Navigation

Ayrshire cows at Jasper Hill Farm
Keepers of the Kingdom

Vermont Artisan Cheesemakers Reign

Ayrshire cows at Jasper Hill Farm

One of this writer’s most memorable meals was one of the simplest: a late afternoon supper of farmhouse cheese, bread drizzled with honey, and a glass of wine. This sumptuous three-item repast was served at a friend’s butter-colored timbered house set mountainside in the Swiss Alps. Like Heidi, Peter, and Grandfather, there were meandering Swiss brown cows with brass bells round their necks and goats standing atop boulders. Now, decades later and an ocean away in the Green Mountain State I am delighted to say that you can find cave-ripened European-style cheeses that rival that Swiss afternoon.

 

In fact, there are no less than forty artisan cheesemakers in Vermont, more per capita than any other state. Perhaps most notably, Vermont’s cheesemakers have triumphed—winning many gold, silver, and bronze medals in annual World Championship Cheese Contests. Not everyone is surprised by this achievement and level of success. In fact, in the mid-nineties, co-owner of Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery Allison Hooper made an audacious prediction: “Vermont will become the Napa Valley of Cheeses.” Lo and behold, it appears she was right.

 

Goat cheese was then new to the American market when Hooper and her partner Bob Reise introduced their first Euro-style goat cheese in 1984. Hooper’s vision for branding Vermont’s artisan cheese industry was clear: “The wine industry in northern California was intentional when it began branding its regional products—think Sonoma, Napa Valley, etc. There was a lot of buzz around Vermont’s cheeses because we were winning many of the top awards at the international trade shows and competitions. We were becoming known as the to-go-to place for artisan cheese. California and Wisconsin make the most cheese, but Vermont makes the most diverse and high quality cheeses.” At the time twelve of Vermont’s specialty cheesemakers organized and became the Vermont Cheese Council, an organization that boasts more than forty active members today.

Another early entry in Vermont’s artisan cheese market was Shelburne Farms. They began exploring the viability of cheese making in the early 1980s. According to the organization’s President, Alec Webb, Shelburne Farms was interested in augmenting its dairy milk production with a value-added product and looked at cheese as a viable option. In addition, the farm wanted to develop a microcosm and model of sustainable economic and environmental practices. That experiment worked. Today Shelburne Farms makes 160,000 lbs. of farmhouse cheddar cheese a year with its herd of pasture fed cows. Webb explained, “We looked to the Swiss—we don’t think that’s a bad model for Vermont. Switzerland is a beautiful agricultural country with tourism as a vital part of its economic base. And the Swiss are pretty practical— they understand that if you support agriculture as an economic development strategy, you also protect an open working landscape, natural resources, and that supports tourism too. It’s idealism and practicality,” he said adding with a smile, “We [Shelburne Farms] even have the Swiss cows.”

Andy and Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm and the Cellars at Jasper Hill joined the groundswell of Vermont cheesemakers in 2003 and started making farmstead cheese from their herd of 15 Ayreshire cows. “The year that Andy and Mateo bought their farm,” said sales and marketing executive Vince Razionale, “they noted that eleven or twelve dairy farms nearby had called it quits and closed their doors to dairy farming. That prompted Andy and Mateo to do some serious research looking for sustainable ways to bolster dairy farming and boost it back up in the area. They saw a way to do that through the addition of farmstead cheese. Today Jasper Hill has a herd of 45 cows, and Razionale noted, “Forty-five cows can produce eighty to ninety thousand pounds of cheese!”

Next, the Kehlers excavated 3,000 dump truck loads of rock and soil at Jasper Hill to create 22,000 square feet of underground cellars where a dozen different cheeses now ripen. The Cellars at Jasper Hill purchases young cheese from dairy farmers or cheesemakers, and then ages the cheese and sells it through restaurant and specialty shops around the country. There are many skills to master after farmers are done haying, milking, and working the vat: ripening in the cave, sales, administration, packaging, shipping, logistics, and marketing too. The Kehlers’ goal? They want to build a bridge between small-scale cheese producers and large-scale markets by offering other farmers access to their infrastructure and extensive network of connections. According to Razionale, “Ultimately, we hope our works helps to restore dairy farming to the area and encourages more Jasper Hill-sized farms locally. Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom has great farmland with a rich history. We want to preserve this—history, agriculture, farmland, landscape, meaningful work, and the economy.”

Shelves of clothbound cheese ageing in the cellars at Jasper Hill.

This echoes Hooper’s wish and sentiments too: “It’s very romantic to think of moving to the Vermont’s artisan cheese industry has ripened and aged quite nicely; they have stood on dais in the royal courts of cheese and given medals, and they are the careful keepers of lands and of livelihoods in Vermont’s Kingdom too. country and farming. But the reality of creating distinct products and selling them successfully is much harder. It is also difficult financially to hang on to a product, in this case cheese, for six or eight months— or even years— before you can sell it. It’s a fairly sophisticated business transaction to go from the organic creative moment to the sustainable business model. It took us twenty-seven years; it wasn’t overnight. We’d like to make that easier for young farmers. Our next plan is to have an “open book” dairy farm. We’d like to ensure a sustainable supply of milking goats with good genetics for ourselves and provide young farmers with opportunities as well as a good farm to model.”Vermont’s artisan cheese industry has ripened and aged quite nicely; they have stood on dais in the royal courts of cheese and given medals, and they are the careful keepers of lands and of livelihoods in Vermont’s Kingdom too.

Allison Hooper and Bob Reise of Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery.

story/ Lin Stone

Photos courtesy of Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery