Archive for June, 2006
Name: Sweet Grass Dairy
Owners: Jessica and Jeremy Little
Location: Thomasville, Georgia
Animals: approximately 150 goats (Saanen, La Mancha, Alpine), they also buy cow milk from Green Hill Dairy which is owned by Jessica’s parents
Cheeses/Products: Thomasville Tomme, Georgia Gouda, Myrtlewood, Green Hill, Lumiere, Fresh Chevre, Holly Springs, Pecan Chevre.
They have a lovely retail shop on the farm too!
More info: www.sweetgrassdairy.com
As unfortunate is it was, the fate of our visit to Sweet Grass Dairy was determined by a seemingly unimportant stop en route to the farm. A small bowl of food we ate in Athens, Georgia literally brought us to our knees about 6 hours later. When we got to the farm we introduced ourselves, apologized in advance for our antisocial behavior and asked for a bed and a bathroom. Eighteen hours later I sat down to have my first conversation with Jessica and Jeremy; Michael had lasted about two hours post-arrival before he succumbed to the illness so he had gotten to know them a bit. I have to say that the Littles were the absolute best you could hope for in such a situation. Not a shred of annoyance from them about our delicate composition, just lots of apple juice, sparkling water, crackers and sympathy.
Many people associate Sweet Grass cheeses with Desiree Wehner, Jessica’s mother, who started the dairy. Desiree and her husband Al are known throughout the grass-based, rotational grazing cow dairy world as an example to be followed; not to mention that they are known throughout southern Georgia as right good people. Al and Desiree were conventional dairy farmers who became disenchanted with dairying and decided to try something different. Similarly to Helen and Rick Feete, the Wehners turned to the New Zealand model and created Green Hill, a 340 acre rotational grazing facility currently milking approximately 500 cows. In the late 90’s a variety of circumstances lead the Wehners to move into Thomasville onto 140 acres. Desiree saw an opening to have the handful of goats she had always wanted and the development of Sweet Grass Dairy began.
Fast forward to 2003 when their son-in-law, Jeremy, joined them at Sweet Grass to assist with the expansion of the cheesemaking facility. Jessica came down from Atlanta a few months later and both she and Jeremy gradually became involved in the dairy. At a certain point, Al and Desiree decided that they needed to focus their attention on Green Hill and the discussion of Jessica and Jeremy taking over Sweet Grass Dairy began. It took over a year for the couple to decide to buy the dairy and get everything organized for the purchase. (As Mateo Kehler- Jasper Hill Farm- once told me, “You want a good laugh? Walk into any bank and tell them you want a loan to start or buy a small dairy farm.”)
Jeremy apprenticed with Desiree on the cheesemaking side and gradually took control of the production while Jessica focused on sales, marketing and accounting. It is refreshing to hear the two of them talk about the ups and downs of their experience with the dairy in such a candid way. I’m not talking about whining or complaining - as that is almost never impressive; what I mean is that there is a level of honesty that comes out as a result of their humility. They are open about the inherent contradiction they feel about their ownership of the dairy; they probably would not have done it had they truly understood what they were getting into and yet they are in total agreement that they would do it again if given the option.
On the afternoon of our second day there, Michael and I finally felt like we could stand long enough to get the full tour of the dairy. It was about five in the afternoon so milking was in full swing. The goats are all waiting for their turn in the parlor and were surprisingly nonplussed about the 95 degree heat.
While they make cheese daily at Sweet Grass with their goat milk, they also get beautiful Jersey cow milk from Green Hill. We walked through the cheesemaking room and all of the aging rooms. One of their most valued employees was finishing up flipping the Green Hills- small disks of Jersey milk with delicate bloomy rinds. Jeremy has worked a lot on the Green Hills and it has paid off- they are absolutely insane! The expansion that Jeremy helped build was for the two rooms that were added to provide the proper environments for soft-ripened cheeses. Two other cheeses are ripened in these rooms - the heart-shaped Lumiere and the Pecan Chevre, both are made with goats milk from Sweet Grass.
