Posts filed under 'Photos'

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

Sea Breeze Farm

George in the cellarName: Sea Breeze Farm
Owner: George Page
Location: Vashon Island, WA
Animals: 5 cows (1 Holstein, 2 Jerseys, 2 Milking Shorthorns), 6 goats (mash up of breeds), chickens, ducks, sheep (for meat and for pasture management), pigs, one pet rabbit
Cheeses/Products: Variety of goat and cow milk cheeses, raw milk, creme fraiche, feta, eggs, meats, wine
More Info: seabreezefarm.net

There I was pitching our project to Kelli Estrella (Estrella Family Creamery) at the Ballard Farmers’ Market unknowingly standing right next to another farmer. When I strolled away the farmer walked up to me and says he wants to tell me about his farm and I give him the green light to let it rip. This man is George Page and he owns Sea Breeze Farm on Vashon Island. He and his wife and daughter live in a house on 8.85 acres (3.85 when they first purchased it) with a whole raft of animals (see list above). George doesn’t do it all alone, he has a farm manager, Matt Lawrence, who was manning the stand at the market with him that day. As he was describing how he runs his farm- graze cows, goats and sheep on grass, run chickens after them, move pigs around to clear roots and prepare land for more pasture- my mind instantly went to the section of Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” that covers Polyface Farm. I mentioned this to George and his eyes lit up. He had just finished reading the book himself and explained how confirming it had been for him. He explained that people are continually pressuring him to specialize rather than diversify and yet whenever he removes a single part of his operation the whole of it doesn’t run as well.

Pig racing

We decided to visit George for a number of reasons not the least of which was that everyone we met told us that Vashon Island was amazing. There was also the fact that Sea Breeze is not only producing cheese, milk, eggs, and chickens but they are also making wine under the label Sweetbread Cellars. Nothing short of our dream farm… were we to be so bold as to go into farming ourselves. So we went to visit our dream on Vashon Island which is as beautiful as everyone promised. When we arrived at Sea Breeze a pack of naughty piglets came tearing down the gravel drive until one of the farm hands spotted the escape artists and rounded them back towards their pen. George was in the commercial kitchen that they installed in part of their home so he had a place to produce cheese legally.

George is doing something in cheesemaking that we hadn’t encountered in our other visits- rather he is not doing something- he does not add any cultures to his milk during cheesemaking. This means that whatever bacteria are present naturally in the milk are what develop the cheese (break down fats and proteins, develop on the rinds, etc.). Once the cheeses are made and have adequate time to drain they are stored in the cellar in a sort of open air cabinet surrounded by mesh to prevent flies from getting in. The house they purchased had a considerable in-ground cellar which is where he built the cupboard and also where he matures his wine. In no uncertain terms this cellar is where one would want to be in the event of any unfortunate disaster.

We sat at his kitchen table and had coffee with some kicking milk (from the farm of course) and he talked to us A winning combinationabout the evolution of the farm. George loves food and wanted to be closer to his ingredients. He started in 2001 with goats, chickens and rabbits and then he found out there was a Holstein for sale on Vashon. The operation has grown steadily since then and George admits that he is constantly being pushed to be bigger than he ever thought he would. He is selling primarily at farmers’ markets and to select restaurants in the Seattle area. We walked around the farm while sampling some of his wine (I know- life is good on this trip) and he explained his plan for expanding his pasture. The plan includes borrowing land from neighbors- some are more formal agreements and some more casual but in the end it all seems very European to be walking your animals around on an island for new grass.

walking the farm

The milking parlor is the smallest we’ve seen yet but it gets the job done and passed muster with inspectors. There is also a small building that George calls the humble farmstand. Neighbors come and help themselves, write down what they bought, and leave cash or checks in the jar. We love that the honor system is still thriving on a number of small farms. Sea Breeze milk is delicious and the cheeses though they may be less predictable than others (due to the absence of commercial cultures) are truly a taste of the farm. It is slightly upsetting that these products are available only on the farm or at a handful of farmers markets and restaurants. However, if you find yourself consuming Sea Breeze goods it will mean that you are either on Vashon Island (score), at the Ballard farmers’ market (hoppin’), or in one of Seattle’s finest restaurants (mmmm). We look forward to our next visit and champion George’s fight for the small, diversified family farm.

3 comments August 19th, 2006

Mt. Townsend Creamery

Will in the caveName: Mt. Townsend Creamery
Owners: Matt, Ryan, Will
Location: Port Townsend, WA
Animals: They get their milk from two dairies that have 50 cows each. Primarily Jerseys, some Holstein and Brown Swiss. No hormones and pasture fed as much as possible.
Cheeses/Products: Seastack, Trailhead, Cirrus
More Info: www.mttownsendcreamery.com/index.html

So our friends Matt and Milissa got married in southern Washington the last weekend in July. This meant that we had a few “free” days to explore the Oregon coast north of Rivers Edge Chevre and areas of Washington beyond Seattle. Lucky for you, we got a tip off from Kurt D. (Beecher’s) about great cheesemakers in his home state. While at a farmers market in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle we confirmed this by tasting and then purchasing some of Mt. Townsend Creamery’s signature cheeses- Seastack and Trailhead. We forced our business cards on them and a few days later we received a phone call welcoming us to stop on by if time permitted.

