Friday, October 29, 2010

Rashel Harris in Texas - 2010

Wow!  Can she make cheese!

When Rashel Harris read Sally Fallon's "Nourishing Traditions," she made up her mind to eat healthy food.  Then, she changed her whole way of life to accomplish her goal.  She had no experience with farming, but after a few short years, she is now making professional quality farmstead cheese and butter for herself and her lucky husband with the milk from their own cow, Elsie.

I asked her to do an interview when she wrote to thank us for all the help we provide on our website.  From the looks of her cheese, I'd say she got all the help she will ever need!

How did you get started making cheese?

In 2006, I graduated from Taylor University in Indiana, then moved to Dallas to work in corporate healthcare.   After working as a management trainee for surgery centers and then as a systems analyst in IT, I met my husband, Andrew, a commercial real estate developer.

We married and after 6 months, we decided to move back to Andrew's small hometown in east Texas.  Shortly after our move to the country, I discovered Sally Fallon's book.
Having always had an interest in exercise and nutrition, we realized that for optimum health, we would have to go back to nutrient dense foods, eating the way they did a LONG time ago. So we began taking road trips, up to four hours, to visit the nearest producers of grass-fed beef, pastured chicken and raw milk.

We soon realized we had the land and resources to produce all these things in our own backyard.  Within a year we added a milk cow (to make soft and hard cheese, butter, kefir and milk to drink), a flock of laying hens, a small herd of beef cattle, meat chickens, heritage turkeys, two livestock guardian dogs and planted a large vegetable garden.
Future plans include a few honey bee hives.  Andrew now works with his family real estate company and I manage our ranch.  Life is good at what we affectionately call Tierra Prometida- the land of milk and honey!

What kind of cheese did you start with?

Andrew and I didn't come from farming families. You'd probably call us city people. We've always gotten everything from the grocery store, so what we're doing now is quite different. (Not only we we make our own cheese but we milk the cow too!)

My first hard cheese class was last year at Falster Farms in Winnsboro, TX. I realized then that it takes a LOT of milk to make cheese. I learned how to work with lots of milk, making sour cream, butter, ice cream, coffee cream, kefir, yogurt, and soft and hard cheeses.

After my first cheese class at Falster Farm, I came home and ordered Ricki's book, "Home Cheese Making" and the cheese book from Homestead Heritage in Waco, TX. (We did an article about Heritage Farm recently.)  Those two books are my favorites and what I use every time I make cheese.

We decided to make our own hard cheese press out of wood and PVC. We used gym weights up to 50 lbs for pressing. I still use this press as well as one from y'all at New England Cheese Supply. (E28)  I love it. It's so nice not to have to deal with weights and it's compact to store! I love the stainless steel mold and the pan that drains the whey.
We had so many uses for milk, we decided we needed a cow!  We have a 3 1/2 year old full Jersey. The funny thing is, Andrew and I had never milked a cow in our lives before we got our Jersey, Elsie. She came to stay with us and the next morning had her calf! We were so excited. We were in the milk instantly! Our cow is now in her 5th month of lactation and we milk her twice a day. She gives us a little over three gallons of milk a day and we use every drop.

I make two batches of cheese every other week. I make butter on the opposite weeks. (Check out Rashel's wonderful video about making butter at the end of this post.) 

I'm a beginner cheese maker, so I'm still learning all the tricks to making cheese turn out. I tend to like to rush and do many things at once. Cheese doesn't like to be kept waiting! When my timer rings, I need to go tend to my next step and that's where I get in trouble! I'll have one cheese turn out great and the next will do something crazy like smell yeasty and have bubbles! The chicken, turkeys, and dogs get those batches and all fight over who gets a piece.

(Rashel's separator at right.)

Where do you age your cheese?

I age our cheese in a little wine cellar converted into a cheese cave. I replaced the wire racks with maple wood and it's now stashed full of cheese! This month we get to eat two rolls of colby jack and pepper jack.

Rachel's colby jack
Rachel's pepper jack

Next month will be cheddar, gouda, and a new flavor I made up - garden cheddar (with herbs from my garden).  The month after that I'm really excited about because I experimented with horseradish cheddar. I couldn't find a cheese recipe for horseradish, so I made it up using fresh horseradish root. I grated it and boiled it in some water for 5 minutes. Then added the water to the cold milk before I started the cheese and the grated part to the finished curds before pressing.

Are you using a hygrometer to measure humidity?

Yes.  It's an Acu-Rite hygrometer. I like it because it has the sensor on a long cord. I have it taped, with black electrical tape, inside of my cheese cave. The unit sits on top outside the cheese cave. That way, with one glance I can see the humidity and temperature without opening the door up and disturbing my cheese.  It was very inexpensive and works great!
Is Elsie grass fed all year?

