Dairy goats played a significant part in a hugely successful Cheese Tour held in Washington County, upstate New York, fall 2007. Washington County usually sees a lot of folks showing up for their yearly Maple Tour, Fiber Tour, or Barn Tour—but the numbers this time really knocked the organizers’ socks off.
Three goat farms were featured in a drive-it-yourself tour that showcased five local farms producing farmstead and artisan cheeses. Over a
thousand people found their way on winding, rural back roads, to join the crowds visiting the goats, sheep and cows responsible for some really
|Liza Porter (left), owner of Long View Farm of Argyle, New York,offers a tour group samples of the cheeses she produces on her farm. Selling most of her cheese to retail customers, Porter attends four farmers markets/week during the summer.|
unusual and elegant locally produced cheeses—tasty farmstead cheeses like fresh chévre, aged cheddars, creamy feta and a wide variety of other gourmet cheeses.
Organizers from the Upper Hudson Guild and Cornell Cooperative Extension Washington County, said this may have been the most well-attended agricultural tour ever held in the area.
One goat farmer counted close to 1,400 visitors to the farm over the two days the tour was held. Farmsteads on the route sold out of pumpkins. Bed-and-breakfasts did a snappy trade all weekend as did other restaurants and places of interest.
The weather was perfect, with turning leaves, fields of pumpkins, lots
of apples to pick, and busy farm stands nearby. Still, the crowds showing up at the farms surprised organizers.
“We never expected to see so many people!” said Cornell Cooperative’s Director Brian Gilchrist. “They came from as far away as New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts. One woman was visiting from England, and when she heard about the cheese tour, she came along; she was so excited.”
Although the tour was attended by travelers from outside the area, most of the crowds were from surrounding communities interested in learning about their local agriculture. Organizers commented that it wasn’t just food snobs who showed up to taste cheese either.
“People of all persuasions and backgrounds, came out,” Gilchrist said. “Even other farmers went on the tour!”
Cornell Farm/Small Business Educator Sandra Buxton said that supporting local agriculture and eating locally has become popular with just about everybody.
“People want that connection which gets lost when food isn’t locally produced anymore,” she said. “It’s great when you know how your food gets to your table, and you can help support your friends and neighbors too.”
The tour was put together by the recently organized Upper Hudson Farmstead and Artisan Cheesemakers Guild; a small but growing organization that includes producers of goat, sheep and cow milk cheese.
Cheesemakers were very enthusiastic about the tour, and are busy making plans for next year’s tour, which will be expanded by at least two more cheesemakers. Plans are to add a few more ?attractions at each farm so people will have a little more to do, and hopefully gain more knowledge about the whole process of farmstead and artisan cheesemaking.
The Nubian goats at Sweet Spring Farm in Argyle, New York, spend some of their day watching visitors to their converted dairy cow barn.
“There are seven producers in the county working on some kind of cheese,” Gilchrist said. “And more goat and sheep farmers are getting into the business. It’s really a growing thing here.”
Although it’s hard to estimate, according to her research, Buxton said the area appeared to be one of the largest concentrations of cheese makers in the state, definitely one of the top producing counties.
Buxton, who helped organize the tour and works with goat, sheep and cow dairy farmers, said she has seen a lot of growth in the number of people who are in the dairy goat business locally.
“Compared to 10 years ago, when there were practically no dairy goat farmers here, there are a lot. The goat show at the county fair is certainly growing, and just from talking to people in my work, I know there are a lot more people in business.”
Cheesemakers on the tour:
Sweet Spring Farm, in Argyle, a farm town in southern Washington County, owned and run by Jeff Bowers who makes cheese on an 18th Century farmstead.
Milking a herd of 10 Nubian goats, Bowers keeps his operation small and efficient. He produces three varieties of goat milk cheese: White Lily, a white mold-ripened variety; Carriage House, an aged raw milk cheese; and little Chévre Buttons, which are rolled in fresh herbs or zippy spices.
He sells all the cheese he produces, usually selling out early at the Saratoga Springs Farmers Market, and has found a great demand at a few specialty food stores in the area.
Longview Farm, also located in the Town of Argyle, has a herd of French Alpine goats. Liza and David Porter, who moved to Argyle a year and a half ago, found farmland in Washington County a lot more affordable, and livestock regulations a lot less restrictive than in one other county nearby.
The Porters produce fresh goat feta, fresh goat chévre, and purchase cow milk to make quark and fromage blanc. They also produce five kinds of aged cheeses: a goat milk Parmesan-style cheese, and cow milk cheddar, a Gruyere-type cheese and an aged cow milk feta. In the winter when the goats are dry, they make fresh cow milk feta.
They sell their cheeses exclusively at local farmers markets, which operate indoors from November to April, as well as outdoors during the warmer months.
