Today is our interview with Michael Lee at Twig Farm. Twig Farm is in West Cornwall, VT. Michael and his wife Emily moved from Boston to West Cornwall and have been making cheese for over three years. Very much a small farm operation, Michael milks 25 goats seasonally (meaning they are dried off in winter months) and purchases some cow’s milk from neighbors. They make aged, raw milk cheeses, creatively named: Twig Farm Goat Tomme, Square Cheese and Soft Wheel.
Twig Farm Interview
You can read other Cheese by Hand posts about Twig Farm here.
Up Next: Vermont Butter & Cheese
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Also, thanks to Matty Charles who generously allowed us to use his music!
January 22nd, 2008
One of the general sessions this year was about cheesemaking in the Northeast. Clark Wolf who has a NYC based company that does restaurant and hospitality consulting was our moderator and did a great job of synthesizing information from the three presentations and posing broader questions to us all at the end. Louis Aird of Saputo in Montreal shared the history of cheese production in Canada with us and Jeff Roberts, author of the Atlas of American Artisan Cheese shared some facts and statistics about cheesemakers in the Northeast that he’d collected during his research for the book.
My ten minute talk was based on findings from our tour last summer. Below is a basic outline of my talk with audio pieces laid in where I played them. Have a read and a listen.
The Cheese by Hand lens: Our project only looked at producers making cheese by hand. We made every effort to cover the major milk types- cow, sheep, goat- and to represent the density of cheesemaking in certain regions (i.e. we saw more dairies in Wisconsin, Vermont, and California than anywhere else).
In the Northeast we visited the following farms in this order: Jasper Hill Farm, Twig Farm, Vermont Butter & Cheese, Willow Hill Farm, Appleton Creamery, Westfield Farm, and Cato Corner Farm. All are first generation cheesemakers, two are farmstead, three use milk from their own herds and buy in milk to supplement, and two are purchasing all of their milk.
These producers are, in many ways, representative of those we visited around the country- they come from diverse background and face many of the same issues as their colleagues in the Midwest, Pacific Northwest, and even the South. I’ll cover three larger topics that came up everywhere and explain to you how the Northeasterners had a unique perspective on each.
First: The loss of landscape. This includes not only the land but all the services that support farms- large animal vets, mechanics, and slaughterhouses). The audio clip below features Michael Lee (Twig Farm), and Willow Smart and David Phinney (Willow Hill Farm).
Loss of Farms
The terminology- working landscape- is something we only heard in the Northeast. Maybe their connection to the landscape comes from an awareness of the rich history of dairying and farming in the region? Ultimately on this issue we felt that the producers in this area were ‘on message’ meaning that everyone had similar thoughts and desires to see the land back in use for agriculture.
Second: An eye towards their competition (Europe). Cost of Business clip starts with Allison Hooper (Vermont Butter & Cheese), Caitlin Hunter (Appleton Creamery), Michael lee (Twig Farm). Educating the public starts with Caitlin (AC), Debbie Stetson (Westfield Farm), Mateo Kehler (Jasper Hill Farm), Michael Lee (TF).
Cost of Business Educating the public
Cheesemaking is expensive everywhere but the reference point for NE cheesemakers is always Europe- whether they are discussing healthcare, cost of infrastructure, or subsidies. This may happen because the two big markets are NYC and Boston, both of which have a bounty of imported cheeses. One stinging factor is that there is a perception that most European cheeses are made by hand- Michael Lee pointed out in another part of our interview that EU cheeses that are made in the way he makes his cheeses in Vermont would not be cheaper. There is a serious educational component for these cheesemakers- not just about cheese but about the state of agriculture in our own country.
Third: The concept of local. This word is as loose as “natural” or “artisan”- listen to how differently it is used by these producers. Some call their products local when all the inputs are local and some use the term local to define the inputs and the market where it is sold. In this audio clip you will hear Michael Lee (TF), Mateo Kehler (JHF), and Mark Gillman (Cato Corner Farm).
The NE region is going to push the word local and possibly force it to be defined. Again, this has a lot to do with the two big metropolitan markets within (NY, Boston) because clientele there can support the reclaimation of the working landscape. NE was the only place where we heard producers talking about AOC cheeses- about products that must be created in a specific place- maybe also a result of the proximity and comparison to European products in the market.