We proceeded on to see the bulk fresh chevre, made earlier that day and draining in tubs, and the Goudas which were still in their forms in the cool, old press that stands in the middle of the production room. There are four “caves” teeming with aged cheeses made from cow and goat milk. Jeremy explained that, like all the cheesemakers we have visited so far, they cannot keep up with the demand for their cheese and that it is difficult to age some cheeses much beyond the required 60 days because people are waiting for them.
I didn’t realize until we looked into each of these rooms that my perception of Sweet Grass Dairy was that they were quite small. Maybe because in my retail days I had focused on their small cheeses or maybe because I had not seem them sold in many places in NYC. Regardless of my reasoning, I was wrong. Sweet Grass is in a stage that reminds me of what it felt like when I was 7, too old to be a cute little kid and not old enough to be a big kid either. Jessica and Jeremy confirmed that they are in the midst of an awkward phase where they are too big to be small and too small to be big. This might not sound like much to an outsider but it is something that plagues many American cheesemakers. Producers feel the risk of having their customers decide that they have become a “factory” if the growth of the cheese production seems too large. It is one of many contradictions of the consumer: wanting something rare and unusual but wanting a consistent supply of it.
The next morning, before we sat them down for their interview, Jeremy took us out to Green Hill so we could see the farm that we had heard so much about. It really is amazing and lucky for you all Michael was brave enough to climb up onto one of grain towers (the cows are fed grain during milking) to snap some photos that give you a sense of the layout of the farm.
It is great to see a farm making the transition from one generation to the next. We look forward to seeing where Jessica and Jeremy will take the company. Based on the cheeses we sampled we would encourage them to press on through the middle ground, more of their cheese would be great for everyone.
June 9th, 2006
Name: Goat Lady Dairy
Owners: Ginnie, Steve, Lee and Norma Tate
Location: Climax, North Carolina
Animals: Approximately 75 goats; Nubians, Saanens, and French-Alpine
Cheeses/Products: Spreadable Fromage (in nine flavors), Chevre Logs, Feta, Smokey Mountain Round, Marinated Chevre, Chevre Camembert, Crottin, Sandy Creek, Providence, Gray’s Chapel, Goat Lady Gouda. Chocolate Goat Cheese Truffles (only during Holidays)
More info: www.goatladydairy.com
Holistic. This is the word that comes to mind when I think about Goat Lady Dairy. The farm came together organically, beginning with Ginnie Tate’s move to Climax, North Carolina. She bought an abandoned tobacco farm that had a dilapitated log home on it and began the process of restoring it to prime condition. Along the way she took on a couple goats and earned the nickname “the goat lady” with locals in town, some of whom she hired to help restore her home. The other members of the Tate family came later on; Steve Tate and his family enjoyed the visits they made to Climax in the summer months but it wasn’t until years later that they thought about moving there and developing the farm with Ginnie. Steve and his wife Lee were living in Minnesota when they became involved in a CSA (community supported agriculture). As they became more actively involved in their CSA, they began to do work for local groups focused on farmland preservation.
Years into this it occured to Steve and Lee that maybe the best thing they could do in addition to preserving farmland would be to create an active farm themselves. They began to discuss the possibility with Ginnie originally thinking they would grow organic vegetables and create a CSA themselves. The three of them considered many business plans and thought about their respective interests and talents before settling on a plan that diversified their income streams. Organic vegetables, cheese, and hospitality were the areas they decided to start with and they figured they would see which ones were more successful. Little did they know that those three areas would work so beautifully together largely due to their wonderful creation called Dinner at the Dairy. People pay a fixed price to come to the dairy for a five course meal composed of foods from their farm, other local farms and of course some of their acclaimed hand made cheeses. Guests also get a tour of the farm and can watch the goats being milk through a window in the side of the milking parlor. The dinners sell out minutes after the schedule is posted on the Goat Lady website.
