Archive for August, 2006
So we knew this day was coming… we saw our schedule and the dates for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and knew the two would meet. We also knew it would mean that there would not be a bed to sleep in for miles! So being considerate, we changed our schedule some so as to not to stay there… I mean Cheese by Hand AND Sturgis?! Too many people would flood this poor town!
For those new to this yearly motorcycle rally - Sturgis is the king! Over 500,000 people come for the week long, all-things-motorcyle gathering. And I have to say it is quite a sight! So much leather. So many Harleys. Eagles and American flags EVERWHERE!
It took almost an hour to drive through the town of Sturgis (it is not that big of a town) and we got to see some pretty amazing bikes….
And other sights…
August 14th, 2006
Name: 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.
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.
The 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…
August 13th, 2006
The day has come… we knew it was there, looming… but we now have the 1,000 mile drive between western Montana and our next farm in Minnesota. As I write this we are driving in Eastern Montana, what They call Big Sky Country.
Sasha is working up a storm to get up farm profiles. When you are visiting farms, driving, and camping it is hard to find the time to write a post then hunt down a connection to post it! But stay tuned… more farms will be coming!
Anyway, we had a few days to explore the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. Wow. For those that haven’t been… um, you should go. Really. It’s a pain in the ass to get to - and the crowds suck - but man is it crazy, weird good. We got to see many animals doing their thing: elk, deer, moose, coyote, pronghorn, marmot, wolf, bison.
Also had a great Overheard… Overheard in Bozeman, MT:
[employee explaining the other line of work of the owner of Lube Alley where we were getting our oil changed]
“He’s also a freelance beaver assassin.”
“It’s a dying art form”
August 12th, 2006
Name: Windsong Farm
Owners: Gary and Carla Beau
Location: Palmer, AK
Animals: They purchase milk for cheesemaking from a dairy 3 miles down the road that has been in operation since the 1930’s. The cow shares they sell are for the two Holsteins on their land.
Cheeses/Products: Mozzarella, Cheese Curd, Fresh Cheddar (plain and flavored), Beer Cheese (made with three local beers)
More Info: www.windsongfarmusa.com
Gary Beau has lived in Alaska since he was 10 years old and for some inexplicable reason, for as long as he can remember, he wanted to have a farm in Palmer. Palmer lies in the Matanuska Valley, the primary- if not only- agricultural belt in alaska. He and his wife Carla ran a successful small airplane business for decades before they purchased a forested lot at the end of a road in Palmer in 1990. With the assistance of seven sheep they cleared the land for building. In 1992 their next door neighbor (a family of 9) decided they needed a milk cow. [Note that at this point in the conversation Gary does mention that he never wanted to be a dairy farmer because dairy farmers are stuck: they’ve got to milk twice a day every day.] So their neighbor asks them if they would go in on a cow with them; they would trade off every three months so no one would be stuck milking year round.
They purchased a Jersey and every three months they would walk her across the bridge between their two properties. Well, eventually this cow had a heifer calf and the neighbor was not interested in expanding his herd so Gary took over responsibility for this calf. She was too cute to sell so Gary kept her and raised her. By the time the original cow had her second calf, Gary still had not sold the yearling. Eventually they were milking two regularly and figured that if they were milking two twice a day they might as well be milking 25.
The milk from the first two cows was already too much for them to consume so they ordered a book from the New England Cheesemaking Company and began making cheese in their kitchen. They had enough sense to understand that there wouldn’t be much money in selling milk to a coop so as they expanded their herd they continued making cheese. Sounds logical enough except that you’re in Alaska and in the winter it gets down below negative 20 (without wind chill) and you’ve got four hours of daylight. When we got into the winter conversation Gary did admit that its not easy, he remembered a morning where he walked out to milk the cows and even with a head lamp on he walked square into one of his beef cattle and knocked himself over.
Picture it for a moment, it is pitch dark, the wind can be upwards of 120 mph and it is below 20 degrees and you are walking out to milk your cows. It costs at least two times if not two and a half times as much to feed your herd as it does in any other state. You have to be committed to continue with this routine like the Beaus did. Eventually it got to be a bit much with milking, making and selling the cheese. Four days a week, year round, Gary drives his truck out to a busy intersection and sells cheese from 3-7pm to passersby. I asked him if people come even in the winter and he said indeed they do, only difference is that they are slightly less interested in conversation. They decided it was time to downsize or shift their model a bit.
