Tour de Cheese: Massachusetts Day Four.
Motel coffee is not the greatest in the world, so I figured that since I was in a in a College town (Williamstown), I’d be able to find something decent within a stone’s throw.
I rolled out early towards the ‘centre’ of town and Tunnel City Coffee, where indeed, I found a very nice cuppa and muffin. It had rained last night, so there was a dampness to the air, and a hanging mist still wrapped itself around the low green hills on the horizon. The noise my tyres made on the road today had changed too - no longer the dry sticky sound of grip, more the sound of the hissing from a very non-menacing snake. Today I wasn’t riding, I was slithering….
Actually, I was looking forward to today and meeting the farmers/cheesemakers involved. My first stop of Cricket Creek, is probably one of the more consistent cheesemakers in MA, and the second stop was just across the border in NY State, Four Fat Fowl, who make everybody’s favourite the St. Stephen.
Cricket Creek is in quite a picturesque spot - up a long broken road, lined with fields and hedgerows, nestled up against a forest-covered row of hills. The farm is about 400 acres total, about half of which is needed for their 60 count mixed breed (Jersey, Normandie, Dutch Belted) herd. All organic pasture fed, until the hay is needed in the winter.
Trixie was my guide around the farm, and as we strolled around, we had a good chat. She had grown up in a farming family and worked in farms before she arrived to manage operations at Cricket Creek - and you could tell that she was able to hit the ground running in January when she joined - 2 months before COVID-19.
The pandemic hit their cheese sales (all - Maggie’s Round, Reserve, Tobasi, Berkshire Bloom, although weirdly Feta had popularity spike). But as demand dried up overnight in mid-March, this had knock on effects. All of a sudden there was excess milk, as cheese production slowed. Some could be diverted to the increasing raw milk sales, but some had to be fed to the pigs - which as a farmstead operation - is like letting the pig eat $100 bills.
All of a sudden cheese started to accumulate in the aging caves, as the wheels didn’t sell, and right now space is at a real crunch. A shipping container the farm had purchased to give them expansion room in June is still not completely set up, and so they still struggle. The milk production v cheese shipments became so unbalanced, that they started to take dairy cows for meat. Not only to remove them from milking, but also to shore up the meat sales from the farm shop, which had exploded in late March to early April (just like Chase Hill Farm had seen). However, not even that worked smoothly - the nearby meat production facilities which worked with small farms had no spare capacity.
Somehow the farm got through this stretch, which also included a number of personnel leaving (after year long internships), with no replacements (how can you hire during a pandemic?).
Oh, and did I mention that there’s a new cheesemaker in training? Or that the drought this year meant that, although the cows still had enough to graze on, little hay has been produced for the later season?
But, it’s clear, that although the change in the food industry has shaken the farm, I think they’re going to get through. They are being thoughtful and flexible with supply and demand; more meat and milk for the local pick ups, slightly different products stocked in the shop for the numerous distant tourist arriving, scale back cheese production.
After plenty of time chatting and scratching the noses of the last calves of the season, I head out - finally going South, towards my quick stop in New York State with Four Fat Fowl of Stephentown.
Four Fat Fowl make two cheeses: the creamy decadency of St Stephen, and the more traditional Camembertha. They are not farmstead, but buy in their milk from Dutch Hollow a farm relatively close which has a herd of pure Jerseys. The milk arrives, still warm, and goes straight to the pasteurizer to start production. All they need to focus on is cheese production.
FFF is owned by Willy & Shaleena (who had cheesemaking experience at Old Chatham Sheepherding Co) and Josie, who between them and two workers, run their entire operation (cheese making, cleaning, wrapping, logistics etc. etc.) - from an old school building in Stephentown, just across from the MA border. During these weird times, it’s too much space, but talking to to Josie and Shaleena, you can tell that once things get back on track, it won’t be too big for that long. They have ideas for new products, new events, everything… their energy is very revitalising.
Of course, I say, ‘back on track’, because they were also hit by the COVID-19 shutdown. For 2-3 weeks in March they stopped production completely. Luckily for them, they didn’t have to worry about the excess milk side of things, but a lack of cash flow in any business is a frightening period. But, eventually, as Shaleena told me, ‘it was like at the beginning all over again’. Orders would creep in, and slowly the volume returned. FFF don’t provide for the Food Service industry, just retail and distributors, and there were a lot of people staying at home drinking and binge eating cheese. So the market was there after the initial shock. With their reputation and market penetration, they slowly increased their production, so that now they are producing cheese over 2-3 runs a week.
As we chatted, Willy and helper Chad were de-hooping and brining some St Stephen, before the cheese would be moved onto aging sheets, into the aging rooms, and then hand wrapped in a couple of weeks after the mould had developed (while flipping each day, of course).
Both FFF & Cricket Creek struck me as being incredibly well organised, very thoughtful and deliberate in everything they did. They were of a different scale, and a different approach, but with shared thoughtfulness to their operation, you could see how they had become successful.
And both will continue to be so, I’m sure.
Back on the bike, I was heading off to Worthington for the night. After a couple of absolutely brutal (9% ave, 19% max), gravel-filled, rut-lined, wheel-skidding climbs, the margaritas that I had to start my dinner, tasted even more refreshing.