The Consider Bardwell Farm, which straddles the border between Vermont and New York State, is owned and operated by Angela Miller, a food writer from New York City.
Her cheesemakers, Peggy Galloup and Peter Dixon, make farmstead feta-style cheese, chévre, an aged tomme and a bloomy rind cheese from their herd of Oberhasli goats.
They also produce a washed rind cheese and an aged Italian Alpine cheese from cow milk.
Milking his goats on stands and with a portable milking unit has allowed Jeff Bowers to develop an inexpensive parlor that is convenient to his milk room while meeting PMO standards.
Other cheesemakers include 3-Corner Farm, a sheep farm in Shushan, a hamlet just outside the small village of Salem, New York, and The Argyle Cheese Factory, owned and operated by Marge and Dave Randles.
At the 3-Corner Field Farm, which has been featured on National Public Radio and the Food Network, Karen Weinberg has a herd of 120 East Friesian
sheep and produces Shushan Snow, a Camembert-style cheese; Brebis Blanche, a soft sheep milk cheese; sheep milk ricotta, Frere Fumont, and Shushan Shepherd.
They also sell sheep milk soap, fleece, and meat, utilizing the Internet as well as? the Union Square Green Market in New York City to make their sales.
The Argyle Cheese Factory, located in Argyle and owned by the Randles, is gearing up for an expansion to add artisan bread making, using whey by-product in production. For the tour, they offered fresh cow milk cheeses: mozzarella curd, cheddar curd, quark, yogurt, tomme and Caerphilly, a Welsh semi-soft cheese. They are planning on adding another British Isles cheese, St. Andrews, within the next couple of weeks. The Argyle Cheese Factory sells at specialty markets, a food cooperative and at the weekly Farmers Market in Troy.
“Creating a product that is desirable for consumers and sold directly to the customer gives farmers a tremendous opportunity to achieve financial independence,” Randles said.
She added that cheese production is a good example of value added.
“You start out with liquid milk, which is worth about $20/cwt, and end up with a product that is worth about $140/cwt. With goat and sheep cheese, it’s a lot higher.”
In addition to visiting the farms, there were several supplemental activities happening during that weekend which augmented the tour.
One local wine shop had a wine and cheese tasting event on the eve of the farm tour, which was well attended. A local restaurant offered a five-course cheese tasting menu on both Saturday and Sunday nights, and was sold out. Another local farmstead on the cheese tour route that features a nice supply of specialty foods, offered a gourmet cheese-based luncheon and a jazz trio playing all afternoon.
At a nearby destination farmstand, Liz Thorpe, author of Murray’s Cheese Handbook, held a talk and book signing. The farmstand also offered their own cheese tasting all weekend.
A couple of serendipitous factors make it possible for cheesemakers in Washington County to survive, and maybe to someday thrive.
One of the main ingredients in their success is location, location. Washington County is just up the road—about an hour away—from the state capital, Albany, with thousands of potential cheese lovers.
The owner of Sweet Spring Farm, Jeff Bowers, forms his fresh chévre into 4 oz. “buttons” for the market. These may be flavored with herbs by sprinkling them on the outside of the button. They are then wrapped and labeled for sale.
“I like to tell people that Washington County is a day’s drive away from 40 million people—being about a four hour drive from the markets in New York City, Boston, Montreal and other population centers,” Buxton said.? “It’s also a solid agricultural county—one of the top cow milk producers in the state, and with a well established agriculture infrastructure, and a citizenry that supports rural values and preserving farmland.”
The county was one of the first in New York State to develop and put in place an agricultural and farmland protection plan, and the county works closely with the Agricultural Stewardship Association and other groups that promote the preservation of farmland.
The Upper Hudson Guild is busy planning next year’s event—with most of the bugs worked out. Now they know how to make a brochure and design a map, know how much work is going to go into the tour, and how much help they are going to need from family and friends.
This year they certainly accomplished their stated goals—to draw 300-500 people, to display the farms in a positive way, and for people to have the experience of tasting the cheese and meeting the cheesemakers.
One thing they would like to see happen on next year’s tour is to really make it an event. They want to add other activities, such as sheep dog demonstrations, educational activities, and maybe incorporate? the wine and cheese tasting event with a canal touring boat.
Eventually their goal is to create a cheese trail; perhaps merging with some other great cheesemakers in the neighboring Warren and Rensselaer counties.
During the year, the guild also hopes to host an event ?for specialty food store owners and area chefs—a workshop to better acquaint the cooks and shopkeepers with their products so they can more efficiently market their goods.
The guild is considering hosting some cooking demonstrations with their cheeses at farmers markets, farm stands or maybe at the Washington County Fair.
For more information, contact Randles at www.cheesefarmer.com or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact Buxton at email@example.com.