By Lorrie Baumann
This is a good time, and Nashville is a good place for a tiny cheese shop that operates as a cut-to-order counter inside a specialty butcher shop, says Kathleen Cotter, Owner of The Bloomy Rind.
The Bloomy Rind is tucked inside Porter Road Butcher, a whole-animal butcher shop that specializes in locally sourced pasture-raised meats. The pairing of a cheese shop and specialty butchers came about after a local farmer introduced Cotter, who was selling cheeses at local farmers markets, to business partners James Peisker and Chris Carter, who had been working together as caterers when they realized that what Nashville lacked was a good source of high-quality local meat. They were getting ready to open a butcher shop in East Nashville to meet that need, and when they met Cotter, it just seemed right that they might also team up with Cotter and her specialty cheeses. “I pitched the idea to sell cheese in their shop. At that point we didn’t know what the setup would look like,” Cotter says. “As their plans for the space crystalized, they worked a small cheese counter for The Bloomy Rind into their layout. So I was able to open up inside Porter Road instead of having to find the funds to build out my own shop.”
Cotter can’t focus on local cheeses the way Peisker and Carter focus on local meats because there just aren’t enough cheeses made locally to Nashville to meet her customers’ needs, but all three partners share a similar passion for sustainably produced foods. “Our philosophy and our passion were very much in alignment,” she says.
Part of their job is educating Nashville residents who are more accustomed to shopping for all their food needs at conventional grocery stores rather than stopping in at a variety of specialty shops, Cotter says. “It’s a change of habit to have to make an extra stop for specialty meats and cheese. But people are more and more willing to make that extra stop as the desire grows to know where their food comes from and how it was produced.”
“There’s also a population who comes in and says they grew up going to the butcher shop,” she adds. “They come back to that experience, which is cool…. We’re having a lot of people moving here from big cities, where they’re a little more used to specialty shops and come in looking for a personalized cheese experience.”
Her corner of the 1,500 square foot store houses a cheese case and a cutting table, and she shares a market area where she has some logs of chevre and a few other cheese accompaniments in a grab-and-go case. She carries 40 to 50 different cheeses in the case, all cut to order. At the moment, she has one particular favorite cheese in her case: a wheel of extra-aged St. Malachi from the Farm at Doe Run that she acquired when the farm sold extra wheels of a cheese they were entering in the American Cheese Society awards competition. “It’s sort of an aged cheddar meets aged Gouda, firm and crystally and brown-buttery,” Cotter says. “I find cheese is very much a mood thing. I don’t know if other people feel the same way. Sometimes you want a cheese that’s mild, fresh and creamy. Other times you want something with a more challenging profile and stronger flavors.”
In addition to her retail business, she operates a thriving wholesale business in which she works with about 20 restaurants in the city on a regular basis. “That helps me to move product through the case so inventory never sits fr too long and I can rotate the selection more frequently,” she says. “The combination of retail and wholesale also makes it possible to earn a living, which can be tough as an independent cheese retailer.” The wholesale business has become more integral to the shop than Cotter expected, which has been a pleasant surprise, she said. “It’s another avenue to market the cheese counter. If people order a Bloomy Rind cheese plate at a restaurant and enjoy it, then they come into the shop and want to try other things as well.”
As she’s grown her business at the shop, Cotter has also founded the Southern Artisan Cheese Festival, which started five years ago and which she has organized each year since then. “It’s been fun to watch that grow and to be a part of growing the awareness of Southern cheese,” she says. “I think Southern cheeses were under appreciated, but along with greater appreciation of Southern food in general, people are becoming more aware of it. We have people from different cities asking for Southern cheeses to be sent to them. It’s on the upswing. People are really excited about it.”
Nashville’s growing food culture makes this an exciting time to be selling specialty cheese there, Cotter says. “I happened to get into this at a good time when American cheeses are getting better and better and better. There are many great cheeses to introduce people to and chefs are more into interesting domestic cheeses,” she says. “Nashville has become the ‘It Girl’ of food and is attracting more chefs, although we already had good ones, as well as visitors who are interested in good food. It’s a fun time to be in Nashville and to be in cheese.”
