Posts filed under 'Makers'
Today we visit with Allison Hooper of Vermont Butter and Cheese. Allison and her business partner Bob Reese started out making fresh goat cheese nearly 25 years ago and have since brought a myriad of European style dairy products to the American market. We spoke with Allison about the transformation of her own business and progress within the American cheese industry.
Vermont Butter and Cheese Interview
You can read other Cheese by Hand posts about Vermont Butter & Cheese here.
Up next: Willow Hill Farm
Also if you want to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes, just search for Cheese by Hand in the iTunes store and click “Subscribe.”
February 10th, 2008
This is the first cheese producer that I’ve posted about here and spoken to without visiting their operation. It is definitely a different experience and it presented some technological challenges like recording a phone conversation with decent enough quality to then serve it up on the web for others to hear. Steve and Karen Getz of Dancing Cow Farm were gracious enough to give this newfangled method a chance.
My interview of the Getz’s was prompted by a short cheese write up that I did for a fantastic, food website: thestrongbuzz.com which is relaunching with a new design (and my cheese blurb) in a couple weeks. It is somewhat focused on the New York food scene but its founder, Andrea Strong, writes about a breadth of food-related subjects. I wrote about one of the three cheeses produced by Dancing Cow Farm (Sarabande) and then spoke with Karen and Steve about how they got into farming, their approach to dairying, and of course, their cheese.
We started out talking a bit about how Dancing Cow is run, the farm is certified organic although their cheeses are not. Their decision to become certified was largely about financial stability within the fluid milk market. Organic milk prices are not only higher than those for conventional milk but are also much more stable. As you listen to this clip I think you’ll find that it is clear that they are also motivated by a desire to do right by their herd and the landscape.
About the farm
This next clip might be my favorite because it touches on some of the challenges that the farmers really struggle with, things we would not think of when considering all the potential hurdles to pass in starting a dairy farm…things like naming your farm and your cheeses.
How the farm became Dancing Cow
Producing beautiful, clean and flavorful milk and transforming it into cheese are just the beginning for this new generation of farmers. In today’s savvy food market, the farmers also have to understand how to talk about their cheeses with consumers. Often it is small cheese purveyors, who are deeply committed to the industry, walking the farmer through their first batches of cheese- helping them refine and make them more desirable in the market.
Learning to speak “cheese”
The final clip touches on something that I think it truly the next wave in the artisan cheese industry, the advancement of an infrastructure that will not only support producers in distributing their cheeses but also in marketing and even aging their cheeses. Dancing Cow Farm is part of the first group of farmers partnering with the Kehler brothers at Jasper Hill Farm. Jasper Hill has constructed a massive, in-ground cheese aging complex that will undoubtedly alter the landscape of cheesemaking in Vermont let alone its impact on the entire industry.
Partnering with Jasper Hill
February 5th, 2008
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
As a reminder, you can subscribe to Cheese by Hand on iTunes and have the interviews automatically downloaded to your computer / iPod. Just search for Cheese by Hand in the iTunes Store and click on Subscribe… iTunes will take care of the rest!
Also, thanks to Matty Charles who generously allowed us to use his music!
January 22nd, 2008
Today is the first of our audio installments from our four month trip around America visiting small scale cheesemakers. Jasper Hill Farm is in Greensboro, VT. The farm is run by brothers Andy and Mateo Kehler. They are milking 40 cows and producing five raw milk cheeses. Currently they are nearing the end of construction on a massive in-ground cheese aging complex where they will age their own cheeses along with those from other established Vermont cheesemakers. We interviewed Mateo Kehler outside the make room after a day of cheesemaking.
Jasper Hill Farm Interview
You can read other Cheese by Hand posts about Jasper Hill Farm here.
Our goal is to publish a new podcast every 10 -14 days and can be found here or on iTunes.
Up Next: Twig Farm
Also, Thanks again to Matty Charles who generously allowed us to use his music!
