Tour de Cheese. Massachusetts Day Two.
Waking up at 6 am didn’t feel all that bad since I’d fallen asleep at 9 pm the previous night, but today required an early start - I’d got 3 farms that I need to get to, and for 2 of them I’d got vague appointment times.
I wanted to leave time for breakfast before stopping at the Robinson Farm at 9 am. Hence the extra early start. A quick ride into town in the ‘fresh’ air, took me to the place I love to visit on tours - Becki’s Bistro: A small café with hot coffee, plenty of eggs, plenty of waffles and plenty of pancakes. My kind of spot. And with another 100 km / 60 mile ride ahead, with plenty of ups and downs, it was necessary and indeed justified to fuel up.
My first stop was about 30 km away.
The Robinson Farm in Hardwick (run by Pam & Ray) is now in its fifth generation on Ray’s side, and has been used for dairying and raw milk cheese for over 100 years. But, as of last October, this all came to an end, as they milked their cows for the last time and sold off most of the herd to some Amish. Their last cheese had been made earlier in that year. The demands of farming/ cheesemaking had become too much, so Pam and Ray had decided to stop production, and started to look for a buyer.
To do organic dairying right, with proper herd rotation you need a lot of land, and a lot of land anywhere in Massachusetts costs a lot of money (much more than VT or even NY).
The Robinson Farm is a beautiful example of a fully organic grass-fed, raw milk & raw milk cheese operation, which is now in stasis and looking for someone with the energy (& money) to rekindle the fire and restart the machines. A milk vat lies waiting and a curd table is now empty and dry. There are several aging rooms with rows of pine board shelving waiting, but only a couple now contain the remaining cheese - 200 wheels which Pam and Ray are slowly selling through (although now they are aged a bit extra and aged to perfection!)
The barn and milking parlour sit, ready to work, and you can feel the equipment almost yearning to get moving again, to spring back to life and to re-give milk its leap to immortality. A jewel like this, all ready to go, surely there’s someone out there who’s ready to make a commitment?
As I roll out, uphill of course, I’m certain that that right person is out there somewhere, we just have to connect the two.
As I spin 40 miles to the next farm stop, on back roads, on gravel roads, and on a small amount of major roads (thanks for the buzz-by Mr. Cabot milk tanker), I ruminate on the cost of dairying and cheesemaking, both financial and physical. One question which we got occasionally at the shop, and to be honest pissed me off, was ‘Why are these cheeses so expensive?’
I was of course nice, and gave a pleasant answer, which touched on a farmer’s & cheesemakers work, and all the steps it takes to get the cheese right there under this person’s nose. But really the questions is ‘Why isn’t this cheese more expensive’, or even ‘Why is other food so cheap’.
Farmers and cheesemakers in Massachusetts get very little help. There’s a few tax rebates (based on production levels, hello, small farmers?), and a few other grants here and there, but nothing to the scale of say the European subsidies to their farmers and cheesemakers. That’s Capitalism with a capital ‘C’, which reinforces those with muscle, money and scale, and shows you what a society values. It keeps small farmers small, and allows the larger corporations to control both their ingredient costs as well as the market. Food is revered in most of the EU, the newest playstation or car, not so much.
After a quick lunch stop in Orange, where, as one of the locals told me ‘a car alarm going off is the highlight of the day in Downtown Orange’, I arrived at Little White Goat Dairy.
Up a hill, along a dirt road, and quickly past a confederate flag. In New England, how utterly stupid.
The only movement at the dairy was of a goat-guard dog and the goats themselves. There are lots of coyotes around here which will happily grab a goat or chicken for a feast. I myself, was quite content to drop into the farm shop, grab some kefir, some cheese, and have a second lunch, sitting on a rock in the sun watching the guard dog sunbathing and being incredibly cute. And not guard dog like at all. Dogs are awesome.
Relatively close by was my final stop for the day: Chase Hill Farm. So close in fact, that they make a cow/goat milk cheese together with Little White Goat dairy.
The dairy was on top of the climb up Chase Hill, of course, and Ben the owner (with his wife Laura) came out to greet me.
Both Chase Hill and Robinson Farm were aligned in their mission - to farm and make cheese seasonally, responsibly, using sustainable agriculture, organic and grass-fed methods (these are key words to hear in cheese shops people!). But Chase Farm were less focussed on the cheese making, and more focussed on their raw milk and meat. Ben was a farmer at heart who also made cheese.
His herd of around 20 cows were a mix of Normandie, Ayrshire, and Jersey - very similar to that at Robinson Farm, who had recently sold them some cows to increase their herd. But, this was about it for their capacity. Ben was very clear about how the farming and dairying had to fit in with his large family’s lifestyle, so this will be it for a while. This reminded me of the Kirkhams, a Lancashire cheesemaking family, where the traditional make to 8 to 9 hours, because it had to fit around the other daily chores of the farm. I should have mentioned that to Ben - he would be the only US-based Lancashire maker, if he were to take the bait.
This morning started out a bit chilly, and ended up hot. A bit of a late summer’s burst, but Climate Change is real, people. At Boston Cheese Cellar our Adopted Alp in Fribourg, CH, needed to ship water to the fields over the past two summers so that the grass could grow. Today Ben told me that the lack of rain, had meant there wasn’t enough fresh grass for his small herd, and so he had to buy hay in from the Robinson Farm.
So, that’s another issue a small farmer has to deal with. Those big guys with the muscle and money? They don’t care much about the animals. Keep them inside and keep them fed with a balanced diet of feed pills.
But in the end, real cheese, good cheese, and quality farming, begins and ends with providing the right care for the animals. ‘How does this farmer treat their animals’ is the best question I’ve never heard asked at a cheese shop.
Be the first to ask it. You might end up with some cheese from Robinsons Farm or Chase Hill as a result.