Posts filed under 'Meadow Creek Dairy'

Protecting raw milk cheese in the U.S.

Most cheese enthusiasts in the U.S. are familiar with the impassioned debates about raw milk and raw milk cheese. Considering the massive amount of press time spent covering food safety issues I am doubtful that this issue will be resolved in the near future. Basically the laws within the U.S. prevent the production or importing of any cheeses made from raw (unpasteurized) milk that are not aged for 60 days or more. So all fresh cheeses and the majority of soft, gooey ones are made from pasteurized milk. Most cheesemakers have accepted this and developed cheeses accordingly- some masterful enough to create bloomy rind and pudgy washed rind cheeses that can clear the 60 day mark and still showcase flavors other than amonia. This is a real triumph considering that most cheesemakers here are learning affinage from scratch- not learning from their predecessors like producers can in Europe.

But there is still a lurking risk that at some point the FDA will decide that cheeses aged beyond 60 days should also be made from pasteurized milk. Thankfully we have a band of producers who are proactively working, with the FDA I might add, to prevent this from happening. A small, producer-run organization called the Raw Milk Cheesemakers Association has formed quietly and is working to support raw milk producers in developing their cheeses and also to develop plans called HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points). HACCP plans focus on examining the production process and creating many checkpoints and safeguards throughout production rather than relying on post-production inspection for food safety so that if/when the day comes that the FDA moves to strike raw milk cheese completely, the producers can present a united, organized front and show what they do make their products safely.

I spoke with Helen Feete of Meadow Creek Dairy recently about the development of the Raw Milk Cheesemakers Association (RMCA) and also the Slow Food Raw Milk Cheese Presidium. She has been involved with both efforts extensively as she believes strongly in protecting raw milk cheese production here in the U.S.

Before you listen to the first bit it is important to understand a bit about Slow Food and how the RMCA relates to it. Slow Food International and Slow Food USA both have been instrumental in fostering the development of this group. It all began with the formation of what Slow Food calls a “presidium” for American raw milk cheeses. As Slow Food puts it,

Slow Food Presidia work in different ways, but the goals remain constant: to promote artisan products; to stabilize production techniques; to establish stringent production standards and, above all, to guarantee a viable future for traditional foods.”

In the case of raw milk cheeses, Slow Food wanted a group of producers to work towards protecting the right to make cheese from raw milk- the most obvious approach being to methodically prove that these products can be produced safely. The American Raw Milk Cheese Presidium has developed protocols or rules that define specifically how raw milk cheese must be produced if they want to be part of the presidia- similar to production requirements of AOC or DOP products. The cheeses included in the Presidium are also representing American raw milk cheese at events home and abroad. Out of the work done by the presidium came the development of a related group called the Raw Milk Cheesemakers Association. This group is intended to be more of a working resource for raw milk cheesemakers to help them develop their products and practices.

One final important point: Membership in the Presidium happens only when a cheese is evaluated and accepted because it meets a set standard of taste and quality. The guidelines or protocols set by the Presidium for raw milk cheese production can be met over time but the producer must show a commitment to the protocols. Membership to the Raw Milk Cheesemakers Association is open to all- and that group exists to offer education and support to cheese producers in the U.S.
Here is Helen talking about getting the RMCA started:

RMCA purpose and development

Next Helen talks about the FDA focus on raw milk cheeses. She mentions Cathy Donnelly, a food safety expert at the University of Vermont who has been instrumental in creating a bridge between raw milk producers and the FDA.

Scrutiny of raw milk cheese in US

Helen on partnering with the FDA rather than fighting against them… Partnering with FDA

There have been some complaints about the protocols or guidelines set by the Presidium- some cheesemakers feel that the requirements are so stringent that they are unattainable for most small producers. Here is what Helen had to say about this:

Debate over protocols

Here are two other clips from my conversation with Helen that I find interesting:

Do producers agree about why raw milk cheese is important?

What can consumers do to support these groups?

Add comment July 14th, 2008

Cheese by Hand Thanksgiving cheese board…

Tuesday afternoon I sauntered down to Saxelby Cheesemongers and picked up a couple cheeses for our Thanksgiving dinner:

First, a little ditty from one of my favorite creative forces in cheese, Laini Fondiller of Lazy Lady Farm. It is called Trillium and as Anne Saxelby described it, “It is a feat of both cheese ingenuity and engineering.” A small, mold-ripened, column with one layer of goat cheese running between two layers of cows’ milk cheese.

Second I nabbed a chunk of Grayson from Meadow Creek- not much of a stretch for me given that I ate a ton of it while I was on their farm not long ago but it was looking so voluptuous in the case that I couldn’t resist.

Third…La piece de resistance of my cheese board was the generous wedge of Jasper Hill Farm’s Aspenhurst. For those of you not familiar with Aspenhurst it is similar to a cheddar in that it has a bit of tang to it and is clothbound but technically it is not a cheddar because it is not “cheddared”. The curd is not stacked and re-stacked over a period of hours (cheddaring)- a process that allows acidity to build- but it is milled, pressed, larded, wrapped with cloth and aged for a minimum of 12 months making it similar in form and even in texture to clothbound cheddars. Aspenhurst is not widely available and I was lucky enough to get a wedge from the cheesemaker himself as a thank you for having assisted with one of the batches.