The holiday season is a busy time for the Wisconsin dairy industry. According to data collected by Information Resources, Inc.’s (IRI) custom database for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB), cheese companies and retailers continuously see an increase in sales of Wisconsin cheese and dairy products each December. In the 2014 season, cheese sales jumped 21 percent in the week before Thanksgiving and 34 percent in the week before Christmas. Sales were also up 50 percent or more for many cheese varieties, including asiago, Alpine-style cheese, brick, brie, butterkase, camembert, cold pack, cream cheese, edam, fontina, mascarpone and ricotta.
“We expect this year to be no different with many cheese companies poised to capitalize on the holiday season with unique product offerings and increased sales and marketing efforts,” says James Robson, CEO of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. Introductions of limited edition cheese varieties exclusively for the holiday season remain popular for 2015.
Most notably, the highly anticipated Rush Creek Reserve from Uplands Cheese Company in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, returns after a one-year hiatus. This exclusive cheese is hand crafted from seasonal raw cow’s milk and aged for 60 days. It retails for approximately $30 per round and is expected to sell out by Christmas.
Sales of flavored cheese varieties are also on the rise, and many Wisconsin cheesemakers have released cheeses perfect for holiday entertaining and gift giving. Consumers can find unique flavors like Peppermint BellaVitano from Sartori in Plymouth, Wisconsin; Marieke Truffle Gouda from Holland’s Family Cheese in Thorp, Wisconsin; Cranberry Chipotle Cheddar from Carr Valley Cheese Company in La Valle, Wisconsin; and Cinnamon Apple Pie Heritage Cheddar made by Henning’s in Kiel, Wisconsin.
For those looking for unique gift ideas, many retailers offer a variety of holiday gift baskets that can be easily ordered online or by phone. A list of cheese companies, creameries and specialty stores offering mail order cheese and gift baskets can be found at www.EatWisconsinCheese.com/MailOrder. WMMB also offers customizable holiday-themed Wisconsin cheese promotions to aid retailers in their marketing efforts during this busy time of year.
Grafton Village Cheese, a business of the nonprofit Windham Foundation in Grafton, Vermont, has teamed with specialty cheese leader Murray’s Cheese to manage its consumer e-commerce program. Online sales of Grafton Cheese on MurraysCheese.com commenced in late October.
Grafton Village Cheese makes handmade aged Vermont cheddar and specialty cheeses using premium raw milk from small local family farms. A selection of its award-winning cheeses are available at MurraysCheese.com.
“We are delighted to have partnered with Murray’s to take over our online consumer sales,” said Meri Spicer, Grafton’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing. “Murray’s established and reputable e-commerce program allows our existing consumer base to enjoy a more streamlined experience.”
“We are proud to partner with Grafton Cheese,” says Steven Millard, Vice President of Merchandizing at Murray’s. “Long a mainstay in New England and New York cheese cases and on the counters at Murray’s Cheese, Grafton has played an important part in our country’s amazing cultural revolution in cheese. Grafton can focus on making great cheeses, and Murray’s Cheese can focus on providing a seamless online shopping experience.”
Murray’s Cheese, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, has a successful e-commerce business that focuses on the specialty cheese market. The Murray’s brand includes two New York locations, state-of-the-art cheese caves, a restaurant, an educational program, a wholesale business and 250 cheese kiosks in Kroger supermarkets.
The California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB) has revealed its “Adventures in Real Food” Rose Parade® float design that will bring-to-life a celebration of Real California Milk with a colorful display of flowers, animation, music and young California dairy leaders. Keeping with the parade’s “Find Your Adventure” theme, the CMAB’s float recognizes that culinary adventures start with dairy – from the cheese that tops our favorite pizza pies to the ice cream that turns a banana into a celebration – all provided through the state’s more than 1,400 dairy farm families.
“The Rose Parade is a California icon that dates back more than 100 years, with a history as rich as California’s 200-year-old dairy tradition,” said John Talbot, CEO of California Milk Advisory Board. “What better way to showcase the milk and dairy products that make California the number one dairy state while aligning with our new ‘Return to Real’ ad campaign in support of Real California dairy foods and the dairy farmers who help bring them to the table.”
The “Adventures in Real Food” float will show how consumers can find adventure on their plate with an exciting meal or by being outdoors with the people and foods they love:
Float riders will represent some of the “Real People” essential to the dairy industry and who make California the Land of Milk & Sunny – including young dairy leaders from the Future Farmers of America (FFA), California Holstein Association, junior members of the California Jersey Cattle Association and California Dairy Princess ambassadors.
