July 7th, 2006
Name: Fiscalini Farm
Owners: John Fiscalini
Location: Modesto, CA
Animals: Milking 1500 Holsteins and bringing up an equal number of replacements for 3000 total animals on the property. Closed herd.
Cheeses/Products: Bandaged Wrapped Cheddar (various ages), San Joaquin Gold, Flavored Cheddars, Horse Feathers, Parmesean
More info: www.fiscalinicheese.com
Fiscalini Farm was our first visit to a cow dairy with more than 150 animals and the first cow dairy that is a confinement operation (we have seen some quite large goat dairies that are confinement based). I wasn’t sure how I would feel about a confinement operation- along with many others in food I read Fast Food Nation and I’ve been delving into the Omnivore’s Dilemma and had formed a somewhat negative opinion of the concept. Mostly I was curious because the Fiscalinis are much much smaller than other confinement operations in California- case in point the “farm” we drove by on our way up I-5 that is home to at least 10,000 cows (more on that in a later post). Fiscalini is milking 1500 Holsteins which means that the total number of animals on their land is 3000; they are using free stall barns and feeding the cows a total mixed ration (TMR) of various grains and hay rather than grazing them on grass.
When we got out of the car we were not overwhelmed with flies or manure smells which is what one might expect when you are standing within 100 yards of 3000 cows. We met John who was incredibly flexible and gracious considering that I had given him the wrong dates for our visit and he had expected us to be there the previous day! He wrapped up what he was working on and gave us a tour of the dairy. Cows are put into different areas according to their age, health (there is a small hospital ward with its own milking parlor), and milking status. Calves are managed closely; for the first 60 days they are kept in individual stalls to avoid them attempting to nurse from one another and doing damage to their teets. Gradually they are put with groups of animals their age until the total number of that group is about 25 and eventually they go in with the yearlings to learn the ropes of being part of a larger herd.
All the animals are kept in free stall barns which are open air and, on this farm, designed for optimal cross-breezes and they also have communal areas for cows to roam around some. The floor in each of the barns is concrete and many of them are covered with cushioning mats and then a special mixture of dirt and dried manure. When John told us that they were recycling manure for the stall beds I assumed that this was because it was a financial savings- nope. Actually it requires an incredible amount of effort to spread the manure solids out to dry and then mix them with other materials to make an appropriate bedding for the cows. Sounds dirty right but actually the animals have been cleaner since the beds were converted. The cleanliness can be attributed to more than just recycled manure though, at Fiscalini the stalls are all raked over twice daily (once on Sundays) and fully changed out frequently which breaks the cycle of the fly larvae and also works as preventative maintenance- the cleaner the stalls are the less time spent cleaning the cows when they come through the milking parlor.
The parlor is state of the art with 54 total capacity (27 on each side)- milking takes 7 hours leaving one hour to flush the pipes and clean the parlor before starting up again (they are milking 3 times a day). A handful of things stand out in my mind about the parlor. First off it was clean and there were three guys working the shift- John commented on both of these things. The cows are not fed during milking because if you feed them they have a tendency to poop making mess on the equipment and the milkers. John said you can get by with two guys on a shift but three means that they can pay closer attention to what they are doing. They use a fresh towel to clean the teets on each cow (two teets with one, flip the towel and clean the other two)- do the math and it comes out to about 4500 towels each day. There are a number of safeguards built into the parlor to help the herdsman keep tabs on the health of the milkers. For example the milking units monitor salt content which is an early indicator of mastitis and also each milker has a pedometer which is read electronically in the parlor because a decrease in the number of steps taken in the course of a day can be a tip off that something is not quite right with a cow.
The following morning we came back to the farm early to meet Mariano Gonzales the cheesemaker. What an opportunity! Mariano is revered in the U.S. as one of the most talented and knowledgeable cheesemakers- the perfect cheesemaker to teach us about bandaged cheddar (we had never seen cheddar made before). Making traditional cheddar is the ultimate example of what happens in cheesemaking- short stints of seriously physical work with lots of breaks in between- I like to think the breaks are not only for the cheese but also the cheesemaker to prepare for the next stage. It is important to understand that Fiscalini is not making cheese with all the milk from 1500 Holsteins- that would mean they were a large scale producer. They are using around 1000 gallons of milk each time they make cheese (5 days a week) which is only a fraction of what they produce in milk daily. The milk for cheesemaking goes into its own bulk tank. While we waited for the milk in the vat to warm up, we watched the staff pop the previous day’s San Joaquin Golds out of their molds and seal up cheddar made earlier in the week with lard before putting them in the aging rooms.
The “breaks” during cheddar making are normally used to care for the aging cheeses, clean, and finish all the other chores at the dairy but while we were there the breaks were used to straighten out all of our questions about cheddar making- the traditional way. The big distinction in cheddar making is well, cheddaring… which is where the cut and heated curd is lumped together in even blocks and then flipped and stacked and re-flipped and re-stacked at measured intervals. As Mariano explained this step contributes largely to the texture of traditional cheddar; I recommend you do a compare of block, cryovac cheddar and clothbound sometime- the textures are completely different not to mention the flavors. Mariano allowed me to participate in every step of the process- he is a seasoned instructor and has trained a number of other cheesemakers in his time at Fiscalini including Chris who was working in tandem with Mariano the day we were there. With the passing of each step, my respect for the makers of this labor intensive cheese increased tenfold. And all of these steps are only the beginning in the production of traditional cheddar. Once the cheese is made, unlike the block variety, a natural rind is allowed to form, and given the long aging period, a coating of lard, oil, or butter is smeared on followed by a protective cloth. The redwoods of cheese, as I like to refer to them, cheddars take months to develop the full depth of flavor locked up in the curds that form them. Their cloth binding allows them to continue to breathe as they age and also protects them from losing too much moisture and cracking.
Fiscalini Farm represents a phenomenal partnership of years of dairying and cheesemaking knowledge- John and Mariano clearly enjoy working together and share a mutual respect. Although my personal inclination is always to want a cow to feed on pasture, I do understand that the current market- meaning milk prices, land prices, labor costs- don’t always support that. Our time at Fiscalini made it abundantly clear to me that if we are going to have confinement dairies I want all of them to be run like John Fiscalini’s. In our interview with John and his wife Heather we touched on so many features of the dairy that illustrate their commitment to animal comfort, milk quality and safety, not to mention the well-being of their employees. I encourage anyone with doubts to open their mind and pay a visit to the Fiscalinis.