Roles have shifted over the years and Ginnie and Steve’s mother Norma has joined them but their overall mission to create a sustainable farm committed to education has only grown stronger.
The day that we visited Goat Lady Dairy there was a lot going on…even more than usual. A class of fourth graders from the local elementary school was being taken on tour by Ginnie while Steve and his partner in cheesemaking, Carrie, were making more cheese than they have ever made in one day. Steve had attended a Slow Food event the day prior so he had to do a bit of catch up and make three batches of cheese instead of the usual two. Regardless of the extra activity, Steve greeted us, suited us up in hair nets and booties and invited us into the cheese room. By the time we arrived at the dairy they had already made a batch of fresh chevre and molded chevre from a previous day into logs. Carrie was working on various flavors of spreadable fromage, largely preparing stock for the farmers’ markets they would attend that week.
Steve and his niece Jessie, who is doing a year-long internship on the farm, were focused on a batch of goat milk Gouda. As he pressed the cut and cooked curds together the fourth graders huddled up around the viewing window along the side of the cheese room. Once the curds were cut into blocks and loaded into the hoops, Steve and Jessie put the wall-mounted press together and set the freshly packed Goudas in position under the press. Just in time to begin scooping the soft curd that had been cultured, set and cut by Carrie in the vat pasteurizer. The curd was scooped into small molds and left to drain for a couple hours. This soft curd would become a crottin size cheese called Sandy Creek with a line of ash through the center.
At this point the lunch “whistle” blew and everyone migrated into the large square table in the dairy kitchen for lunch. Of course lunch was made from foods on the farm. During lunch we got to meet Brian Farlow, the most recent addition to the farm. He grew up on a farm in Climax and after a few years working after graduating college he wanted to return to farming . He now works as the farm manager, assisting with all aspects of the farm: the garden, the pigs that they raise, support for Lee who manages the herd, and maintenance of farm equipment.
Once the cheesemaking obligations were near finished, Steve gave us the full tour of the farm. We walked out to one of their pastures to bring the goats in for milking. The herd is gorgeous- they are milking approximately 60 does- Saanens, Nubians, and French-Alpines. Lee is the herd manager; she does everything from milking to hoof trimming. Michael and I hung out with the goats in the “waiting room”, the pen where they wait for their turn in the milking parlor. We stayed in until they began to get a little…friendly with us and then Steve walked us down to see the pigs they are raising (whey fed, of course). Last but not least we strolled through the garden which is absolutely stunning. It is tended daily by Norma, Steve and Ginnie’s mother, and gets a bit of additional care from some volunteers who work the garden in exchange for an education about organic farming.
Steve sent us off with a wide variety of their cheeses…YUM…and we drove away crossing our fingers that we will be quick enough online to get into a Dinner at the Dairy in 2007!
(the black is ash)
June 7th, 2006
Well, hard to believe but we are one month into our tour. We have seen so much yet we have a hard time believing that it was just a month ago we met with Michael & Emily Lee at Twig Farm! The cheesemakers we have encountered have been so generous and welcoming… and we are grateful to all of them. We have traveled 5500 miles, driven through 19 states and visited 15 cheesemakers… all in 31 days. We think this is impressive. Though in Dallas we were ridiculed for thinking a 10 hr drive was long! So you be the judge…
Here is our calendar for May. Not only can you see the stops (and who we stayed with) but also you will see some lovely CSS and PHP code that I used to hack my way through completing our site. Ouch.
We are now in New Mexico - making our way to Colorado. We are in catch up mode (some of the “catch up” is due to food poising by vegetarians in Georgia). So keep an eye out. We hope to have a flurry of posts for the lovely Southern cheesemakers we visited.
This photo was found on Rt 287 between Wichita Falls and Childress Texas. Did they know we were coming? Rock on cheese billboard!!
June 4th, 2006
Name: 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).
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.
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.
June 4th, 2006