Viewers can watch the float make its debut in the parade on January 1, 2016, and see it up close at the Showcase of Floats onJanuary 1-3 in Pasadena, California.
Marin French Cheese Company, the longest continuously operating cheese company in the U.S., plans to retain that title for years to come. Wrapping up a year of celebrations marking its 150th year of artisan cheese production in the same Marin County location, the company is launching its innovative Baking Brie Kit and Supreme Extra Crème Brie nationally. Not to be outdone, Laura Chenel’s, Marin French’s sister company in Sonoma, founded 35 years ago, will unveil refreshed branding including packaging, a brand-new website, educational videos and new goat cheese products for national distribution in early 2016. Both companies claimed a host of top awards at national cheese competitions in 2015.
Innovations at Laura Chenel’s continue, underscoring the company’s well-known pioneering spirit and significant place in the ‘Story of American Chèvre.’ “2016 will bring exciting changes for our pioneering companies,” says Philippe Chevrollier, General Manger for Laura Chenel’s and Marin French Cheese. “We see a changing landscape for artisan cheese as the market expands, bringing new consumers and exciting opportunities for growth.” Industry experts estimate the annual growth of 4 percent in specialty cheese will continue through 2018, led by demand for nutritious snacks and protein-rich foods.
Marin French’s new Baking Brie Kit includes a uniquely designed wood cup, oven-safe and microwavable, and an 8-ounce wheel of award-winning Traditional Brie or Jalapeno Brie. Baking Brie Kits will be in national retail chains and specialty shops by early November. Baking Brie Kits and all-new Holiday Gift Baskets are ready to ship for the holidays from the online store.
Laura Chenel’s new product lineup of flavored fresh cheeses includes a coated Pineapple Log, Fig Log, and Garlic Chabis and an aged, bloomy-rind Goat Brie. The new Spicy Cabecou is marinated with Jalapeno and packed in an improved, anti-leak jar.
Together the companies picked up nineteen prestigious awards in 2015, recognizing their classic fresh, aged and soft-ripened cheeses along with top prizes for new cheeses competing for the first time in 2015. Most notably: Best of Class prize for Laura Chenel’s aged Taupinière from the US Cheese Championship in Wisconsin, 1st Place award for Marin French Traditional Brie from the American Cheese Society (ACS) in Providence RI and a coveted Winner Award for Marin French Petite Breakfast from the Good Food Awards, San Francisco. New cheeses Spicy Cabecou and Pineapple Log earned top awards for Laura Chenel’s while two new Marin French cheeses, Supreme and Petite Supreme, bested their competitors.
“These awards recognize milestone achievements confirming the high-quality cheese we strive to produce every day,” says GM Chevrollier. “We take pride in our collective years making great cheese, we respect traditions and the craft of cheesemaking while striving for innovation.” New products from Laura Chenel’s and Marin French will be launched at the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco next January, where the sister companies’ products will be displayed side-by-side in booth #5117-5121.
Both Laura Chenel’s and Marin French Cheese are owned by French family cheesemaking company, Rians Group. The company is committed to local farming, long-term relationships for ethical and sustainable practices, and the craftsmanship of fine artisan cheeses reflecting distinctive regional terroir. For a full list of awards go to: www.MarinFrenchCheese.com/about/awards.
With restaurants continuing to seek out ways to offer their customers wholesome, natural ingredients, Emmi Roth USA has recently released a new melting cheese to meet the needs of foodservice professionals with flavor and functionality. Natural Melt™ Creamy Fontina helps operators clean up their menus with a multi-purpose melting cheese that is crafted to melt, naturally. Three simple ingredients – pasteurized cultured milk, enzymes and salt – create an approachable flavor and buttery, velvety texture that is suited for a grand scope of culinary applications.
Developed in collaboration with the company’s team of corporate chefs and master cheesemakers, the cheese is crafted specifically to melt in hot foodservice applications. Special cheesemaking techniques are employed, including reduction of the protein bondage, to create an ideal natural melting cheese. Emmi Roth’s newest creation was launched to help foodservice operators not only elevate a host of menu favorites with a deliciously distinctive note, but also meet consumer demands for natural products.
