June 10th, 2006
Name: Sweet Home Farm
Owners: Alyce Birchenough and Doug Wolbert
Location: Elberta, Alabama
Animals: Milking 13 Guernseys, total herd is 30 including calves and hefers
Cheeses/Products: Chalet, Fondrea, Jubilee, Perdido, Baldwin Swiss, Elberta, Bama Jack, Gouda, Feta, Montabella,Blue, Pepato Asiago, Cheese Fudge, Garlic Blue Cheese, a Taleggio style cheese that I can’t remember the name of!
More info: Southern Cheese Guild
Everything at Sweet Home Farm is done to please both the functional and the aesthetic. The first thing you see when you pull into the farm is a chicken coop that is so sweet (and so well kept) it could break your heart. I know- I’m really selling the bucolic image here- but it would be a disservice to not talk about the craftsmanship involved in the entire operation that makes up Sweet Home Farm. There are only two “employees” Alyce Birchenough and her husband Doug Wolbert, they are also the owners. This means that they are the gardeners, the repair people, the milkers, cheesemakers, and as if that were not enough they are shopkeepers too. All of the cheese produced is sold on the farm, not to prove a point, rather to keep things simple.
I called Alyce from the road when we realized that we were running late and might not arrive at the farm until well after 7pm. She asked enough questions to determine that we were headed the right way and promptly invited us to dinner…we didn’t realize that between Georgia and Alabama we had crossed a time zone. One more hour for us and such a great dinner with Alyce and Doug. When we arrived Alyce walked us around the farm. We started in the garden which is teeming with growth: beans, blueberries, greens, pears, three varieties of figs, pecans, loquats, limes, oranges, lemons, herbs, white peaches, quince, artichokes, mulberries, persimmons, and muscadine grapes… just to mention a few. Of course there was something cheese related in the garden too- cardoons- the thistle plant used as the coagulant in a number of Portuguese cheese recipes. She educated herself on how to make the solution used in cheesemaking and even tried working with it in some of her cheeses until she learned that it creates bitter flavors when used with cow milk (many of the Portuguese varieties are sheep milk).
We busted open some cheese that we had brought with us from Sweet Grass Dairy for a little aperetif and then Doug popped out to milk the cows so that we could all lounge comfortably after dinner. While Alyce put the finishing touches on dinner, Michael and I got to check out Doug’s collections of butter molds and cheese plates- even dairy farmers can get hooked on ebay. Looking down at a table full of food that was grown on the land you are standing on gets me every time- grass fed beef strips, string beans from the garden, sweet corn, cucumber tomato dill salad and parsnips. After dinner we managed to get Alyce to recount stories about their first dairy cow and some of their other early farming experiences.
Our visit fell during Memorial Day weekend so the gulf coast was packed and that meant that on the first full day of our visit, Saturday, the cheese shop would be even busier than usual so they encouraged us to check out the beach in the morning before coming to the farm. We followed their instructions and rolled into their driveway around 2pm and found that it was full of cars. Every time one car would pull away another pulled in and this went on right up until 5pm when the shop closed. There is a lovely little bench in front of the shop where we sat, between our visits to the milking cows in the pasture and coffee breaks with Alyce and Doug (seperately of course), and chatted with their customers. It is important to understand that Sweet Home Farm is not in the “middle of town” - it is off of a somewhat trafficked road and then is a mile and a half down a dirt road! This means that customers have to know where they are going and they have to want it. And since all of Sweet Home’s sales are done at the farm, it makes the effort of those customers even more amazing. Everyone that we spoke with that day felt like they had discovered something special when they found Sweet Home Farm and they assured us that if we ever had an event to attend or a group of people to impress that cheese from Sweet Home would be sure to put us in good standing for any occassion.
Once the shop closed we hightailed it down a few back roads to the coast to the Pirate’s Cove for a beer and some pizza. Even though the weather was gorgeous and the beer was cold we exercised restraint because Doug needed to get back to milk the cows. While Doug was busy in the parlor, Alyce and I flipped through her cheese photos from Italy. We interviewed them later that evening while Doug peeled their first harvest of garlic for Alyce to use in the Garlic Blue cheese she would make the next morning. Around midnight we kicked ourselves out, fearing that we were going to interfere with their Sunday schedule….
The next morning we watched carefully as Alyce made a large batch of blue cheese; separating a small quantity for the Garlic Blue which she developed because of a customer request and continues to make it because it has developed a cult following. I am so blown away by Alyce, her approach to and passion for cheesemaking, not to mention the way that she and Doug have developed their farm, that I’m feeling squidgy about how to say something that does her justice. Really! She became a small-scale cheesemaker before there were home cheesemaking books and small quantities of cultures for sale; she learned to make cheese by reading an Encylopedia of Country Living which illustrates her determination. But the real wow factor about Alyce is that she might have more love for the actual thing- making cheese by hand- than anyone I’ve encountered in my time in cheese. Sweet Home Farm could sell twice what they currently do from their farm shop, and she could rest on her laurels, but instead she does things like troll the internet and figure out how to make rennet from cardoon thistles! Her curiosity about all things cheese related is insatiable. She is probably a wonderful, if not a bit intimidating, student and yet she is also a phenomenal teacher. The majority of cheesemakers in the South, even a few along the eastern seabord, credit her with having been their best resource when they were learning to make cheese.
Being around Doug and Alyce was particularly enjoyable because they have the ease that comes with being around people who know where they are headed and why… if something is complicated for them, they figure out how to make it uncomplicated. Watching them life looks so much more straightforward; they are focused on what is workable… for them. Fortunately, the things that work for them are totally cool for the rest of us too.