The Beaus sold their 25 cows, keeping two Holsteins and their original Jersey- Blossom, and struck a deal to buy milk from a dairy three miles down the road from them. The dairy they buy from has been there since the 1930’s and was selling all of their milk to the single coop in Alaska. Gary called the owner of the coop and asked if he could buy milk from him and the gentleman suggested he buy from the farmer closest to him directly. This is nothing short of a miracle in the world of milk coops (since they normally have exclusive contracts with the farmers) and yet it makes complete sense in the communal culture of Alaska.
I’m not sure if we’ll see Windsong’s cheeses in the lower 48 anytime soon… at the moment they are selling out locally. If you want to taste their cheeses you’ll just have to head to Alaska. Look for Gary off of South Glenn Highway in Palmer.
August 11th, 2006
Name: Beecher’s Handmade Cheese
Owner: Kurt Dammeier
Location: Seattle, WA
Animals: Purchases milk from two cow dairies nearby downtown Seattle. One dairy has 120 cows and the other has 80. The breed breaks down to 80% Jersey and 20% Holstein between the two dairies.
Cheeses/Products: Flagship, Just Jack, Marco Polo, No Woman, Cheese curds (plain and flavored), Blank Slate (plain and flavored), Cultured Butter, some prepared foods too including Mac n’Cheese made with their own Flagship cheese.
More info: www.beechershandmadecheese.com
Kurt Dammeier is the first to admit that he kind of backed into the cheese business… he found the perfect location for cheesemaking, signed a lease and went in search of milk, a cheesemaker, and a recipe after setting up his cheesemaking room. Milk turned out to be surprisingly tough to find in the quantity and, more importantly, of the quality he needed. There were a couple dairies interested in working with him- largely because of recent changes in the local milk coop structure.
Beecher’s works with two dairies today, one has 120 cows and the other has 80. The mix has a Jersey majority with Holsteins making up the difference. This was done intentionally to get the right components for the cheese Beecher’s wanted to make. One of the farms that Beecher’s works with didn’t have the capital to invest in additional Jersey cows so Kurt purchased the cows to help them grow the herd.
We met Kurt in his office across the street from Pike Place Market. He talked us through his various businesses and partnerships and we began to understand that Kurt entered the cheese business with a different kind of thinking than most of the people we’ve visited. Knowing that he had capital to invest up front he decided to fill some holes he saw in the market. For example, he went with cows because most smaller farms opt to work with goats or sheep (they are easier to manage physically, require less land mass and are cheaper to purchase), and he created a cheese that ages for a year so as not to compete with others who might be operating on a tighter cash flow turn around than he needed to do. Basically he looked at the artisan cheese industry as a whole to understand where he could add value given that he had a certain amount of capital to invest and that his goal in this venture was to educate people about where their food comes from and how it is made.
We took a tour of his shop in the market which is also where his two large cheddar vats are (10,000 pounds/1,000 gallons of milk each)- a corner location with huge windows designed to achieve Kurt’s primary goal for Beecher’s: education. Around lunchtime the crowds swarm around the windows to watch cheesemakers working on the signature cheese called Flagship- a cross between cheddar and gruyere. They can stroll into the shop and taste fresh cheese curds and sample other Beecher’s cheeses. Outside of cheeses made by Beecher’s , the shop is focused on local, whole foods (no additives, preservatives, trans-fats, etc.). Other non-Beecher’s cheeses come from surrounding states- Montana, Oregon, California and of course other Washington state producers.
Kurt drove us out to one of the dairies they work with about 35 minutes outside of Seattle’s city center. As we drove Kurt explained the Beecher’s internal review of each batch of cheese. A select group of employees tastes every batch and determines whether it will go to the cheese counter to be sold as a table cheese, into the Beecher’s food products (i.e. mac and cheese), or gets held back to be submitted to upcoming competitions. Kurt shared some of his thoughts on the surge of cheesemakers entering the market. He said that, “…rising tide floats all boats,” sounding like the entrepreneur he is. He feels confident that quality always pulls through and that competition pushes all in the industry to do better. Part of this confidence most likely comes from his experience as an investor in Pyramid Brewery and weathering the sea change in the micro-brew business.
The farm he took us to is called Cherry Valley Farm and has been a cow dairy since the turn of the century. The gentleman who runs it today is the third owner since the homestead and when he purchased it in 2002 it was not in operation. Slowly he is making structural improvements to the facility. We checked in on the calves and wandered out to the free stall barn where the ladies were milling about awaiting their next feeding. The farmer puts the cows out on grass as much as he can but rain prohibits him from relying on grass for a steady percentage of feed thus the cows are fed a total mixed ration (silage, grain and hay). The farm is working towards growing 100 acres of corn so they can produce their own silage. While we talked to the farmer we enjoyed watching the Holsteins and Jerseys- quite a size difference between them- feed side by side.