Natural ingredients and artisan cheese are among the top 20 food trends for 2015 according to the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) Culinary Forecast. NRA’s forecast also shows that 75 percent consider natural ingredients and minimally processed food as a hot trend, 65 percent consider artisan cheeses as a hot trend and 25 percent consider it a perennial favorite.
“Our team developed Natural Melt Creamy Fontina in response to the trends we are seeing in foodservice,” said Linda Duwve, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Emmi Roth USA. “We take pride in delivering innovative products and meaningful cheese solutions to our customers and are committed to transparency in our cheesemaking practices and wholesome, natural food production.”
Available in 7.5-pound loaves, Natural Melt Creamy Fontina can be easily incorporated into any hot foodservice application that calls for melted cheese, including sauces, soups, dips, mac n’ cheeses, burgers, flatbreads, grilled sandwiches and pasta dishes. Evan Topel, Corporate Chef at Emmi Roth USA, has developed a collection of delicious recipes featuring the new cheese:
For more information about Roth Natural Melt Creamy Fontina, visit www.rothnaturalmelt.com.
Rogue Creamery is a 2016 Good Food Awards finalist for Flora Nelle and Rogue River Blue cheeses. The Good Food Awards represents truly good food and honors companies who have a reputation for making tasty, authentic and socially responsible products. The competition featured 1,937 entries and showcased regional flavors from across the USA. Rogue Creamery distinguished itself, receiving top scores from the 215 judges and passing a rigorous vetting to confirm that it met the Good Food Awards standards; these standards include environmentally sound agricultural practices, good animal husbandry, transparency, and responsible supply chain relationships.
Flora Nelle: This organic, natural- rinded, blue is set with calf rennet, has a crumbly, yet creamy texture, and combines savory, tropical, and sweet cream flavors. The result is a robust and piquant blue with subtle hints of blueberry and a rind that enhances the spicy-nutty and intensely blue flavors that truly capture the Rogue Valley Terroir.
Rogue River Blue: Made annually, starting on the autumnal equinox, this cheese is produced at the turn of the season and is made with richer, late-season milk. This blue, finished with pear-brandy soaked grape leaves, has a decidedly complex flavor that reflects the unique seasonal influences of the Rogue River Valley.
Rogue Creamery is joined by two other Oregon Cheese Guild cheesemakers: Ancient Heritage Dairy and Goldin Artisan Goat Cheese, who have also been chosen as Finalists and are helping Oregon lead the way toward creating a vibrant, delicious and sustainable food system.
By Richard Thompson
Historically maligned as a novelty in the cheese segment, American consumers are embracing flavored cheeses that are being offered by specialty cheese companies. More dairy farms and cheese companies are offering products with additional flavorings, like Sriracha and dill, that cater to both sophisticated and adventurous tastes through a growing variety of award-winning flavored cheeses. Companies like Country Connection Cheese Company, Nicasio Valley Cheese Company and Cypress Grove Chevre are receiving influential awards in the dairy industry for their flavored cheeses: Country Connection’s Sriracha Cheddar, Nicasio Valley’s Foggy Morning with Basil and Garlic and Cypress Grove’s Truffle Tremor. “I think flavored cheeses, when done well, are popular because they expand the specialty cheese category with interesting options for the consumer,” says Ellen Valter, Brand Manager of Country Connection.
Interest in flavored cheese has intensified in the last few years with flavored cheeses now making up seven percent of the total cheese category, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB). Heather Porter Engwall, Director of National Product Communications at WMMB, says that for the last five years flavored cheeses have outperformed unflavored cheeses in both volume and dollar sales with year-to-date dollar sales of flavored cheeses up more than 8 percent. “Trends we see within the specialty cheese category are, of course, flavor,” says Porter Engwall, “Be it hot and spicy, sweet and savory, fruity or nutty, Americans continue to enjoy a heightened taste experience.”
Country Connection started creating new taste sensations by adding ingredients to high-quality cheese and was recently awarded the gold medal at the Los Angeles International Dairy Competition for its peppery Sriracha Cheddar cheese. According to Valter, the Sriracha Cheddar is a top-seller in the 17-cheese line the company offers and is made with all natural Sriracha for a spicy cheddar blend that goes excellently with beer.
The company also offers Chipotle Cheddar, Basil Garlic Jack Cheese, and Applewood Smoked Gouda – one of the three smoked cheeses in their line. The Chipotle Cheddar is made with cumin, garlic, red chile peppers and chipotle. “Chipotle Cheddar is my personal favorite because its smoky and complex flavor profile makes it one of the few cheddars that pairs well with a full-bodied red wine,” says Valter.