Port Townsend is beautiful. All the routes you can take to get to Port Townsend are beautiful too; a ferry from Seattle, or maybe a scenic drive wrapping around the Olympic Peninsula like we did… The town is at the tip of the Peninsula that faces the Seattle area and Mt. Townsend creamery is about one mile from the center of town. When we arrived we were greeted by Will, one of the three partners in the business. All three men bring valuable skills to the cheesemaking “table”: Will worked for years running an organic farm (his wife still runs their pick-your-own blueberry business), Matt has an MBA in financing, and Ryan was a process engineer for the micro-brew company New Belgium in Colorado. They met each other through social circles of sorts and realized they had a common interest in artisan cheese.

Will and Ryan scooping

Dairying used to be BIG in this area of Washington- second only to timber on the peninsula yet today there are only three dairies left. Will’s original goal was to try to form an on-farm partnership so that he could produced a farmstead cheese. Regulations and zoning were insurmountable for that so he took a step back and once he met Ryan and Matt the plan for a creamery came together. In their search for milk sources they looked for farmers who pasture fed and used no hormones. He found two small farmers willing to work with him, and they are committed to having close involvement with the farmers. Mount Townsend picks up milk from each farm three times (soon to be four) weekly in their own milk truck. They are pasteurizing all of their milk because the majority of their cheese is sold under 60 days.

Will walked us through the packaging room and back to the two maturing rooms and cold storage. There is one maturing room for the tomme style cheese (Trailhead) and another for the bloomy or mold-ripened cheese (Seastack). There is also a small drying room which is accessible from a corner of the make room- this is where the Seastack goes after it is adequately drained. After our tour we watched Will and Ryan scoop Trailhead curd into the forms and then set them up on the press where they will be flipped and pressed with slightly increasing pressure at least overnight.

cave at Townsend

Mount Townsend has only been selling their cheese for four months and already they are somewhat in demand. Their creamery illustrates a new model for cheesemaking- the three owners invested considerable capital and years of planning to hit the market running and they have hit it on the mark. They are selling out locally at farmers markets and have small retailers clamoring for their products. If you want to taste you’ll have to head west. I know- like you need another reason to go west.

Add comment August 17th, 2006

Rivers Edge Chevre

Climbing the rocksName: Rivers Edge Chevre
Owner: Pat Morford
Location: Logsden, OR
Animals: 38 milking goats, largely Alpines. Goal is to grow to 60 milking.
Cheeses/Products: Chevre (flavored and marinated), Humbug, Full Moon, aged goat tomme
More Info: threeringfarm.com (the farm is called Three Ring Farm the cheese business is Rivers Edge Chevre)

The drive out to Pat Morford’s farm was gorgeous and also in line with our goal to get away from the 112 degree heat of Oregon’s sweltering I-5 corridor. Rivers Edge Chevre is about 10-15 miles inland from the town of Newport on the Oregon coast. We headed out of Portland the Sunday following the American Cheese Society conference and made it to Pat’s in time for a brief introduction, a quick tour, and a few minutes to set up the schedule for the following day.

Pat’s farm is exactly as she has drawn it on her label- drooping Sitka Spruce and Douglas Firs along the edge of the open pasture, goats and a handful of sheep frolicking up into the forest a bit or retreating from the sun in the loafing shed. She has had goats since she was a small girl and remembers clearly the names of the first three her father purchased. Stripes was traded, Jack and Pinky stuck around long enough to provide some good meat for tamales.

lables

She has lived all around the northern end of the Oregon coast, first on a boat with her partner George for a few years. They knew about this beautiful river valley and began to think about land-living so they started knocking on some doors in Logsden. The first man they asked said he wasn’t selling but then promptly died shortly thereafter so they purchased the 7 acres he had and bought 5 more adjoining acres the following year when they came up for sale giving them the 12 acres they have today.

They started with five dairy goats as a milk source for their family but also as a potential business concept to produce goat milk to sell to cow dairies as replacement milk for calves. George went full boar and purchased 27 goats which Pat, knowing genetics for milk production (having had dairy goats her whole life for personal milk consumption), narrowed down to 3 worthwhile producers and sold off the other 24. She began to build the herd in 1990, buying a buck from Mary Keehn (Cypress Grove) and soon she was placing in the top ten for dairy goats in competitions. They tried selling goat milk to a cheesemaker who moved to their area but that didn’t last so long and all the while, the local fishing economy- George’s profession- was in serious decline. So they decided in 1993 that they wanted to do something “real” and began collecting cheesemaking equipment, as Pat understood that the only way you make money from milk is to add value to it.

new kid

At this stage they found out how difficult it was to get a loan to go into the goat dairy/cheesemaking business. Pat went out and got a full time job at a local market to help them get approved for the loan required for them to construct the dairy. I made note of the fact that Pat mentioned that she and George had never carried debt in her life until she got into dairy. That said- they did some amazing things with their loan… The ground floor of the building they constructed houses the milking parlor, the milk room (read bulk tank), cheesemaking, maturing and cold storage while the upstairs contains the living space for Pat and her family.

the next generation of three ringWhen we came back the following morning both of Pat’s daughters were busy in the cheese room. Astraea was packing chevre in glass jars with beautiful herbs- most of them coming directly from their garden. Her older daughter, Spring, was busy washing molds because the pasteurizer was running - meaning that they would ladel curd into the molds that afternoon.

