August 11th, 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.