Nicasio Valley Cheese Company, a farmstead cheese company that is part of the Lafranchi Dairy, has won numerous awards – including second place in the Fromage Blanc category in 2011, 2012 and 2014 at the American Cheese Society (ACS) – for its Foggy Morning cheese. Foggy Morning with Basil and Garlic is a flavorful extension of that flagship product. “Our Foggy Morning with Basil and Garlic is just like our original, but we add basil and fresh garlic to it,” says Scott Lafranchi, Partner at Nicasio Valley Cheese Company.
This cheese is a very soft, very creamy cheese that carries a tang with it where you can still taste the milk in the cheese, says Lafranchi. “It’s such a versatile cheese; I think it’s great on a bagel. On salads, it’s really good.”
2015 has been a good year for Cypress Grove Chevre and its flavored cheeses, according to Bob McCall, Sales Director for Cypress Grove Chevre. The company’s PsycheDillic goat cheese placed first at this year’s ACS awards in the Fresh Goat With Flavor Added category, while the company’s Truffle Tremor Mini and Truffle Tremor Original placed second and third respectively in the Soft-Ripened with Flavor Added category.
PsycheDillic is infused with dill weed and dill pollen, making it the top bagel-topping choice that will persuade consumers that they don’t want to go back to plain cream cheese, according to McCall. “People who buy this cheese already like dill, but end up trying something brand new from the dill pollen and fresh goat cheese,” says McCall.
The company’s Truffle Tremor Mini and Truffle Tremor Original – northern Italian truffle-infused goat cheeses – were born like most great innovations; by accident. After Mary Keehn, the Founder of Cypress Grove Chevre, tried creating a new fresh chevre flavor that underwhelmed during an initial taste test, the wheels were left in the aging cooler for three weeks before anyone remembered they were there. But when they did remember their existence, the Cypress Grove folks fell in love with the taste. “I kid you not, 60 seconds went by before anyone spoke,” recalls McCall, “We were stunned by how good it was.”
Cypress Grove Chevre is a cheese company that prides itself on the uniqueness of its names and their allusions to their northern California zeitgeist. Herbs de Humboldt, for instance, which sports locally harvested herbes de Provence, is monickered with a tongue-in-cheek allusion to one of the region’s better-known cash crops. “Its wonderful on pasta or as a substitute for cream and pairs well with almost any beer, red ale and Sauvignon blanc,” says McCall.
By Lorrie Baumann
I met Connor Pelcher, a Wholesale Account Manager for Murray’s Cheese, one morning over breakfast during the American Cheese Society’s Cheese Camp, after my attention was drawn to him by one of his co-workers who asked him if he was wearing his flamingo socks. He reared back in his chair and raised his leg above the table to demonstrate that, yes, the flamingo socks were sur les pieds.
I missed seeing the matching flamingo shirt that he’d also bought after he’d run out of shirts during his stay at Cheese Camp. “I went to the mall, saw a flamingo shirt, and then I saw the flamingo socks,” he says. “As a salesperson, I like to dress in a way that people will remember. The better dressed you are, the more visually impactful you are. That might help people think about me when they have a question about cheese.”
Pelcher started his career in the food industry as an escape from the reality that a college graduate with a degree in English has when realizing the limited options for turning that degree into a well-paid career. “Anyone who has a degree in English can tell you the feeling of fear you get when you get handed that diploma,” he says. “That fear led me back to Vermont, where I grew up.”
Back in Vermont, he began exploring a passion for cooking and applied to the New England Culinary Institute. “I got a call the same week to say they loved my essay and were looking for people who were passionate and who were looking for a second career,” he says. After graduation from culinary school, he moved to New York and began moving up the ladder in white-tablecloth restaurants until he found himself the general manager of a restaurant and two bars in the East Village, and it dawned on him that he was having more to do with spreadsheets and personnel rosters than with actual food. “I took a step away from that and thought about where I could focus myself,” he says. “I had always been obsessed about beer and wine and cheese, so I sent a resume to Murray’s. I went in and got myself hired as a junior sales person.”