We visited Japser Hill in late June 2005 when we made Aspenhurst with Mateo. He enjoyed taunting us (Michael, our friend Tyler, and myself) about the Aspenhurst make all day. We laughed it off and then once Mateo started milling and we began “fluffing” (gently and repeatedly lifting up the milled curds to prevent them from matting) the curd we switched from giggling to sweating. These photos are from the end of the make and the beginning of the press.

Packing curd into Aspenhurst form inside the vat Filled Aspenhurst mold waiting to be moved to the press

Aspenhurst being placed in the press

Add comment November 26th, 2006

Farmstay at Meadow Creek Dairy

Judith and Debbie during morning milkingI know I promised more about cheese people from my trip to Italy but four days after I got home I was on a plane again (I’m not looking for sympathy), this time headed to Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, VA. We visited them early on during the Cheese by Hand tour so it was great to see their farm in another season and also to get a more hands on experience at their facility. What a treat it was. Not only are the cows and the farm absolutely beautiful but cheese production is also in full swing. They’ve got a great crew of milkers and cheese workers, and Helen and Rick are incredible hosts (with mad cooking skills).

The new cheesemaking room is almost finished and they will be in there before they wrap up milking for the season in about six weeks. The new, in-ground cellar that they built directly beneath the cheese house is complete (minus all of its official shelving) and has cheese maturing in it on metal racks- thank goodness because Helen and her crew have been cranking out cheese. Without the space in the new cellar they would have overflowed the upstairs aging rooms many times over. They are now making 4-5 times a week.

Cows gathered around the hay ring after morning milking

Grayson, the Taleggio-inspired, stout and square cheese is made with the milk from one milking and is usually made twice each week. Helen explained to me that the quantity of milk she is getting from the cows is steadily decreasing but the ratio of solids in the milk (the stuff you want for cheesemaking- fats and proteins, etc) is increasing thus the actual yield she gets from a vat of Grayson curd is not dropping too much. This also means that it is pugdy and luscious and something you should get your hands on as often as you can between now and March of next year before it takes a mini-vacation and we have the Grayson of Spring 2007.

Early on in curd cutting- Grayson make Later on in the curd cutting- Grayson

Mountaineer is made with milk from two milkings and was an interesting make for me to observe as it involves pressing under the whey. My understanding about this kind of pressing is that it helps create that smooth, creamy texture found in firm cheeses like Gouda and an American favorite Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Just 30 minutes after the cheeses are hooped and pressed they are removed and flipped inside the hoops to continue pressing. Amazingly, after only 30 mintues in their forms, they already have the smooth exterior and sturdy shape that they maintain through their aging.

Debbie removes a plate for pressing under the whey

Even with all the cheese washing, wrapping and packaging that went on during the week, Helen managed to get me out into the fields a bit with Rick to talk about pasture management. The pastures look different than they did in May and it takes them longer to grow back so Rick has to ration the grass carefully to make sure the cows get enough dry matter each day and that the land will last for the next six weeks. He is supplementing with dry hay at this point, because there isn’t enough in the fields at this time of year.

Furry ears show you the build up on the Jersey coat for winter coldThe Jersey coats change considerably as the weather cools down. Rick explained to me that Jerseys don’t have a thick layer of fat under their skin like some other breeds do, so their coat really bulks up to keep them warm through the winter. This was visible on the the young calves I met in May who are now out on pasture together and about 9 months old. Helen and I took a walk out to see the them on a non-cheesemaking afternoon. Along the way were signs of Rick’s preparations for the winter, non-milking months; hay storage in two areas that will allow them to feed the cows in various pastures without having to haul hay from their main storage area next to the milking parlor on a daily basis. Continuing to move the cows around on the pastures is important so that you don’t get manure build-up in one area rather you get an even spread of fertilizer on the land.

One of the pillars at Meadow Creek is Dixie. He has worked with Helen for years and is her right hand in the cheese room. If you order from Meadow Creek then you have definitely talked to Dixie. It was nice to work along side him through the week and hear his familiar drawl, “Meadow Creek Dairy, this is Dixie…” as he took calls from customers. On Saturday morning, after we loaded up and sent out the biggest order ever at the dairy, Dixie presented me with this gorgeous, baked Grayson. Homemade puff pastry of course, with decorative leaves and a golden “S”. If you want to please and surprise your guests during the holidays- ditch the brie and make some melty, gooey Grayson. Don’t be shy about slathering a layer of your favorite Grayson companion jam- fig, apple or even honey on top of the cheese before enrobing it in pastry and baking. This was an excellent way to round out my week at the dairy. Can’t wait to go back in the spring.

