Mammoth Greensboro cheese case helps Cabot and others

by Joseph Gresser
copyright May 17, 2006
GREENSBORO — The latest thing in getting Vermont milk to market turns out to be one of the farmer’s oldest tricks.  Cheese.
Mateo and Andy Kehler, brothers and the proprietors of Jasper Hill Farm, plan to prosper regardless of the price of milk, and they mean to help other dairy farmers do the same.
Three years ago the Kehlers began assembling a herd of Ayrshires and building facilities large enough to make and age the maximum amount of cheese their farm would support.
Already their cheeses have won major awards and gained favor at some of New York City’s most prestigious restaurants.
Now the brothers are teaming up with Vermont’s largest cheese makers to create a mammoth cheese cave that will allow others to concentrate on producing milk and starting cheeses while relieving them having to cure, market and ship their product.  All will benefit from the economies of scale, Mateo Kehler said Saturday.
He took out a roll of plans showing what looked like a seven fingered hand.  Each of the fingers, upon closer inspection, will be a 60-foot-long cheese vault.  Each of the 12-foot-high arched chambers will be between 20 and 30 feet wide.
A central refrigeration system will create seven different environments each designed to favor production of a particular type of cheese.
The vaults are to be built into the side of a hill on the 225-acre farm.  The above-ground portion of the facility will house a packing and shipping area as well as a shop, Mr. Kehler said.
The key to the ambitious plan is the interest that other Vermont producers have shown in the project.
Already Cabot Creamery has begun working with Mr. Kehler to produce a cloth wrapped cheddar.  The cheese is make from the milk of a single herd of cows, that of George Kempton of Peacham.
The cheese is started on the Peacham farm and after two days wheels are brought for aging to Jasper Hill Farm.
There they are coated with lard and then a cheesecloth binding.  The Kehlers will watch and turn the cheese for the ten months it is aged.
The first wheels of the naturally rinded cheese will soon be heading off to Provision, a firm that distributes cheese in New York State and New England.
Mr. Kehler said that Cabot will occupy two vaults in the new cave.  Without their help, he said, Jasper Hill could not manage the large-scale project.
Two other cheddar makers, the Grafton Cheese Company and Shelburne Farms, are considering using the Kehlers’ aging facilities.  Mr. Kehler pointed out test wheels from each of the companies in his present underground aging area.
Another local cheese maker, Neal Urie of Bonnieview Farm, has contracted with Jasper Hill Farm to cure his Ben Nevis, a hard cheese, and Mossend blue cheese.  Bonnieview Feta is cured in brine, Mr. Kehler said, and Mr. Urie will continue to keep it in a refrigerated unit on his South Albany farm.
“What he really likes to do is take care of his sheep,” Mr. Kehler said of Mr. Urie.  The new arrangement, he said, will allow Mr. Urie to concentrate on producing milk.
Milk is the name of the game, according to Mr. Kehler, who says that Jasper Hill Farms’ cheeses are a way of featuring their milk.
“Your cheese can’t be any better than your milk,” he said.
Mr. Kehler proudly displays a plaque from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture honoring Jasper Hill Farm for the best standard plate count for 2005.
“We’re not efficient producers,” he says.  “We’re going the extra mile to produce the cleanest highest quality milk we can.”
Raw milk from the Kehlers’ cows is currently featured in four different cheeses, Constant Bliss, a soft cheese covered in a white rind, Winnemere, a cheese with a rind washed in beer brewed using the natural yeasts found in the cheese aging cellar and bound with the cambium layer of spruce bark, Bayley Hazen Blue, and Bartlett Blue which has less blue mold than the Bayley Hazen.
Mr. Kehler said that his blue cheeses have a less pronounced flavor of blue mold than do Danish blue or Roquefort.  He described the very strong Spanish blue cheese, Cabrales, as “mugger’s cheese.”
“It whacks you upside the head,” Mr. Kehler said, “and you look down and your wallet’s gone.”
Tyler Hawes, cheese buyer for the Artisanal Cheese Center of New York City, is effusive in praise of Jasper Hill’s cheeses.
Mr. Kehler, he said, makes wonderful cheeses, and is also good at creating a story to go with his products.  The cheese’s names, for instance, are both evocative and rooted in Greensboro tradition.
For instance, Jasper Hill Farm doesn’t take its name from a geographical feature.  It is named for Mr. Jasper Hill, the former owner of the land.
Both Mr. Hawes and Mr. Kehler said there is more demand than supply of Jasper Hill cheeses, but there are no plans to increase the amount produced.
At present, Mr. Kehler said, he and his brother are milking 32 cows with another ten who will calve out in June.  They are producing about 1,650 pounds of milk a day.
Mr. Kehler has to calculate a bit before giving the amount of milk in pounds.  The farm, he says operates on the metric system.  A liter of milk, he says, weighs a kilogram.  With ten liters of milk needed to make a kilo of cheese figuring production totals, he said, is just a matter of moving a decimal point.
Jasper Hill Farm’s herd, Mr. Kehler said, is a closed herd.  They will raise their own replacement heifers.  It is a young herd, too, he added, noting that the farm’s first 15 cows are now in their third lactation.
Mr. Kehler hopes to help other farmers to follow his lead which, he said, can result in farmers receiving three times as much money for cows’ milk and twice as much for sheep and goat milk.
When his new caves are finished he wants to gradually bring new farmers into the fold of artisan cheese makers.
While the idea of being a cheese finisher is novel in the United States, Mr. Kehler said France calls members of the profession affineurs.
Mr. Kehler said cheeses finished in his vaults will be co-branded.  The Cabot cheese, for example, will be called Cabot Cloth Bound Cheddar from the cellars of Jasper Hill Farm.
The Kehlers’ interest in spreading the benefits of their business goes beyond farmers.  An East Hardwick woodworker was the first beneficiary when he was commissioned to make small wooden crates for shipping Jasper Hill cheeses.
He now makes up to 130 of the elegant containers a week, and other cheese producers have engaged his services.
By the end of the summer Mr. Kehler expects to have eight full-time employees and the new cave and shipping facility will create jobs for eight more, he said.
Despite following Vermont tradition in making farmstead cheeses, Mr. Kehler feels the state has been less than appreciative of his efforts.
Last year he battled to get a law enacted making clear that for tax purposes Jasper Hill Farm is a farm and not an industrial plant.  Before that judgments about eligibility for the current use program were made by the tax department.
Officials there decided that the Kehlers’ cheese making activities negated their farming and judged them ineligible for the property tax subsidy.
With the help of State Senator Robert Starr, Mr. Kehler said, the law was clarified to cover operations such as Jasper Hill Farm.  The Agency of Agriculture, he said, fought Senator Starr’s efforts all the way.
Mr. Kehler said he is offended by what he said is the state’s “get big or get out attitude.”
He lamented Vermont’s inability to see that farmers like the Kehlers contribute to the image the state wants to create.
Mr. Kehler listed articles in GQ and The New York Times as well as appearances on the Today Show and CNN.
“We create a portrait of Vermont that’s irresistible just as a byproduct,” he said.
One byproduct of the Kehlers’ success is the difficulty in finding their cheeses locally.  Mr. Kehler said that the brothers try to keep Willey’s Store supplied at a lower price, but with other customers calling for their products it is difficult.
There is a bright spot on the horizon.  By adding employees this summer, the brothers will be able to send someone up to Craftsbury Common every Saturday this summer to sell cheese at the farmers’ market.
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