For five generations, Karen Bianchi-Moreda's family had been dairy farmers in the Sonoma town of Valley Ford. The year 2009 almost changed all that as she watched her neighbors leave the business one after another. Then she found cheese.
Now her dairy, Valley Ford Cheese Co., is one of several across the country that have found new life by turning their focus from commodity milk into making some of the best artisan cheeses in the nation.
These are hard times for small dairy farmers — there are water shortages, corporate dairy processors are paying an average 40% less for milk than they did two years ago, exports are falling, and the cost of hay, cattle feed and gas are skyrocketing.
As the dairy's bookkeeper, Bianchi-Moreda spent nights awake worrying about her two sons, who had also decided to go into dairy, "not for the money," she says with a laugh, but for the life it offered them. Around her, she felt the farm crumble.
After a large producer switched contracts from the Bianchi-Moreda's 450-cow Jersey dairy to a 5,000-cow Central Valley producer, the lively former high school athletic director, welder and farmer decided to shake things up. Certain that "her girls" produced high butterfat and protein-rich milk worth more than producers were paying, she headed to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to learn how to make cheese.
Back home, her family converted an old building into a cheese-making facility, and Bianchi-Moreda tested recipes while they cared for the farm. Inspired by the mountain cheese of her northern Italian heritage, Bianchi-Moreda crafted Estero Gold. It is a nutty, buttery, golden-hued cheese with rich Alpine mountain character and a sliceable, firm texture that has found a second home in the tasting rooms of local wineries.
Once she had a good batch, she asked local cheese makers what they thought. Then she tinkered more. In a humbling process, Bianchi-Moreda approached cheese shops and, later, Cowgirl Creamery distributors, and asked if they would taste and sell her cheese. Finally, they said yes.
Like the Bianchi-Moredas, Doug and Debora Erb of Landaff Creamery in Landaff, N.H., were devoted to the farm life they felt was their calling. They milked and sold their purebred dairy cows, whose lineage traces back to America's original Holsteins. Until 2006, their piety was rewarded.
Suddenly, the recession hit, milk prices fell, and the Erbs could not meet the cost of production. Around the same time, the government reopened the border to Canadian cows after a mad cow scare, and the dairy cattle market was flooded with lower-priced, imported heifers. Located in a valley with no room for growth and with a modernized dairy they had spent thousands updating, the Erbs could not compete.
They needed to add value to their milk, and after researching and talking to local artisans, they decided to do it with cheese. Aware that the $200,000 price tag of their future cheese-making equipment, education and research could be the final nail in the coffin for their business, the Erbs approached cheese-making with equal parts fear and hope.
After looking up "Landaff" online, Debora Erb discovered that the traditional Welsh Caerphilly cheese was made in a similarly named town in England, and inspiration struck. Doug flew to Britain to train with third-generation Caerphilly producers and studied at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese in Burlington.
In a careful move, the Erbs partnered with fellow cheese maker Larry Willey and neighboring cheese company the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Greensboro, Vt. The Erbs make Landaff, and when it is about a week old, they send it to Jasper Hill, leaving the science of aging, what Bianchi-Moreda calls "the great unknown," to the more experienced dairy.
The resulting product is a thick-rinded, lively and crumbly cow's milk cheese marked by sweet, fresh milk and buttermilk flavors and a lemony, earthy finish that brightens macaroni and cheese as well as it pairs with ales.
After the Landaff is ripe, Jasper Hill finds a home for it through its connections. By entrusting aging and marketing to the larger dairy, the Erbs avoid two phases of cheese-making and distribution that can take years to perfect. This way, they can spend more time tending their farm.
Donna and Jim Pacheco of Achadinha Cheese Co. in Petaluma, Calif., took a different route. They sold their cows, bought goats and turned to chèvre. They couldn't pay their bills on cow's milk money. Goats are less expensive and easier to care for, and because the government does not regulate sales of noncommodity goat's milk, it is worth more on the market.
Even though some processors, such as Redwood Hill Farms, paid the Pachecos well for their goat's milk, the Pachecos jumped at an opportunity to craft their own future. They took over a cheese company in 2004.
The transition was not easy. Donna was self-taught, and her labor-intensive cheese took awhile to perfect. She had to learn how to coax what she wanted from her wheels while working with ambient cheese molds at the neighboring dairy, where she aged her cheese. As a new cheese maker, she also had to take tests, earn a pasteurization license and certify herself and her dairy before she could sell even a slice of cheese.
Then she had to forge new relationships. Years before, the former owner of the creamery had an outbreak of listeria, so Donna had to prove not only that her cheese was delicious but that it was safe. She gave tours, samples and explained why differences in her cheese's flavors reflected the herd's seasonal diet, not inattentive cheesemaking.
Despite such challenges, Donna is smitten with her new profession. She laughs at her goats' attention-loving personalities and calls her cheeses "adorable." Adorable perhaps, but they're also gorgeous. Capricious is a rippled-rind 7-pound goat's milk cheese aged up to 12 months. It has peppery, mushroom flavors and an occasional sharp blue bite.
With cheese as their driving force, the Pacheco, Erb and Bianchi-Moreda families have managed to farm for another year, which is not to say that the life is easy.
"It's important for people to understand it's not a job, it's a lifestyle," Donna Pacheco says. "We don't go on vacations; we've learned to adapt. We have four children, and they all have their jobs on the diary. It's a family business, and it's our life. It's a good thing we like what we're doing."
Here are some places to find the cheeses mentioned in the story. If the item isn't in stock, it can be ordered.
Aged goat's milk, spicy, peppery, mushroom notes, occasional sharp blue bite. Available from Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, Cheese Store of Silverlake, C'est Cheese of Santa Barbara or online from Cowgirl Creamery.
Landaff Creamery Landaff:
Raw cow's milk, crumbly, with sweet fresh milk and buttermilk flavors and a lively, lemony finish. Available from Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, Cheese Store of Silverlake, Say Cheese near Silver Lake, C'est Cheese of Santa Barbara or online from Cowgirl Creamery.
Valley Ford Dairy Estero Gold:
Aged cow's milk, firm and buttery with tiny holes and a mountain character inspired by northern Italy. Available from Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, Cheese Store of Silverlake, Say Cheese, C'est Cheese or online from Cowgirl Creamery.