In closing- some thoughts from NE producers about unifies them and what they imagine is in store for the future of artisan cheesemaking… You will hear Willow Smart (WHF) and Michael Lee (TF).
August 9th, 2007
Below are three audio clips from our interview with Michael Lee at Twig Farm. We spoke with Michael on a number of topics and wanted to share his thoughts in his oun voice. These clips (hopefully) don’t require much context. Each clip is around a minute.
Twig Farm Dream
Twig Farm Costs
Twig Farm Motivation
Our next audio snippets will be from Vermont Butter & Cheese.
May 16th, 2006
Name: Twig Farm
Owners: Michael and Emily Lee (let’s not forget 8-month old Carter)
Location: West Cornwall, VT
Herd Size: 17 does, 14 kids
Cheeses: Twig Farm Cow’s Milk Tomme, Twig Farm Goat’s Milk Tomme, Twig Farm Wheel
More info: www.twigfarm.com
When someone says “Vermont farmstead cheese” I think people imagine a place like Twig Farm. Michael and Emily Lee milked 17 goats and in their first cheese-producing year and made 3,000 lbs of cheese. That is a little less than 60 lbs per week. In Vermont lingo they are “flat-landers” meaning they live down in Addison county where the landscape is somewhat conducive to farming. Their barn and home blend seamlessly into the surrounding land that is thick with spindly trees and brush. Their land is ideal for goats to work as goats are technically not grazers- they will eat grass but their preference is what is called browse. Basically this is anything you would not want to walk through if you were out for a stroll in shorts and sandals; the thickety bushes with tiny leaves and brambles. These inconvenient plants are the very things that can create such stunning flavors in Twig Farm’s cheeses. Michael commented that he wished he had an entire field of honeysuckle to put the goats in… we do too, but for the time being we will settle for the garden variety of plants that nature provides.
Michael is up at 4:45 AM for chores and to prepare the milking parlor. When weather permits he walks the goats out to small paddocks after their morning milking. They browse for the day and return to the barn around 4pm for the second milking. Sounds like lots of downtime in the middle of the day right? But there are many other things to be done even on a farm this size. Milk is collected from neighboring farms for cheesemaking (17 goats don’t produce enough milk for cheesemaking multiple times a week), chores in the barn, setting up fences around new paddocks, brining, washing and turning cheese in the cellar and then boxing up orders.
Although we slept through morning milking on our first day- we woke up to watch the goats doing their springtime pecking order exercises which consist of rearing up on their hind legs and coming down head to head with one another. We got to walk the goats out out to one of the paddocks with Michael, then I did a bit of cheese turning and patting in the cellar while he packed up some cheese for Saxelby Cheesemongers. He took a couple hours out of his day to sit down for an interview with us (we’ll be posting some clips soon). This brought us right up to the afternoon milking. We “helped” Michael a bit in the barn and then washed some fiddlehead ferns for the big cheesemaker feast…
Addison County is loaded with cheesemakers. On our second night at Twig Farm Michael and Emily offered to have some over for dinner so we could meet them and taste their cheeses. The meal was superb- both the company and the food. Along with Michael cooking a pork shoulder that slow cooked in some of his amazing goat’s milk, Carleton Yoder and his wife Moira from Champlain Valley Creamery brought two cheeses, mozzarella and a new soft-ripened, triple creme, and CHEESECAKE made with their ridiculously real cream cheese. Hannah Sessions from Blue Ledge Farm had two of the farm’s goat’s milk cheeses with her- the elegant Lake’s Edge and a new washed-rind that her husband Greg has been experimenting with. The new folks on the scene were the Crawfords (siblings Jim and Sherry) and their cheesemaker Maria Trumpler with their raw cow’s milk cheese Vermont Ayr. Of course Michael cracked open a wheel of Twig’s Soft Cheese for the occassion as well.
The opportunity to meet these cheesemakers was excellent and also made us just a tiny bit sad to know that while we are visiting many farms, for every one that we do see there are probably 5 more that we’re not seeing. Poor baby, I know- we don’t expect any sympathy from you- its just an observation!
Next stop: Vermont Butter and Cheese
May 6th, 2006