He still remembers what he said in that interview, he says. He mentioned “that cheese with the ash.” Humboldt Fog? the interviewer asked, and he agreed that, yes, that’s the one he had in mind. “It was laughable. Now I could talk to you for an hour about my favorite cheeses.”
He’s now been at Murray’s for two years, has become an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional and he’s now teaching some of the classes he attended to learn about cheese. Pelcher says he’s more excited now than he was when he started the job. “At Cheese Camp, I got to meet some cheese celebrities. I got to taste a million things that I never even would have known about,” he says. “The panels were incredible – some of the brightest minds, a confluence of some of the best thinkers that the cheese world has to offer. To be allowed to ask questions of them, to have four people that you deeply respect and that you read about answering a question for you…. Someday I’d like to be on one of those panels and to have people look up at me and applaud.”
Chad Farmer Davis, a Kroger Enterprise Set-up Specialist who opens Murray’s Cheese Shops inside partner stores across the country, also remembers the job interview that led to his career in cheese. He’s from Illinois, and he’d never even seen a cheese shop when he applied six years ago for what was supposed to be just a summer job. “I said I was an expert. I ate Kraft every day,” he says. “That was my entire cheese knowledge six years ago – Kraft and Velveeta.”
Much as he loves eating good cheeses now, his favorite part of his job is working with the people he meets as he travels the country, “training new cheese people and spreading the word on curd.” “There are literally so many crazy people in cheese culture. These are people that you tend to be attracted to,” he says. “When I was a kid, I was so focused on Star Wars. When I grew up, it transferred to cheese.”
When he trains new cheesemongers who aren’t yet as obsessed as he is with cheese, he likes to point out that talking about cheese is an easy way to start a conversation with a stranger. “There are so many kinds of people, but most people love cheese, and you can definitely bond with people over cheese. You can start a conversation about cheese, and it leads to, oh, I made a new friend,” he says. “You can meet a lot of new and interesting people, and it makes you a better person because you’re learning so much about other people.”
Like Pelcher, Farmer-Davis’ was once one of those liberal arts graduates willing to think for food. Now, he’s become one willing to spend the rest of his career thinking about food. “This is now a permanent career – one I thought I’d never have,” he says. “It was something that took me by surprise. I fell in love with it the very first day. I’m definitely not going to walk away from it, ever. It’s something that I love to do, and it makes my life extremely interesting.”
Like Pelcher, Cheesemaster and ACS Certified-Cheese Professional Jill Davis started out as a chef. She now works for Kroger at a new Murray’s Cheese Shop inside a Decatur, Georgia store, but before she joined Kroger, she was working for KitchenAid, teaching cooking classes and offering demonstrations to show kitchenware retailers how to use KitchenAid appliances. Before that, she’d worked at Sur Le Table teaching classes in cooking and knife skills, and she’s spent five years as a chocolatier. She intends for Kroger to be her last employer before she retires.
She came to work for Kroger after KitchenAid closed its Atlanta facility. “I’d been a long-time customer of Murray’s and got an email that said, ‘Coming Soon to Atlanta,” she says. “I called directly to New York.”
A Murray’s staffer in New York put her in touch with the Kroger hiring manager in Atlanta, who interviewed her for five minutes and then handed her an airline ticket to leave the next day for training in New York. “I got the whole Murray’s tour and then came back here and directly became a cheesemonger and in charge of the shop,” she says.
“Murray’s is extremely thorough in training, not only about cheese, but about merchandising and the product itself. There are product sheets on every single thing you sell: name of the farmer, name of the cheesemaker, nutritional information, some factoids to help you remember it. You need to have all of this information before you even begin a demo, plus all of this information is on every single sign, which also contains pairings and information on pronunciation,” she continues. “They also bring in their people to teach you the proper way, the Murray’s way, of cutting each cheese within each family of cheeses and how they’re merchandised and displayed.”
Her new shop has about 100 different cheeses, an olive and antipasti bar, a case of charcuterie, pickles, jams and chocolates. Crackers sit on top of he cheese cases. While most of the cheese is cut to order, there are also some grab-and-go precuts because many of the Kroger stores are open 24 hours a day and some customers choose not to interact with the cheesemonger.
“For me, it’s all about the cheese. I like talking to my customers every day. I want to have customers, people who come in and ask for me and say they’re having people over and want to know what to serve,” she says. “Everything – the bottom line – is customer service. It’s not all about the cheese; it’s all about the customer.”