Yes. She's on pasture all year. We have 66 acres, about half pasture half wooded.  We're working on a natural program here with our pastures. We spray our own compost tea and raw milk from a dairy to add life back to the microorganisms in our depleted soil.

We cut hay this year and will have it for the cows in the winter. To encourage Elsie to come and milk and stay put while we milk her, we give her a hand full of minerals (Sea-90), a tiny bit of dried molasses, alfalfa pellet and alfalfa hay and a handful of range cubes.

Do you still have the calf and if so, what are you feeding her?
Yes, we kept Elsie's calf. We share Elsie's milk with the calf.  In the beginning, we gave her a gallon and a half every day. Now she's down to 1/2 a gallon a day. The first night Elsie came to stay with us she had her calf, a heifer we named Buttercup.

Elsie was too smart for her own good. We tried all the old tricks of trying to share the milk with her calf. Letting the calf stay with her and separating them at night. But she wouldn't have any of it and was holding her milk and most importantly her cream! Smart cow. So we decided to separate them and we bottle fed Buttercup three times a day until now. This month, she's 5 months old and we're weaning her. She's our future milker so we're taking really good care of her by giving her Elsie's milk longer than normal for a bottle fed calf.

(The picture above is the entire amount Elsie gives us in one milking. One bottle goes to the calf (1/2 a gallon), one and a half gallons goes for cheese, 1/2 a gallon goes to drink.) 

What do you do with the beef cattle?

We eat our beef cattle!  We chose the Red Angus breed because they finish out well for beef consumption. (We keep all of them for beef to fill our freezers.)

Do you sell anything, like beef or turkey?

Nope, we don't sell anything. Our goal is to raise the highest quality nutrient dense product possible. We had a difficult finding good grass fed beef, heritage pastured turkeys, pastured eggs, pastured chicken and grass fed milk, all raised organically/naturally... since we had the land and desire, we brought it all in house! 

One of our egg layer chickens stole away a nest this summer and raised 7 chicks all by herself! 

Rashel has 13 great videos on UTube about various aspects of her life, including Family Cow-Processing Elsie's Milk, 55 Gallon Compost Tea Brewer, Chicken Processing-Removing Legs, etc. You can find them by searching for TriGirl123.

Her most popular video is the one below, Making Cultured Butter From Whole Milk

Monday, October 25, 2010

Taylor Farm in Londonderry, Vermont

Making Award-Winning Farmstead Gouda

Jonathan Wright has a vision.  He dreams of artisan cheesemakers in his area sharing their resources to produce their cheeses more economically.

Within a fairly small geographical area, several cheesemakers would make their own special cheeses in the same place, using much of the same equipment, the same office workers, and the same marketing staff.  They would raise their own herds, but they would simply carry their milk a few miles down the road to the "co-operative creamery."  Then, depending on the circumstances, they would either age their cheeses there or bring them back to their own "caves" to age.

Jon is already starting to work on this, because soon he will be making cheese one day a week at the old Grafton Village Cheese plant which is a few miles from his farm.  (Grafton has moved most of their operation to Brattleboro.)  Depending on how this works for him, we might be hearing more about his vision coming to fruition.  We certainly hope so.

Meanwhile, Jon has a beautiful farm in the Green Mountains of Vermont, where he makes award winning farmstead Gouda.  He has access to 560 acres of property, including 160 acres for haying and 45 organic acres for grazing.  This land is conserved by the Vermont Land Trust and Jon has lifetime rights to the property.  He owns his house, which is right in front of the store, his barn and 20 acres of meadows. 

Following a scenic drive on Rt. 11, it's easy to find the Taylor Farm.
 The signs out front make it hard to resist dropping in.
 On a crisp, fall day, the store beckons like an oasis of warmth and good cheer. 
Inside, it's everything the signs have promised and more!
The Tour
When I had originally made plans to visit Jon, he suggested I come at the same time he would be meeting with an interested member of the local community who wanted to know more about the farm.  That turned out to be Maria Reade, an English teacher and dean of faculty at the Trinity-Pawling School in Pawling, NY.  She and her husband own a summer home near Taylor Farm.  (She doesn't really look like a dean of faculty in this picture!) 
We looked around the farm while Jon finished up some paperwork in his office above the store.
Maria told me she had heard that a few years ago the roof blew off Jon's barn in a bad winter storm.  She said the entire community helped Jon rebuild his roof and find refuge for his cows.  (Later, Jon told us about that terrible experience and how supportive his neighbors were.  He said his insurance company surprised him by coming through with full coverage, which helped enormously, also.)
The morning we were there, some of the younger cows were eating organic hay in the barn.
The rest of the milkers were out in the field up the hill.
The chickens were very friendly.
And the goats were so affectionate, I couldn't even get a picture of them!
Jon's Story
We joined Jon in his office and he graciously spent more than an hour answering our questions and telling us how it all started:

The adventure first began when Jon was a teenager in 1975.  He stopped in, on a whim, to ask the Taylors if he could work for them as part of a work-study program at the prep school he was attending in Boston.  The Taylors were milking 30-35 cows and selling their milk to a local creamery.  They agreed, and 35 years later, he and the Taylors are still working together to conserve the land.

