting” time we checked out the brine tank and aging room. Once the curds were ready, Dale and his assistant corralled them at one end of the vat so they could scoop curds easily into the molds. Over the next 24 hours the wheels will be pressed with increasing pressure and flipped on a regular schedule. Oakvale has a large pneumatic press that allows them to control the pressing stage with precision.

Dale is experimenting with a coating on some wheels to see if it prevents spots of blue and green mold from growing on the Gouda’s straw-colored surface. Although the mold doesn’t influence flavor in the cheese, some retailers would rather not see anything on the surface of the wheels. Oakvale sells their cheese to a number of local stores and also in key locations around the country. Even though they are looking at some larger scale clients they continue to go to the farmer’s market in Columbus on Saturdays. It feels like growth has not happened as quickly as the folks at Oakvale expected when they started making cheese but even they admit that this has given them time to tinker with their cheese recipe and aging techniques which will help them set their best foot forward when the doors of the cheese world blow all the way open for them. For the moment, it is nice to know that while their cheese works its way to retailers around the country, it is also available directly from the farm. Like I said early on- cheese by mail is a miracle of the modern world.

Dale packing the curd

Add comment September 27th, 2006

Crave Brothers

crave.jpgName: Crave Brothers Dairy Farm
Owners: Charles, George, Thomas, and Mark Crave
Location: Waterloo, WI
Animals: 550 milking Holsteins with additional replacements
Cheeses/Products: Mascarpone, Fresh Mozzarella, Farmer’s Rope, Les Freres, Oaxaca
More info: www.cravecheese.com

We hit the ground running when we arrived at Crave Brothers. Debbie and I had met briefly in July at the ACS conference. George was part of a panel about the terroir of the dairy cow. It was definitely one of the more interesting things I attended at the conference because it covered the areas that are not usually discussed by cheese retailers and enthusiasts but are integral to the production of cheese: animal and land management. Crave Brothers is run by four brothers: Charles, Thomas, Mark and George. They grew up on a 40 cow, family-size farm in Wisconsin. In the current operation each brother has an area of responsibility best suited to their interests and skills. Charles manages crops and equipment upkeep, Thomas monitors animal health and compiles the feed, Mark is responsible for milking operations, and George runs the cheese operation.

Crave HolsteinGeorge and his brothers rented a farm in Southern Wisconsin, Mt. Hoereb, where they milked just under 60 cows. The landscape was largely rolling hills and they were finding it challenging to farm the land efficiently. So in the early 80’s they bought land in Waterloo, WI- a flat expanse of 300 acres that was appropriate for their plan to operate a larger scale, modern dairy operation and farm most of their own feed. They sold fluid milk for years until they got the notion to get into the cheese business. In 2001 the Craves broke ground on their cheese facility which is directly across the road from the free-stall barns and milking parlor. The pipes that move milk from the parlor to the cheese room were laid under the road that separates the two buildings. George produced his first vats of cheese in the spring of 2002.

Talking to George during a short break he took from morning cheesemaking, we realized that he and his brothers are interested in taking advantage of the development of new technologies to improve their farm. For example, they are planning to install a manure digester which will take in the manure from their 600+ cows and separate it into three usable materials: liquids, solids, and methane gas. The liquids will be used to irrigate Crave Farm fields, the solids will be used as fertilizer on the farm’s fields (excess can be sold to other farmers), and the methane gas will be converted to fuel which will be sold back to the local power grid.

George returned to the cheese room and we tasted cheese with Debbie, learning about the production schedule and volume that Crave produces. For a farm milking over 550 Holsteins and putting almost all of it into their cheese facility, Crave Brothers is nimble. Their cheese production schedule is determined by orders for that week. When we were there it was the beginning of the late summer tomato craze so the primary make was fresh mozzarella. Debbie commented that when the first freeze hits in October they see a dramatic shift in orders for mozzarella and an increase in demand for their other products.

Crave cheeses done up for sampling

The cheese room has three vats, two of them hold 26,000 lbs of milk and are used for the production of the fresh cheeses and dairy products. the smaller vat holds 5,000 lbs and is used to produce Les Freres. When we walked through the production room with George the team was in full mozzarella swing. The milk is cultured and set in the large vats, cut and then the hot curds are pumped with the whey over to a trough-like table where they are kept warm. The hot curds are drawn out of the water by hand with buckets and then put into a machine that stretches curd for all styles of pasta filata (stretched curd) cheeses. It does this through a series of internal augurs. This allows the Craves to switch easily between various sizes of mozzarella and also to produce the more intensely stretched Farmer’s Rope and Oaxaca.

Perfectly formed mozzarella balls

Les Freres is the most involved cheese make at Crave, the curds are ladeled by hand and also the cheese is the only one they produce that requires aging. Debbie has been managing the construction of a new in-ground cheese cave and tasting room beneath the cheesemaking facility. The cave will allow the Craves to produce more Les Freres and the tasting room will enable them to host events and to have a more spacious gathering place for the numerous groups who come to the farm for tours. It is wonderful to know that a facility like Crave will be open to visitors regularly so that people can not only taste their product but that they will also be able to see the farm that is the heart of this business.

