Farmstead cheese draws city folk to this Alabama grass farm

by Allan Nation

ELBERTA, Alabama: You have to really be looking for Sweet Home Farm or you'll never find it. With just a small sign that says "Cheese For Sale" to indicate where to turn, Sweet Home Farm is located two miles from the paved highway on a dirt - not gravel - road in southernmost, rural Alabama. It is hard to believe that thousands of people actually find their way here each year.

But they do.

Despite its seemingly incongruous location, Sweet Home Farm is a national icon in farmstead cheese manufacturing. Winner of several national awards, prominently featured in the bible of cheesemaking "The Cheese Primer" by Steven Jenkins and frequently written up by most of the major newspapers of the Deep South, Alyce Birchenough and Doug Wolbert who run Sweet Home Farm dismiss their fame with a smile and a shrug.

"We just like making cheese," Alyce said.

Their cheese odyssey started in 1978 when Alyce and Doug received a dairy cow as a wedding present. The cow's milk production was far more than they could drink, so Alyce started experimenting with making cheese and butter for their own use.

"I had a degree in food and nutrition and was looking for a home-based business to get into," Alyce said. "For me farmstead cheese production was just a natural choice."

She said farmstead cheese is particularly attractive to women, not only because it is the highest paying rural job there is, but because it can be done without involving their husbands. "Women like something they can do on their own," she said.

After several years of dairying in Michigan, Alyce and Doug decided one particularly frozen day in 1984 that they had had enough of cold weather and high taxes and decided to look for a farm in the South. They chose Alabama because it has the lowest farm tax rate in the nation and because they knew some people there.

Armed with a soils map, Doug searched the Gulf Coast region for a small farm with extremely fertile soils and finally found a 30 acre farm near the small town of Elberta in Baldwin County. At the time of the farm's purchase, they weren't concerned about the farm's out-of-the- way location because they planned to mail order all of their cheese production.

In 1986, Doug and Alyce started milking cows and in 1987 Alyce got her cheesemaking license from the state. Doug said the Deep South is good dairy country. The grass season is nearly year-round and the prices for dairy products are much higher than in the Midwest.

The big problem is that there is no supply infrastructure for cheese production. Everything they need has to be imported from the Midwest or Quebec. They also quickly discovered that a mail order cheese operation was not going to work in a climate as hot as South Alabama's. They reoriented themselves toward serving a regional market drawn from an arc from New Orleans to Montgomery to Pensacola. Alyce said they sent press releases announcing their opening to their marketing area newspapers and, as Alyce remembers, "things just snowballed from there."

"The beautiful thing about a farmstead cheese operation in the South is that it is so unusual and rare the press absolutely loves it," Doug said. "The area newspapers will do a story and then come back and do it again every two years."

This free publicity and word of mouth from satisfied customers has been all the marketing necessary to sell the farm's annual production of 10,000 lbs of cheese.

While Alyce said some farmstead cheeses do sell for as much as $15 a pound in urban area specialty cheese stores, she can't get those prices in rural Alabama. She said her cheeses are priced from $7 to $9 a pound and sell well at that price. Her Blue cheese she admits is "woefully underpriced" compared to urban market prices.

She can make about 120 lbs of cheese from 1000 lbs of Guernsey cow milk. This means that the milk is worth around $100 cwt. This allows a 20 cow dairy to produce what Alyce describes as the equivalent of a "doctor's wage."

However, she quickly adds that this doesn't mean that a person with a 200 cow dairy should think they are going to be able to sell all of their milk for such a high price. She said they should keep selling most of their milk as commodity milk and start making cheese on a very small scale with just a portion of their production.

"It is much better to grow by taking lots of little baby steps. I try to get people to think in terms of 10 cow increments," she said.

"Artisanal cheesemaking has a very high labor input per unit of production. You need one body for every 10,000 lbs of cheese you make and that body can't also be milking the cows."

She said farmstead cheese manufacturing would be an ideal enterprise for a couple with children. "A lot of cheesemaking labor is babysitting," she said. "Older children would be an excellent labor source."

Alyce said they spent around $100,000 assembling their cheese manufacturing equipment and building their combination milking parlor/cheese plant/retail store. She said novice cheesemakers need to have an experienced cheesemaker help them because the equipment dealers will sell you more than you really need. She said they took their time and were able to assemble their complete plant from used equipment purchased in the Midwest.

THE GRASS FARM

Doug is in charge of the farm and milking. He has 21 dairy cows (this includes raising replacements) and 16 beef cows on 60 acres of open pasture, half of which is allocated to the dairy cows. The farm is run organically.