Puff pastry encrusted Grayson

Add comment November 17th, 2006

Meadow Creek Dairy

Helen & Rick with SashaName: Meadow Creek Dairy
Owners: Helen & Rick Feete
Location: Galax, Virginia
Animals: Over 100 Jersey with some crosses mixed in
Cheeses/Products: Grayson, Mountaineer, Appalachian
More info: www.meadowcreekdairy.com

In the 80’s Helen and Rick Feete went into dairying because as they saw it the profession was stable and they would get to spend more time with each other and with their children than if they worked other kinds of jobs. Both of them worked at conventional confinement dairies. In 1988, when they decided to get cows and started their own dairy, they reacted against conventional dairy farming. This was primarily because of the cost of running a confinement dairy; they did not have the capital to invest in the equipment or the ongoing purchase of corn silage to feed the animals. Around this time they saw an article in Farm Magazine about methods used in New Zealand dairies- grass-fed, rotational grazing- and also a book by Bill Murphy, Greener Pasture is on Your Side of the Fence, came out and they could see a style of dairy that they could afford. As a result, Meadow Creek Dairy- along with a handful of other New Zealand style rotational grazing setups in North America- stood out like a sore thumb in the world of cows milk dairies. The cows are outside on grass 365 days of the year and there are few structures and not so much heavy equipment around to support the dairy.

Six years into their own dairy business, without any non-family employees and not a single milking off, they began to wear out. So they considered their options and decided to try changing over to being a seasonal operation meaning they would breed their herd within one window. Any cows that do not get pregnant within that window must be cut from the herd. Not an easy decision to stick with, not to mention arranging your finances to get you prepared for the dry season- no milk production means no cash flow. Although this was a difficult decision to carry out, it also breathed new life into the farm…and we should all be thankful for this change as it gave the Feetes a chance to build a small cheese plant so that Helen could begin to take some of the grass-fed, raw Jersey milk from a few cows and turn it into cheese.

When we pulled into Meadow Creek Dairy Rick was just finishing up milking with Judith, one of their milk hands. Helen, Michael and I trailed behind one of the last groups of cows milked out to the paddock they would graze that evening. The farm is beautiful with hills that may qualify as slightly more intense than rolling, a creek, a couple ponds and copious amounts of luscious green grass. We wandered out amidst the milkers (approximately 89 of them at the moment) who are almost all mostly Jersey with a few carefully selected breeds crossed into the herd. As with all other factors that impact the farm, Helen and Rick are constantly tweaking their breeding to improve the overall genetics of the herd. They are definitely doing something right as this past season they had 89 successful births (no dead calves or cows).

Hello There

On our first night, Helen treated us to one of the chickens raised on their farm, and spring lettuces from her garden. We got up in the morning and wandered up the path to the cheese plant where Helen had been busy for some time setting up the room for making Grayson, their raw milk Taleggio style cheese. The make works best with four people and Helen had set up the crew to come in special on Saturday so that we could see them do it. Dixie was the first to show up (with homemade cinnamon rolls and butter and strawberry ice cream made from Meadow Creek cream), he has worked there for about 8 years. Then Helen and Rick’s daughter Kate arrived with her fiance Dan, they both work for Meadow Creek. We stepped in to watch Helen cut the curd and then cleared the room for a few minutes to allow them to set up all of the forms. Once they were ready to hoop the cheese we were directed to two spots where we could stand without being in their way. Kate stirred the curd gently and constantly to prevent it from adhering to itself, Dan scooped curd into buckets, Helen and Dixie ferried the buckets from the vat to the molds around the room. At a certain point, Helen stopped pouring curd and began flipping the cheeses that were hooped first. As luck would have it, we got to see the biggest Grayson make they have ever done- it was awesome to see a cheese make that involved so many people moving a lot of curd and having such a good time together.

Grayson Make

Those cheeses were flipped at various intervals that day and eventually we helped Helen move them into the cellar. Helen is patiently waiting while the finishing touches are being done on a new cheesemaking room and in-ground cellar- an excellent excuse for us to go visit them again later this year.

The following morning they took us on a walk around their property. One could easily wander around on their farm and overlook one of the most important features- what is growing on the land. While we walked, Rick explained how one cares for a pasture when they are focused on long-term sustainability (environmental, economic, and social). When you kneel down and look at the variety of grasses available to the cows it is intense to think about the amount of work required to create this landscape (without the use of chemicals). He also talked to us about something other farmers have mentioned, the concept of a nutrient loop on a piece of land- I will do my best to give an explanation although it will be oversimplified. The cows go out and eat the grass which has grown from nutrients in the soil, they metabolize that grass and put it back onto the land via manure. One of the wonderful thing about grass based dairying is that you are closer to closing the loop because you are not taking hay from someone else’s land and moving those nutrients onto your own land… over time this depletes the hay farmer’s land.

Listening to Helen and Rick talk about their path through the dairying industry it is apparent that they are steady visionaries with the patience required to do something the right way. They are humble about what they have accomplished and yet they would never undersell the complexity of what they do- which is exactly as it should be.

Curious Ladies

2 comments June 4th, 2006


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