Given that Beecher’s Handmade Cheese only began in 2002, it is awesome to see what a fixture it has become in the Pike Place Market. We were intrigued, but not particularly surprised, to hear that Kurt is tinkering with the idea expanding to have a farm of his own someday… knowing Kurt someday could be next week.
August 10th, 2006
Name: Rogue Creamery
Owners: Carey Bryant and David Gremmels
Location: Central Point, OR
Animals: Rogue gets all of its cows milk from one dairy along the Rogue River. The dairy milks 200 cows and has a herd of Holsteins with a few Brown Swiss.
Cheese/Products: Crater Lake Blue, Smokey Blue, Oregon Blue Vein, Oregonzola, Rogue River Blue, Cheddar (regular and flavored), Cheese Curds
More info: www.roguecreamery.com
First order of business when we arrived at Rogue was an in depth tour with David. Before he caught wind of our presence we perused the creamery’s retail store where they have a combination of local and Italian cheeses, wines and food stores. The Italian bit catches you off guard until you hear about the history of this place and the celebration of Italian heritage that has been part of the creamery since 1935.
David and Carey tell the history on their site- read more- but for our purposes it is important that you understand that Tom Vella started the place back in 1935, handed it over to his son Ignacio Vella who sold it to David and Carey four years ago with the stipulation that they would continue to make the creamery’s signature cheeses according to tradition. Another part of this agreement is that Ig spends a week out of each month at the creamery observing and providing guidance and expertise to their cheesemakers.
All of the offices are in the old house where the Vellas lived, there is another building across the road that serves as housing for the production manager and as a place to stay for Ig when he visits the creamery. David took us over to the blue cheese making room which is in a separate building from the cheddar making and retail shop. There were four guys working on pulling curd from the vat- timing is critical as the curd continues to acidify when it sits in the whey. Eight forms are set on a metal shelf that straddles the vat, the curd is scooped up and spread amongst these forms until they are full and then the cheesemaker slides a metal disc under each form one by one so they can be moved onto the large retail racks for draining. The racks are all at a slant to promote draining- this also means the cheeses must be flipped at regular intervals for the first 24 hours to level out the wheels (otherwise they would be slanted on one side).
We walked into the blue cheese cave which was absolutely teeming with racks of blue wheels- some pierced, some coated in melting salt crystals- and the aroma was to die for…sweet cream with a hint of blue mold. All wheels are dry salted for the first 7 days after they are made. On day eight the wheels are perforated to activate the aerobic blue molds that require oxygen to bloom (they actually test each batch to ensure it is ready for piercing). We got to see Poasa (who is also training to make cheese) doing perforations and waxing. From this point on, the wheels are all set on their sides and turned one quarter turn each day. The salting of newer batches and rotating of aging batches is no small task- even though you are in a delicious smelling room. After (60-75) days the wheels are waxed and moved to cold storage for long term aging. Although it took some convincing, David got us out of the cave and into the packaging room to meet Anna- the team leader- and see the immense amount of work that goes into packaging each wheel- all by hand of course. The wax is broken off and any stray bits of wax that crept into the perforations are plucked out before the wheels are wrapped in foil and sealed in plastic.
The following morning we watched the earlier stages of cheesemaking- Rogue has the oldest pasteuriser in the western U.S. which was designed by Tom Vella and although they do not pasteurize the milk they use for their blue cheese making they do use this piece of equipment to get the milk up to cheesemaking temperature. We got to see their new cheese harps in action before we took a break to interview David (Carey was at Oregon State working with a gradutate student to define their raw and pasteurized milk study). It is clear that at Rogue there are three main priorities: preserving tradition, creating an excellent working environment (they have a better benefits package than many larger companies), and providing high quality cheese. A number of the employees at Rogue are lifelong residents of Central Point who remember coming to the creamery as kids for curds and they have re-discovered it as a place to learn new ways to apply their expertise from previous careers. A couple examples of this are Craig and Mike- two of their cheesemakers. Craig came to Rogue with decades of experience in military management and has taken on some production manager responsibilities while learning to make cheese. When Mike started at the creamery his expertise in refrigeration came in handy and over time, he has discovered that he is very interested in the science of cheese and Carey is now training him to take over their internal lab work.
