Today we visit with Allison Hooper of Vermont Butter and Cheese. Allison and her business partner Bob Reese started out making fresh goat cheese nearly 25 years ago and have since brought a myriad of European style dairy products to the American market. We spoke with Allison about the transformation of her own business and progress within the American cheese industry.
Vermont Butter and Cheese Interview
You can read other Cheese by Hand posts about Vermont Butter & Cheese here.
Up next: Willow Hill Farm
Also if you want to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes, just search for Cheese by Hand in the iTunes store and click “Subscribe.”
February 10th, 2008
This is the first cheese producer that I’ve posted about here and spoken to without visiting their operation. It is definitely a different experience and it presented some technological challenges like recording a phone conversation with decent enough quality to then serve it up on the web for others to hear. Steve and Karen Getz of Dancing Cow Farm were gracious enough to give this newfangled method a chance.
My interview of the Getz’s was prompted by a short cheese write up that I did for a fantastic, food website: thestrongbuzz.com which is relaunching with a new design (and my cheese blurb) in a couple weeks. It is somewhat focused on the New York food scene but its founder, Andrea Strong, writes about a breadth of food-related subjects. I wrote about one of the three cheeses produced by Dancing Cow Farm (Sarabande) and then spoke with Karen and Steve about how they got into farming, their approach to dairying, and of course, their cheese.
We started out talking a bit about how Dancing Cow is run, the farm is certified organic although their cheeses are not. Their decision to become certified was largely about financial stability within the fluid milk market. Organic milk prices are not only higher than those for conventional milk but are also much more stable. As you listen to this clip I think you’ll find that it is clear that they are also motivated by a desire to do right by their herd and the landscape.
About the farm
This next clip might be my favorite because it touches on some of the challenges that the farmers really struggle with, things we would not think of when considering all the potential hurdles to pass in starting a dairy farm…things like naming your farm and your cheeses.
How the farm became Dancing Cow
Producing beautiful, clean and flavorful milk and transforming it into cheese are just the beginning for this new generation of farmers. In today’s savvy food market, the farmers also have to understand how to talk about their cheeses with consumers. Often it is small cheese purveyors, who are deeply committed to the industry, walking the farmer through their first batches of cheese- helping them refine and make them more desirable in the market.
Learning to speak “cheese”
The final clip touches on something that I think it truly the next wave in the artisan cheese industry, the advancement of an infrastructure that will not only support producers in distributing their cheeses but also in marketing and even aging their cheeses. Dancing Cow Farm is part of the first group of farmers partnering with the Kehler brothers at Jasper Hill Farm. Jasper Hill has constructed a massive, in-ground cheese aging complex that will undoubtedly alter the landscape of cheesemaking in Vermont let alone its impact on the entire industry.
Partnering with Jasper Hill
February 5th, 2008
Today is our interview with Michael Lee at Twig Farm. Twig Farm is in West Cornwall, VT. Michael and his wife Emily moved from Boston to West Cornwall and have been making cheese for over three years. Very much a small farm operation, Michael milks 25 goats seasonally (meaning they are dried off in winter months) and purchases some cow’s milk from neighbors. They make aged, raw milk cheeses, creatively named: Twig Farm Goat Tomme, Square Cheese and Soft Wheel.
Twig Farm Interview
You can read other Cheese by Hand posts about Twig Farm here.
Up Next: Vermont Butter & Cheese
As a reminder, you can subscribe to Cheese by Hand on iTunes and have the interviews automatically downloaded to your computer / iPod. Just search for Cheese by Hand in the iTunes Store and click on Subscribe… iTunes will take care of the rest!
Also, thanks to Matty Charles who generously allowed us to use his music!
January 22nd, 2008
Today is the first of our audio installments from our four month trip around America visiting small scale cheesemakers. Jasper Hill Farm is in Greensboro, VT. The farm is run by brothers Andy and Mateo Kehler. They are milking 40 cows and producing five raw milk cheeses. Currently they are nearing the end of construction on a massive in-ground cheese aging complex where they will age their own cheeses along with those from other established Vermont cheesemakers. We interviewed Mateo Kehler outside the make room after a day of cheesemaking.
Jasper Hill Farm Interview
You can read other Cheese by Hand posts about Jasper Hill Farm here.
Our goal is to publish a new podcast every 10 -14 days and can be found here or on iTunes.
Up Next: Twig Farm
Also, Thanks again to Matty Charles who generously allowed us to use his music!
January 1st, 2008
We had a magical experience in Austin, Texas last Friday- regardless of the previous night’s stay at the O’Hare Best Western (missed our connection en route to TX). Our friend and Cheese by Hand designer, Nancy Nowacek got to see what it was like to visit a dairy Cheese by Hand style. The visit was even cooler because it was the Chrissy Omo and her family at CKC Goat Dairy in Blanco which is about an hour outside of Austin. Chrissy is currently a college student at Texas State- she juggles that committment with dairy farming by restricting her school schedule to morning classes. This means that she has two distinct mornings during the week- one milking goats at dawn, and a second a few hours later in a classroom at the university.
Austin in located in the region of Texas known as Hill Country. Because it is Texas, and everything is bigger in Texas, the hills there are long and rolling- stretching out as far as the eye can see. The landscape was much greener than expected for September because the area has gotten so much more rain that usual this summer. Driving around in such a vast expanse of space so soon after leaving New York City blew my mind- even the sky appeared to have grown overnight.