By Lorrie Baumann
Catalina bleats insistently from her pen in the Toluma Farms nursery barn as farmer Tamara Hicks approaches. Slender and long-haired, Hicks has the sun-kissed complexion of a woman who spends much of her time outdoors, and she doesn’t have the bottle that Catalina, a pure white Saanen kid born several weeks ago, is hoping for.
Like the other lambs and kids born this year at Toluma Farms, a 160-acre farm in west Marin County, California, Catalina is named after an island. There are also Kokomo, the island of the Beach Boys song; Floriana; and Manhattan – all bodies of land surrounded by water, a topic that’s very much on Californians’ minds. “We have often discussed the irony of being surrounded by water, being a coastal farm and dairy and worrying constantly about water,” Hicks says. “Hence, the islands seemed comical in a depressing sort of way.”
She and her husband, David Jablons, bought this farm in the rolling hills near Point Reyes in 2003 with the idea that they could become agents of change in the local food production system and in the debate about climate change. “We made a conscious decision that we could be part of the conversation about restoring the land,” Hicks says. They’ve sunk most of their children’s potential inheritance into this property, and now California is giving them a practical lesson in what the state’s climate means to the future of local food.
California is in its fourth year of a drought that’s setting records even for a state with a long history of concern for whether it has enough water to supply a burgeoning population and an agriculture industry that supplies most of the country’s fruits and vegetables. The period from 2012 through 2014 was the driest three-year period ever in terms of statewide precipitation; exacerbated by record warmth, with the highest statewide average temperatures ever recorded in 2014. Every California county has been included in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s drought designations at various times between the beginning of 2012 and the end of 2014.
Unlike most other natural disasters, drought is a gradual crisis, occurring slowly over a period of time. There’s no sudden event that announces it, and it’s not usually ended by any one rain storm. The impacts of drought get worse the longer the drought continues, as reservoirs are depleted and water levels decline in groundwater basins.
Even though some parts of northern California did get a little rain last December and again in February of this year, the cumulative effect of four critically dry years has created a crisis that is expected to cost California’s agriculture industry $1.8 billion this year, with a total statewide economic cost of $2.7 billion. More than 18,000 jobs in the state’s agriculture industry are likely to be lost to the drought this year, according to agricultural economists studying the effects of the drought for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Marin and Sonoma Counties have been the heart of northern California’s dairy industry since 1856, when Clara Steele made the first known batch of cheese in this part of the country from a recipe she found in a book. These are not the state’s most drought-stricken counties, but even here there’s a pervasive air of crisis. Marin County has declared a state of emergency so that farmers can qualify for any aid that becomes available. Local radio stations advertise water conservation tips and the availability of financial aid for water-saving devices. Farmers and gardeners hold evening meetings to share advice, offer each other fellowship and discuss the chances that this year’s drought might be California’s new normal, as Governor Jerry Brown said it is in April, as he imposed mandatory water use restrictions. Across California, the message is being passed that, “Brown is the new green,” as the state’s residents are urged to save water, save water, save water.
Hicks and Jablons take some solace in the knowledge that this property has a long history of having sufficient water. California’s most significant historical droughts have been a six-year drought in 1929-1934 – the Dust Bowl years, the two year-drought of 1976-77 – a comparatively short drought that nevertheless had very serious effects on the state’s groundwater, and another six-year drought in 1987-1992. The 1929-1934 drought was comparable to the most severe dry periods in more than a millennium of reconstructed climate data, but its effects were small by present-day standards because the state’s urban population and agricultural development are much greater now. In the 1970s drought, the family that owned Toluma Farms then had enough water to allow friends and neighbors to come and fill up tanks to truck back to their own farms. This time around, Hicks doesn’t feel secure enough to make that offer.
When they found this property, 18 miles west of Petaluma, in an area where they’d been coming for weekend camping excursions for years, it was a dilapidated farm with a history of dairy production that had been abandoned and the pastures neglected. Ten thousand old tires had been piled on a hillside in an ill-advised attempt to prevent the slope from eroding and were spilling down into the road. Other discarded junk had been dumped around the house or buried in backhoed pits.
