What began as a college dream of Greg Bernhardt and Hannah Sessions took only seven years to became the largest farmstead goat cheese operation in the state of Vermont, proving that dreams can lead to a lot of hard work, but those who dare to dream them are always rewarded in one way or another.
Greg, Hannah and Hayden (daughter Livia was in school when this photo was taken) pose with a few of their Alpines.
Bernhardt and Sessions met while attending college in Maine in 2000, and they decided to start their own dairy farm. Bernhardt hailed from Pennsylvania with, as he described it, a minimal agricultural background and Sessions claimed roots from a farm family going back 10 generations in Vermont. Together they formed the Blue Ledge Farm, located in the southern end of the Champlain Valley, in the town of Leicester, Vermont. They milk 70 dairy goats, mostly Alpine and LaManchas. They also have two children, Livia, 5, and Hayden, 2.
“Our goal all along has been to make this a financially sustainable business,” Bernhardt said. “We were very fortunate to find a cow dairy that we were able to buy for a very reasonable price. And we decided to go with goats since they were much more affordable than cows.”
With the help of some low interest loans, the couple made the needed conversions to the facilities and started with 17 goats, initially shipping their milk to a local Vermont handler while they developed and refined their own cheese making skills. Demand for their cheeses has steadily grown, outpacing the milk their herd produces. So today they also buy goat milk from a nearby neighbor who milks about 30 does and they process that milk into cheese, as well. They pay their neighbor a better price for his milk than he would otherwise be getting from the local handler.
“We’re happy to be able to not only be making a full time living on our farm,” Bernhardt said, “But also be able to support another goat herd, as well.”
Greg in the cheese room with Gouda (right) and Lakes Edge (speckled) behind him.
The business has grown to a point where they need extra help to get all of the work done. During the busiest part of the year they employ a cheese-making internist—a person who is interested in learning the cheese-making trade—who commits to living with them on the farm for the season. Bernhardt expects to be hiring more people as the business continues to grow. For the 2008 season he hopes to be processing milk from 120 goats.
As Blue Ledge Farm has grown, Bernhardt and Sessions have continued to make modifications to the existing barn and milk room to accommodate the ever-expanding cheese production. They outgrew the rooms that were originally part of the old dairy milk house and in 2007 they began work on a new, external “cheese cave” to age, store and package their growing inventory. The cave will eventually be underground with three separate rooms for the humidity control of different cheeses. When completed, there will be a tunnel connecting the old barn and the new cave, again, to better control the humidity and temperature all year long.
Bernhardt and Sessions milk mostly LaManchas and Alpines.
Once of their signature cheeses is the Blue Ledge Farm La Luna, a wonderful Gouda style cheese. Gouda cheese originated in Holland and Bernhardt explained that Gouda cheese is a raw milk cheese and part of the washed-curd family of cheeses. A washed curd cheese is a cheese that has the whey removed from the cheese vat early in the cheese making process and replaced with water—hence the term “washed curd.” This results in a milder tasting cheese because the whey is responsible for some of the sharper flavor of cheese due to its acidity. Bernhardt and Sessions follow the traditional method of coating the cheese wheel in wax, which also slows down the aging. This process results in a milder tasting cheese but still very flavorful since goat milk is more flavorful (than cow milk) to begin with. The La Luna is aged for three months before it can be sold.
The couple makes another cheese similar to La Luna, called Riley’s Coat, named after a favorite dog. Riley’s Coat is aged five to six months resulting in a shaper tasting product. They also make three varieties of fresh chévre as well as semi-soft cheeses which all require pasteurization of the milk. A particularly interesting cheese is their Lake’s Edge named after the patterns found on certain stones along Lake Champlain on the Vermont/New York border. Lake’s Edge is made in a traditional way with a special charcoal coating on the outside, giving the outer rind a rock-like appearance. During the process a tiny bit of the charcoal is also added to the cheese resulting in a very thin layer of charcoal in the cheese. Lake’s Edge was an American Cheese Society Award winner in 2006 and Bernhardt said it’s by far their most popular cheese.
The Blue Ledge goats are milked seasonally into a pipeline in the converted parlor. While they’re milking, Sessions feeds an 18 percent crude protein pellet manufactured at a regional feed mill. The herd has access to pasture and woods all year long and their favorite thing, according to Sessions, is to browse in the forest that is part of their 100-acre farm. The goats’ diet also includes dry hay, which is fed in the barn. The herd is dried off during the winter months.
Bernhardt and Sessions have built their business systematically over the past seven years to the point where it now fully supports them full time and also helps support other members of their community. They’ve shown that goat dairying and opportunities to find niche markets for unique specialty farm products are not just pipe dreams—they are for real. Their cheeses are available in local grocery stores, such as one in the town of Greenfield, Massachusetts, or on their website at www.blueledgefarm.com