Pat has devoted incredible focus to her cheesemaking. It had been almost one year since I had tasted her bloomy rind cheeses as samples at Murray’s in New York and the change in them is incredible, a beautiful expression of the carefully produced milk on their farm. I know that creating this dairy has required considerable sacrifice for Pat and her family and I am so hopeful that the business will begin to pay them back steadily.

Pat checking the tomme

2 comments August 15th, 2006

Cranberry Ridge Farm

BrowsingName: Cranberry Ridge Farm
Owners: Matt and Rhonda Shaul
Location: Wasilla, AK
Animals: Milking 26 goats of varying breeds
Cheeses/Products: Fresh mozzarella, chevre, various aged goat milk tommes
More info: Cranberry Ridge doesn’t have their own website at this time but there is a write up about them on the Pacific Northwest Cheese Project site.

Matt grew up in Alaska and has always had a strong inclination to stay close to the land. He did spend some time in the lower 48, where he met his wife Rhonda, but found that he missed the comfort of being surrounded by mountains that he found in Alaska. Rhonda had spent years working in cow dairies in the Midwest developing in-depth knowledge of animal husbandry practices and also becoming an artificial insemination expert. The two of them have built Cranberry Ridge Farm from the ground up. Matt built their home with help from his father and also cleared a number of sections of thick trees to create areas for livestock to browse. On their 10 acres they’ve got 24 milking goats and the total goat population is probably double that number. Their goal someday is to be milking 60 goats. The Shaul’s also have horses (which they will ideally be able to use almost exclusively to work the land), chickens, turkeys, 3-4 grass-fed beef cattle per year, and a handful of peacocks that were given to them as a gift.

They are currently working towards getting their Grade A certification through the state- when they are successful they will be the first Grade A goat dairy in Alaska. In the meantime they have a sold out goat share program where customers buy ownership shares in the goats and in return receive milk and cheese each week. Customers are coming from as far as Anchorage (a solid 45 minute drive) to get raw goat milk and cheese from them- clearly illustrating consumer interest in this kind of product. Matt and Rhonda are interested in diversity on their farm and are looking at the possibility of growing berries on some of their acreage to offer more at markets.

One of the primary challenges of raising livestock in Alaska is the cost and quality of feed (I know! We were thinking freezing cold winters too!). The cost of hay is at least double what it is in other states and, because it is so difficult to get a high enough yield, farmers often grow the grasses out beyond their prime to increase production thus buyers are paying a high price for lower quality feed. Matt is interested in finding additional land where they could produce some of their own feed. Their goats browse in fenced off areas and are also fed hay and a bit of grain with some mineral supplements.

Feeding the goats

We spent time walking around the Shaul’s 10 acres, discussing the particulars of goat breeding, etc. A number of other Wasilla residents who have goats turn to the Shauls for assistance with breeding which provides a small amount of additional income for the farm and means that while the animal is with them, being bred, they can use her milk for cheesemaking. The farm is way down a dirt road and backs onto wilderness so I had to ask the inevitable, “worry about predators often?” question. They explain that they have not had any problems because they have always had excellent watchdogs. Although they are not pure bred Pyrenees like we have seen on other farms, the two dogs they have are doing a fine job protecting the goats, horses, and occasional cow. Sounds fine to me until they mention that when they were out for a horseback ride the other day they saw grizzly tracks as big as a human head.

I also couldn’t resist asking about the cold. They explained that the animals do fine most of the year although Rhonda did make a few goat coats for the more delicate animals and they had to have some goat kids indoors with them during the coldest periods because they had purchased some pregnant does without knowing their exact due dates. Normally they breed their animals to deliver after the coldest period is over and staggered so that there is room for all the new kids in a warmer, enclosed space.

Rhonda showing the milkingThe Shauls are working constantly to be able to expand their cheesemaking. When we visited they were nearing the end of construction on a cheese maturing room to give Rhonda a space that is temperature and humidity controlled for making more aged cheeses. As for many cheesemakers, aged cheeses can help keep cash flow happening when the goats have dried off and you can’t make the fresh cheeses. Although there is still a considerable amount of work to be done, Cranberry Ridge is coming along nicely and most importantly the Shauls are having an impact on their community. As we were leaving they got a call from a local woman who had purchased a goat from them, the woman was trying to make cheese and had a couple questions for Rhonda. Patiently converting Alaskans to cheese one goat at a time…

Add comment August 13th, 2006

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