Chrissy got into goats by participating with FFA as a youngster. She raised meat goats and quickly realized that she wanted goats that would stay around longer than those sold off for meat so she switched to dairy goats. As it goes with so many goat enthusiasts there is a sudden rush of milk at some point and the next logical step is to make cheese. This is exactly what Chrissy did. CKC is currently milking 16 goats but the total herd is up to 87, including a couple billy goats for breeding. They are bred rotationally so that the dairy has a year-round milk supply. The total acreage on the farm is almost 70 and there is plenty of pasture and brambly stuff for the goats to get most of their diet from forage with a minimal supplement of grain.
The whole family pitches in to support the CKC business. When we stopped by Chrissy’s father was busy painting the tasting room area that had just been completed. One of their local food heroes, Sibby Barrett is bringing a group of her culinary students out to the farm next weekend as part of her “Random Acts of Cooking” courses where the students visit a number of local farms and producers to gather the goods for their cooking lesson. You can read about Sibby’s local, culinary courses here.
CKC produces a wide variety of goat’s milk cheeses- spreads, small disks reminiscent of the French classic selles sur cher, marinated feta, a blue cheese, and soon to come some natural rinded tommes. Their cheese production room is simple and spacious- with ample room to increase volume. They sell their output at a farmer’s market nearby in San Antonio and to a number of small food purveyors local to them and also a number in the Austin area.
We sat around the table with Chrissy, her mother, and her two younger brothers to taste some cheese and hear about the time they spent in Europe together as a family- this is where their love affair with handcrafted cheeses began. Their cheeses are delicious- on par with many American goat’s milk products let alone European imports. I look forward to re-visiting Austin and sampling the aged cheeses as they roll out.
It was a fantastic afternoon. The entire family just could not have been any nicer or more welcoming. We were there for a little over an hour and I think we laughed (hard) more than ten times- always a solid indicator of good company. They enjoy what they do, working hard and making sure to have a good time while doing it. When we got back into the car nancy asked if that visit was representative of what we’d done on our tour last summer. I replied with a resounding “Absolutely!” while Michael said wistfully, “Man, that was a great summer.”
September 11th, 2007
More specifically, we are going to be at the Cheese School of San Francisco. Better yet we are going to teach a class about our cheese voyage while we are there. Come check us out on October 11th for a great nuggets of American cheeses and information! Call (415) 346-7530 to sign up.
September 5th, 2007
Lucky for us, the Cornucopia Institute saw our post and actually sent us some additional information that will be helpful to all of us who hope to purchase dairy products that come from companies with responsible practices. You can read all the information about their study here.
I recommend reading the Understanding Brand Ratings document because it explains fully how they scored the dairies. Interesting survey to review because it reminds that organic is not necessarily more sustainable- often it means importing feed from a longer distance and also I’m not totally on board with the ‘no antibiotics ever’ rule. But- I do like the transparency of this organization’s study- you can look at both the results and the study that produced them.
August 28th, 2007
Wow. I was thinking that it was time for a post with pictures again- with cheese notes or something slightly lighter than recent fare. However I cannot resist posting about something that one of my favorite retailers of all time (Steve Ehlers, Larry’s Market in Milwaukee) has brought to my attention- serious, serious news about organic dairies. There are two articles I want to direct your attention to and they are both on this incredible website that you also should know about: The Cornucopia Institute. This group focuses on economic justice for family-scale farming. Hoo-RAY!
The home page today has a fantastic photos contrasting two distinct models of organic farming. One might call them family-style and industrial-style. Further down the page are the two articles that peaked my interest. The first is a New York Times piece from earlier in the week about the serious lack of any real oversite for the organic regulations that exist today let alone resources that would tend the evolution of organic policies as our knowledge grows. Second is an article done by the Cornucopia Institute about an ongoing investigation into the practices of an industrial organic farm that ships private label organic milk to stores that we all know too well (Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s, Costco, Target, etc.). You’ve got to scroll down a bit to get to this article on the home page- it is from August 14th.
In both articles there are a number of comments about these large-scale companies “skirting requirements” or “cutting corners” and this is the disheartening news. There has been a small triumph in the public with more people encouraged to pay attention to the production of their food and willing to shell out a higher price for organic products. Unfortunately it looks like at least some of the more broadly distributed organics- at least milk- are not being produced according to the current organic standards. This not only threatens the little progress that has been made but also, as the second article points out, really screws the smaller producers who are producing legitimate organic food.
Of course this kind of negative press has the potential to be a stepping off point for change- for improved definition and regulation of organic practices. Not sure that this will be the outcome right now given that there is a skeleton crew working at the National Organic Program Office- a team of nine people is all we have working to enforce and update existing regulations. However it will prove interesting because there are some larger scale organic producers like the quoted exec from Organic Valley who are really quite pissed off that another large producer is threatening their business. But then- how do we know what Organic Valley really does either? Ugh.
I remember talking to cheesemakers throughout the summer last year who were frustrated by so many things related to labelling their products- the terminology, the misinformed consumers, the ambiguity, cost, and upkeep to name a few. Of course it is understandable that we consumers want a silver bullet- we want a label that distills all the complexities of agriculture down into one or two words. Seems simple enough until you actually begin to explore the full spectrum of food production- both types of food being made and the scales on which they are produced. How can a dairy milking 40 animals use the same language to describe what they do as a dairy that milks 5,000?
I’m not sure that nine people alone can resolve the organic question. It might be that the best path to certainty where your food is concerned is to do what you can to know the people selling it to you. If you can’t get a farmer-direct relationship going, do what you can to get within a couple degrees of separation of that (CSA, reliable shopkeeper, etc.). Do I even need to remind you all that investing faith in stickers and pretty packaging is risky business?
August 23rd, 2007