January 1st, 2008
We had a magical experience in Austin, Texas last Friday- regardless of the previous night’s stay at the O’Hare Best Western (missed our connection en route to TX). Our friend and Cheese by Hand designer, Nancy Nowacek got to see what it was like to visit a dairy Cheese by Hand style. The visit was even cooler because it was the Chrissy Omo and her family at CKC Goat Dairy in Blanco which is about an hour outside of Austin. Chrissy is currently a college student at Texas State- she juggles that committment with dairy farming by restricting her school schedule to morning classes. This means that she has two distinct mornings during the week- one milking goats at dawn, and a second a few hours later in a classroom at the university.
Austin in located in the region of Texas known as Hill Country. Because it is Texas, and everything is bigger in Texas, the hills there are long and rolling- stretching out as far as the eye can see. The landscape was much greener than expected for September because the area has gotten so much more rain that usual this summer. Driving around in such a vast expanse of space so soon after leaving New York City blew my mind- even the sky appeared to have grown overnight.
Chrissy got into goats by participating with FFA as a youngster. She raised meat goats and quickly realized that she wanted goats that would stay around longer than those sold off for meat so she switched to dairy goats. As it goes with so many goat enthusiasts there is a sudden rush of milk at some point and the next logical step is to make cheese. This is exactly what Chrissy did. CKC is currently milking 16 goats but the total herd is up to 87, including a couple billy goats for breeding. They are bred rotationally so that the dairy has a year-round milk supply. The total acreage on the farm is almost 70 and there is plenty of pasture and brambly stuff for the goats to get most of their diet from forage with a minimal supplement of grain.
The whole family pitches in to support the CKC business. When we stopped by Chrissy’s father was busy painting the tasting room area that had just been completed. One of their local food heroes, Sibby Barrett is bringing a group of her culinary students out to the farm next weekend as part of her “Random Acts of Cooking” courses where the students visit a number of local farms and producers to gather the goods for their cooking lesson. You can read about Sibby’s local, culinary courses here.
CKC produces a wide variety of goat’s milk cheeses- spreads, small disks reminiscent of the French classic selles sur cher, marinated feta, a blue cheese, and soon to come some natural rinded tommes. Their cheese production room is simple and spacious- with ample room to increase volume. They sell their output at a farmer’s market nearby in San Antonio and to a number of small food purveyors local to them and also a number in the Austin area.
We sat around the table with Chrissy, her mother, and her two younger brothers to taste some cheese and hear about the time they spent in Europe together as a family- this is where their love affair with handcrafted cheeses began. Their cheeses are delicious- on par with many American goat’s milk products let alone European imports. I look forward to re-visiting Austin and sampling the aged cheeses as they roll out.
It was a fantastic afternoon. The entire family just could not have been any nicer or more welcoming. We were there for a little over an hour and I think we laughed (hard) more than ten times- always a solid indicator of good company. They enjoy what they do, working hard and making sure to have a good time while doing it. When we got back into the car nancy asked if that visit was representative of what we’d done on our tour last summer. I replied with a resounding “Absolutely!” while Michael said wistfully, “Man, that was a great summer.”
September 11th, 2007
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
Check out the fantastic video of 3 Corner Field Farm from a newspaper reporter local to them in Glens Falls, NY.
This is so great for Karen and Paul, the owners of the farm. You can even get a sneak peek at the cellar that they completed construction on just this spring! Look for her new, smoked, aged sheep milk tomme at the Union Square Greenmarket in NY or go online and buy directly from the farm.
July 18th, 2007
I go to the farmer’s market here in New York City’s Union Square a couple times a week. Wednesdays are the best because it isn’t as crowded as Saturday and some of my favorite vendors are there: Tamarack Hollow Farm (selling pigs and chickens) and Three Corner Field Farm (selling all things sheep- mutton, lamb, yogurt, cheese and milk). Not only are their products excellent but I almost always walk away from their stands having learned something about farming or about their experiences.
It is one thing to think about farming conceptually- farmers work the land, care for the animals, then they bring them to a central location and we pay them for their work- and quite another to consider what the farmer’s day is actually like. I know that since returning from our tour, and watching the temperature drop (finally) over the last couple weeks, when I walk out my front door and that first gust of wind blows through my jacket into my bones I often think about the farmer who got up earlier than I did and went to work outside. They aren’t the only ones who do this… cops, construction workers, garbage men, landscapers- all of them are up and outside too it’s just that I’ve had farming on my mind.