After Jon finished high school, the Taylors offered to sell him the farm, but Jon wasn't ready.  He knew he needed an education, so he enrolled at the University of Vermont Agricultural School.  He ended up getting his degree in forest management.  When he was finished, the Taylors asked him to construct a forest management plan for their property.  By then, it was the mid-eighties and the farm was abandoned.   

In 1989, Jon made the decision to work the farm with his then pregnant wife (they have since divorced).  The Taylors gave him free rein and allowed them to live in the guest house, rent free.

He went to the bank with a crude business plan and managed to secure a loan for $20,000, which seemed huge at the time.  With that, he bought whatever cheap cows he could find and some refurbished equipment.  He used draft horses for much of the farm work.

Those were the lean years, when milk prices plummeted and none of the dairy farms were making any money.  But the community and the Taylors were supportive and they managed to milk a motley herd of 70 cows, including Black Angus, Holsteins (that couldn't walk), Jerseys and Brown Swiss.

Jon's wife worked part-time and they had a farm stand.  But, after several years, milk prices were still down and Jon was working so many hours that he didn't have enough time to spend with his 3 daughters (who are now 19, 16 and 12).  So, he began searching for a better whey to make a living.

He thought about bottling his own milk, but then he visited Marjorie Susman and Marian Pollack at the Orb Weaver Farm (at left) in New Haven, VT.  He saw that they had a good quality of life, milking 10 Jerseys and making cheese.  He was impressed.

However, at that time, there were only 12 cheese making operations in Vermont. (Now there are 48!)  So, the banks didn't quite know what to do with him.

He sold a group of his cows to build a plant and he hired Peter Dixon, a well known consultant to help get him started.  He decided to raise Holsteins and Jerseys and to make Gouda.  (Holsteins came originally from the Netherlands.)

Now, Jon has 7 full-time employees and a few part-timers.  They milk 40-45 cows (a closed herd) and it all goes into the cheese (with the exception of the raw milk they are licensed to sell). 

We met one of his right-hand men, Randy Stannard, who does a little of everything, including pumping milk and adding starter to the cheese.
Holly Peters also does a little of everything, including making cheese.  (We can't say enough good things about Holly because she brought us coffee during our meeting!)
Audrey Sager is Jon's niece, but this is a terrible picture because my camera lens was all fogged up in the make room.  (She reacted rather strongly when she realized I was taking her picture!)
Tamry Bratton has been the head cheesemaker for the last 7 years and Autumn partnered up with her 10 months ago, 3 days after she was born.  I have to say that for such a young staff member, Autumn makes an excellent cheese!
Jon made many of the molds with food grade PVC.  The followers are made of wood coated with food grade urethane.  The little molds are Kadovas from Holland.
They usually make the cheese on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  The milk is not pasteurized because the cheese is aged over 60 days.  This past year, they made 70,000 pounds of cheese and there have been years when they made up to 100,000 pounds.  Currently, there are over 50,000 pounds of inventory in their cave.
Jon and his staff have won many ribbons at the American Cheese Society's annual competition, including First Place for their Maple Smoked Farmstead Gouda.
  They sell their cheese online (, in their farm store, and at many stores and co-ops in the New England area (listed on their website).
In their store, they stock a wide variety of cheeses from nearby farms, because Jon believes in supporting fellow cheesemakers.
They also sell their wildly popular Vermont Natural Rind Gouda.  (When you see it there, I suggest you buy it, because it goes fast.  Did I mention that it's outrageously delicious?) 
They have arts and crafts, baked goods, maple sugar products, jams and jellies, sauerkraut . . .  In fact, while we were in the office, a local entrepreneur brought some of his products for Jon to sell.
It was a lot of fun visiting Taylor Farm and I hope you get a chance to go there.  In fact, if you do make the trip, they have a weekend guest lodge you can stay in to make the experience even more memorable.

If you live near Brattleboro, you can buy their cheese at one of these two venues:

9am - 2pm. Brattleboro Area Farmer's Market. Taylor Farm Cheese is proud to be one of the many wonderful farm products available at this very friendly, energetic and enjoyable market! Live music and family fun every Saturday!

Brattleboro Area Winter Market.  Post-oil-solutions will be hosting an INDOOR WINTER MARKET for farm products and craft vendors in southern Vermont! Located at the River Garden, 157 Main Street in Brattleboro, Vermont. The schedule is as follows: November 1, 8, 15, 22, 29, December 6, 20, 27, January 3 and 17, February 7 and 21, March 7 and 21.

Taylor Farm
825 Rt. 11
Londonderry, VT
Phone: (802) 824-5690