When we left the creamery we drove over to the Rogue River to meet Delmar at Rogueview Dairy- the source for the milk used for their cheeses. He has 70 acres with 1/4 mile frontage on the river- a beautiful piece of property in a valley that used to be loaded with small dairies of 15-20 cows. Delmer started with 90 cows and has grown to 200 where he has held for the past 15 years. The milkers go out on pasture daily when weather permits (which is from March-October) but are not exclusively grass-fed, they also get hay and grain. The dairy is now surrounded by homes- the same suburban encroachment that we’ve seen across the country- and although he hasn’t had many complaints from neighbors, those homes are a constant reminder of the value he could get for his land should he decide to sell it for development. Our visit with Delmar is a reminder of the tenuous nature of relationships between dairies and creameries all over the U.S. as the temptation to sell out and stop working so hard is great for dairy farmers. Given the current situation we are particularly thankful for creameries like Rogue who are committed to sourcing locally and working with dairies like Rogueview to restore the economic viability of dairy farming.
August 6th, 2006
Name: Cypress Grove Chevre
Owner: Mary Keehn
Location: Arcata, CA
Animals: Purchases goat milk from multiple dairies locally- occasionally reaches farther than local for milk when needed.
Cheese/Products: Chevre, Chevre Logs, Fromage Blanc, Humboldt Fog, Fog Lights, Pee Wee Pyramids, Bermuda Triangle, Mad River Roll, Goats Milk Cheddar, Mt. McKinley. They also have three products that are part of their Creamline selection- Midnight Moon, Lamb Chopper and Ewe-F-O.
More info: www.cypressgrovechevre.com
We had one of those is-this-really-our-life mornings the day we went to see Mary Keehn. Up at 6AM in our tent deep in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. We had some charred toast and cantaloupe with our friends Rose and Dave before winding our way out of the Redwoods to Highway 1. Of course all of that took a lot more time than we anticipated so we arrived at Cypress Grove at 9:30 instead of 8:30. Mary held no grudge- major props to her as it wasn’t just any Monday morning, it was July 3rd.
All of you Humboldt Fog fanatics must be dying to know about the origin of your favorite food… I will begin by saying that the name represents the locale quite well- dense fog hangs on everything in Arcata. The interior of the creamery is a fantastic contrast to what is outside: the walls are painted bright yellow and red. Mary took us on a tour of the receiving, pasteurizing, cheesemaking, aging and packaging areas. One of Mary’s most endearing qualities is her genuine surprise at the incredible growth and success of Cypress Grove. She decided to get licensed as a cheesemaker (over 20 years ago) because one restauranteur in town wanted to buy cheese from her. Because she had an ever-expanding herd of award winning goats and needed an outlet for the milk, she did it.
The creamery recently acquired a used 2000 gallon pasteurizer and it is obvious when Mary laughs wholeheartedly about the contrast between this tank and where she started years ago that she is the ideal person to be at the helm of this chevre ship. Over the years she has been willing to suspend her disbelief and grow the business yet she has held tightly to the importance of certain cheese-related tasks being done exactly as they always have been. In addition to staying true to the fundamental points in their cheesemaking process, Mary has also created an environment, both in spirit and economics, where people in her community want to work. This was something Michael and I thought about a lot after leaving Cypress Grove- we realized that within the growth of the company Mary saw that while it was different than what she had originally envisioned, it allowed her to create the kind of workplace she believed in.
Early on in the development of the cheesemaking, Mary realized that she couldn’t manage a herd of goats, make the cheese, and run the business. Artisan cheese did not exactly used to sell itself so she spent a considerable amount of time driving to the two major metropolitan areas “nearby”- San Francisco (6-7 hours), and Portland (8-9 hours). She decided to sell her herd and found an opportunity to sell the entire group in-tact, the only way she wanted it, to someone she was confident could care for them well. This was not an easy decision and even through it was the best situation she could have hoped for, she still couldn’t bring herself to walk into the barn for at least a year after the goats were gone.
The shift away from their own milk did mean that they could support other farmers in their own community. Currently they do their best to fulfill their milk needs locally. Because they’ve grown so much and high quality milk is the foundation of their business, they now have staff devoted to working with local farmers on streamlining their business expenses. For example, local farms might be able to save money if they pool together to collectively purchase feed. Cypress Grove is also looking at possibilities to streamline their own business by partnering with the students in environmental engineering at Humboldt State to implement energy saving technology and look at innovative things to do with whey- which is considered toxic waste because of its pH level.
So I won’t make you wait any longer… when I asked Mary where she got the idea for Humboldt Fog she said it came to her in a dream. This seems oddly appropriate considering the white exterior and fluffy texture. What stuck with me after our time with Mary was one thing she said during our interview, “People say you can’t change the world but I figure I can make change happen in my own little community here.” She figured absolutely right.
August 3rd, 2006