A couple weeks ago, on a particularly frigid Wednesday, I stopped by to see Karen Weinberg (owner of 3 Corner Field Farm) and shortly after I arrived she got a phone call that she absolutley had to take. I hung around her stand to field questions from customers while she paced in the patch of sunshine between her stand and the neighboring apple booth. As soon as she was on hold she explained that she had been waiting for this call for months- it was from the USDA.
The basics of the situation Karen was discussing with the USDA are this: Months ago there had been a problem at one of the slaughterhouses Karen uses for her lambs. Meat from another farmer had been tagged as potentially contaminated and the USDA had done an investigation. No conclusive evidence of actual contamination was found but the USDA put an indefinite hold on the any meat that was in the slaughterhouse during the time that the allegedly contaminated meat was there. Indefinite holds and perishable products don’t go together so well.
Karen had taken fifteen lambs to the slaughterhouse, watched them go in the front door and then never saw any trace of them after that.
The slaughterhouse wants her to take it up with the USDA because they had imposed this unending hold on the products and the USDA wants her to hold the slaughterhouse accountable because they had been in possession of the product at the time it disappeard.
Karen broke down what losing these lambs meant for her in financial terms- which is not insignificant. Retail pricing on the various cuts of lamb that she sells range from $9-15.50/lb. I looked at her and immediately thought of the emotional value of the animals. I remembered what she said to me this summer (we visited her this summer on the tour) when I asked her about the first time she took animals to slaughter. She said that the first time had been so chaotic- she was so worried about them escaping or something that she had not been able to be completely present to what was going on… and then she said that over time, as she felt more confident about how to transport them, taking the animals to slaughter had actually gotten harder.
And then I thought about all the time and care she had put into those lambs to then have to think that they were slaughtered and wasted. Not sold, cooked, eaten, and celebrated but wasted.
Here is the thing about this entire situation- most of us, even meat eaters, don’t like the idea of animals going to slaughter. And yet the reality of cheese is that one of its byproducts is young animals that are born for the purpose of kicking off the cycle of lactation in their mothers. Dairy farmers cannot afford to keep all of these young animals and let them live out their years on the farm. If they do keep them around, like Karen does, many of them have to be raised for meat because only a handful of the females are needed each season as replacements for milking ewes that are being retired.
Just for a minute lets put all the feelings we have about this situation aside and look at the slaughterhouse situation for non-industrial dairy farmers. If a dairy farmer wants to be able to sell meat from their animals in cuts (not as whole animals- the rules are different for this) then they have to have them slaughtered at a USDA regulated facility. Doesn’t sound so bad except that these facilities are more expensive and not necessarily the closest facilities to a given farm. The end result can be that the farmer pays more, might have to transport their animals farther (which creates more stress for the animals), and can have a difficult time finding such a facility that is willing to take a small volume of animals at a time.
Karen is left wondering why she paid more for this facility when the USDA doesn’t seem to be offering an incredible level of service to either the slaughterhouse or its customers.
Small slaughterhouses are going out of business all over the country because they cannot afford to build new facilities or upgrade existing ones to meet federal standards that have been developed with industrial animal processing plants in mind. This is a major problem for farmstead artisan cheesemakers or any other small dairy farms. Part of maintaining a network of sustainable agriculture and cheese production is ensuring the existence of regional slaughterhouses to support it. We absolutely want the animals from these farms to have the best possible experience throughout their lives- even at the end.
If you care about preserving small farms, the existence of these slaughterhouses (with acceptable sanitation and animal treatment practices) is mandatory. If you enjoy cheese, milk, butter and yogurt from these farms- even if you never eat the meat- this is still an issue you that needs your involvement. I don’t know how to fix this problem but I bet that a great next stop would be to talk to the farmers that provide you with great animal products (this includes dairy) and ask them if they need your support.
January 31st, 2007