Neither Hicks nor Jablons had any experience in farming – Hicks is a clinical psychologist and Jablons is a surgeon, both with busy practices in San Francisco – but they felt that their financial resources, their skills in forming and maintaining helpful relationships with other people and their commitment to their values could see them through the challenges of returning the farm to its historic use as a productive dairy farm. “It’s a good thing that we are both equally committed to the idea of restoring the farm to health and making a statement about the value of sustainable agriculture and a healthy food system,” Hicks says. Otherwise, she adds, their marriage might not have survived the challenges of figuring out how to turn derelict pastures and an ad hoc landfill into a financially and ecologically sustainable family farm. After more than a decade of work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to rehabilitate the pastures, hauling away the tires and other garbage, building a guesthouse that’s rented out for in-depth educational farm stays and meeting space, and opening a creamery for making cheese, the farm hasn’t yet fulfilled that dream of sustainability. Hicks is hopeful that the artisan cheeses from the Tomales Farmstead Creamery she opened on the property in 2013 will be the final piece in a patchwork of enterprises the couple operates to support the farm, but returning the land to health will probably take a few more decades, she estimates. “We’re not profitable yet,” she says. “I’m not sure if it’s possible to make a living as farmstead cheese producers.”
Toluma Farms gets its water from sidehill wells that just have to last until the drought ends because the farm can’t support the costs of trucking in water, even if the water was available at all, which it probably wouldn’t be. “We kind of hope and pray,” Hicks says. “The city [of Petaluma, the nearest municipal water system] has pulled way back in prioritizing water for agriculture. Houses out here can’t even get water.”
Coming to terms with the drought has meant cutting back the milking schedule to once per day instead of the usual twice-daily milkings at 12-hour intervals, which saves half the water normally used to clean the milking parlor but reduces milk production by 25 percent. State and federal regulations require that the equipment used in milking must be sanitized before every milking and then washed immediately after use, both to protect the milk from contamination and to protect the health of the animals, and all of this cleaning is a major use of water on dairy farms.
Tomales Farmstead Creamery makes and sells five cheeses made from the milk of its herd of 200 goats and more than 100 East Friesian sheep. The cheeses all have names that reflect the heritage of the coastal Miwok Indians who lived here before the Europeans arrived. Kenne is a soft-ripened goat cheese with a wrinkly Geotrichum rind that’s aged for three weeks. Teleeka is a soft-ripened cheese made with goat, sheep and Jersey cow milk – the only one in the collection that’s not a farmstead cheese, since the Jersey milk comes from Marissa Thornton’s dairy farm just down the road. Assa, a word that means “female” is an aged goat cheese with a chardonnay-washed rind. The name is a tribute to the many women who work on the farm as well as the female animals that produce the milk. Liwa is a fresh goat cheese aged just three days – the name means “water.” “We pray for water,” Hicks says. Atika is an aged sheep and goat cheese with a McEvoy Olive Oil rind. Atika won a second-place award from the American Cheese Society in 2014, in the creamery’s first time to enter the awards contest.
All five cheeses are made with pasteurized milk, since the creamery doesn’t have the space to isolate pasteurized milk cheeses from raw milk varieties. Hicks is glad now that the couple made an early decision not to make raw milk cheeses because she’s noticed that the makers of raw milk cheeses are getting extra scrutiny this year from food safety inspectors. While there are raw milk cheesemakers who believe that pasteurization could compromise the complexity of the flavors in their cheeses, Hicks is satisfied that the production method she has chosen produces an excellent product. “We think it’s delicious cheese, or we wouldn’t do what we do,” she says.
Two years ago, Jablons and Hicks started growing their own hay using dry-land farming techniques, by planting 40 acres with a mixture of oats, rye and barley that yielded one cutting last year and a second cutting this year. That’s easing some of the effects of the drought on the farm, since it insulates the couple from the extra costs of buying hay in a market in which the supply/demand ratio has been affected by decreased production from farmers who haven’t had enough water to irrigate their hay fields. “We still have to supplement some, but not nearly what we had had to do,” Hicks says. “With the drought, we’re paying twice as much now as we did 10 years ago. It’s now $300 a ton, and the quality is not as good…. We know people who’ve had to get rid of their cattle. Fortunately, sheep and goats don’t drink as much water.”
She’s grateful for the coastal fog that blankets the hillsides of her farm in the mornings and shelters the fields from the evaporative power of the sun’s heat. “I don’t know how the farmers around Modesto are doing it,” she says. “The weather is so much hotter there.”
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