1 comment September 24th, 2006

Carr Valley Cheese Company

Sid outside the Lavalle plantName: Carr Valley Cheese, Inc.
Owner: Sid Cook
Location: LaValle, WI
Animals: Carr Valley gets cow milk from 40 farms (within 20 miles) each milking no more than 70 cows, sheep milk comes largely from one dairy that sells to CVC through the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Coop, and goat milk from a group of 8 farms in the Green Bay area.
Cheeses/Products: Are you ready? CVC makes over 65 different cheeses. Look at them all on the Carr Valley website. But essentially if you can think of a style of cheese, Sid has probably made it.
More info: www.carrvalleycheese.com

I am wondering if anyone else out there in cheeseland is wondering how Sid Cook’s Carr Valley Cheese pumps out over 65 varieties of cheese in what seems to be a sizable volume… I have been thinking about this for three years at least and could only imagine that he was like the Willy Wonka of cheese. Of course, the less optimistic part of my mind was wondering if it was going to feel like a big factory… my first instinct was definitely closer to what I actually saw.

We met Sid at the facility in Mauston, Wisconsin. Greg O’Neil, one of the owners of the Chicago retailer Pastoral was also in town and joined us on the Carr Valley Cheese tour. There are three cheese plants at Carr Valley, all relatively close together, each with a buzzing retail shop that sells all of the Carr Valley cheeses. The Mauston plant also had a viewing window where you can watch milk being transformed into cheese in any of the three large vats and also large areas for pressing, brining, waxing, storing and packing.

Gigantic brine tanks filled to the brim Preparation for pressing at the Mauston facility

Sid is a fourth generation cheesemaker. He drove us through the valley where he grew up- often called Irish Valley- and past the farm and home/cheese house where he was raised. Cheese might as well be in his blood. He described his relationship with cheese as a kid perfectly when he said, “you opened up the door on the side of the kitchen and there was the vat.” The first cheese plant that his father operated was in a valley called Carr Valley which is the name Sid still uses today. Sid worked with his father for years before taking over the business in the mid 70’s. He and his brother made Wisconsin-style cheddar in that plant for 10 years. Eventually in 1991 he purchased another cheesemaking facility with a layout that would allow for more flexibility and the development of more styles of cheese.

There are three “plants” in use today of which we visited two. The Mauston location is largely used for European style cheeses and a number of Sid’s American Originals. Whereas the LaValle plant is used largely for cheddar production. Sounds like a gigantic operation right? Let me break down my impression in the most basic terms: Carr Valley is bigger than many in the artisan cheese market. However, while handling a large amount of milk day in and day out the milk purchasing model looks much more like one you might find in Europe. The cow milk comes from approximately 40 dairies (all within a radius of 15-17 miles of the plant they supply) each milking no more than 70 cows. The sheep and goat milk that he buys are also from smaller farms that pool their milk together. Also Carr Valley didn’t build brand new facilities, rather they found plants that were closed or on their way out of business and modified the interior to meet their needs. Sid has been able to build up Carr Valley like this at least partly because of the years he has spent in the Wisconsin dairy industry, not to mention the generations of cheesemakers in his family that came before him. He understands milk quality inside and out and also has probably worked with more cultures than most people in the artisan cheese business. He also learned how to make his own cultures from his father and grandfather.

Sid distinguishes artisan production (volume of 100,000 lbs or less) from specialty cheese production (over 100,000 lbs but not at commodity level). He makes a number of cheese styles in both of those categories. His smallest productions on some of his artisan cheeses are around a few thousand pounds per year. Although Sid has the ability (read: volume and consistent product) to serve a wide range of customers, individuals to restaurants to specialty supermarket chains, he does a large part of his sales in his own retail stores. Currently he has 5 retail stores and in the two that we visited (they were connected to the plants), visitors flowed through steadily all day long.

Sid talks us through cheeses on his retail board in Mauston

Carr Valley employs 70 people total including retail sales people, cheesemakers, packaging and even the drivers of the milk trucks. Man of his employees have been with Sid for well over a decade and in some cases there are multiple generations of families working for CVC. Based on his years of experience and the exposure he has had to various cheesemakers and cheeses, Sid Cook is likely one of the most knowledgeable cheesemakers in the country. He has the kind of confidence that only comes with having lived something.

Cheddar pressing at the Lavalle location
While Sid remains fairly detached from perceptions others in the cheese industry have about Carr Valley Cheese, he is always game for a healthy competition (like ACS). Like Willi Lehner, Sid is not being arrogant when he tells me that it would be incredibly hard for someone to build a business like his, he is simply being realistic. He started in the game with a definite advantage and has been mindful to always stay in touch with his heritage. This is why he continues to produce the cheeses that the cheesemaking generations before him established in the state and around the country. Among the volumes of Carr Valley originals you will always find bandage-wrapped Mammoth Cheddar done in the traditional Wisconsin style- with pride.

4 comments September 21st, 2006

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

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