He uses a bermudagrass base overseeded in the fall with annual ryegrass. He also likes Cherokee Red clover and Osceola white clover which he said work exceptionally well for him. All haymaking is done by a neighbor on shares.

Doug said the farm is twice the size it needs to be because they bought out a chemical- farming neighbor to stop his chemical drift onto their pastures. These extra acres are kept open by the herd of Guernsey/Angus cross beef cows. These high milking cows produce fat 600 pound calves which are sold as baby beef to the local locker trade for a dollar a pound liveweight.

After several years of using only purebred Guernsey cows, Doug is now breeding them to Jersey to get his cows' body phenotype smaller and more grass-friendly. He said he liked the Guernsey for its docility and high milk solid milk but that the breed was getting increasingly hung up on the "bigger is better" syndrome.

Doug said they only produce their own milk as a quality control feature. "If we could buy milk of the same quality as we are producing, we would have a much easier life just buying milk and making cheese," he said.

Alyce disagreed. "To have a quality cheese it is absolutely necessary to control your raw ingredients. You need quality milk and you need good quality starter cultures. I personally like the total control we have with a grass-to-consumer product."

Alyce used to make cheese five days a week but now only makes it for three. She said after 15 years of making cheese she sometimes had to psyche herself up to get out of bed in the morning. "I lie there telling myself, 'I want to make cheese. I want to make cheese.'"

CELEBRATE WHAT YOU CAN'T CONTROL

She said making cheese from the milk of year-round pastured cows constantly required tweaking because the milk changed with the seasonal changes in the pasture sward. For example, cheese made in the spring when the clovers were plentiful tastes different and has a much yellower color than that made when the grasses are dominant.

"Our motto is 'celebrate what you can't control.' If people want a cheese that tastes and looks the same all the time, they should buy factory-made cheese - not farmstead cheese," she said.

She said she made both non-pasteurized hard cheeses and pasteurized soft cheeses. Soft cheeses were the traditional standard on the Gulf Coast because of the heat. Non- pasteurized hard cheeses must be stored for 60 days at 59 F before they can legally be sold. Here's why.

As cheese ages it falls in pH. Bad bacteria cannot live in low pH cheese. The good bacteria that ripen the cheese can. The longer the cheese ages the sharper the flavor. The major constraint on increasing Sweet Home's cheese production is the lack of cooler space for aging.

"We try to make a very high flavor cheese," Alyce said. "When you eat something with a lot of flavor you tend to eat less. That's why the French are not fat. Their food satisfies them more so they eat less of it than we do."

Alyce makes 16 different varieties of cheese. Her most popular is named Elberta after the town. This cheese is from her own recipe developed at the farm.

"The real secret to successful farmstead cheese production is to make something no one else is making," she said. "The more varieties of cheese you know how to make the easier it will be to sell all of your production direct off the farm. If you make a lot of only one variety the marketing gets really risky. You will probably have to wholesale a good portion of your production and there goes your margin."

Doug and Alyce also make farmstead butter which they sell as "Country Butter." They also used to sell goat cheese as well but found there was too little demand for it in the Deep South.

PIGS AND DUCKS

Doug and Alyce feed their whey (the liquid byproduct of cheesemaking) to their pastured pigs along with some garden scraps and corn. Taking away the pigs' water will increase their whey consumption. They also use pigs to glean their pecan orchard after harvest. They report these pecan-finished pigs have a "fabulous" taste.

Doug and Alyce report getting excellent fly control from free-ranging ducks. Just warn your customers that ducks do not like being held.

STORE ONLY OPEN FOUR DAYS A WEEK

The Sweet Home Farm Store is only open to the public Wednesday through Saturday. This is to allow Alyce time to make her cheese in peace and for she and Doug to have some private time. The gate to the farm is kept locked to show they mean it when they say they are CLOSED.

"The hardest thing on the farm for me to do is to sit out in the shop," Doug said. "Everybody wants something different. You have to know how to guide them."

In addition to their own dairy products they sell other organic products from nearby producers including a locally made organic peanut butter. Their average sale per customer is between $11 and $13.

Alyce said, "I find retailing a lot of fun. It keeps you socialized and makes you a part of the community."

Farmstead customers want to hear a story about the product they are buying and what makes it exceptional. Doug and Alyce have a photo series in the store that shows the various steps in cheese production.

"Our customers arrive in everything from Jaguars to jalopies. The trip up the dirt road seems to make buying here more of an adventure. We haven't found the out-of-the-way location to be the problem we thought it would be."

Every customer is encouraged to sample the cheese before buying. This is the make-or- break point in any farmstead production. The customer loves the romance but the product had better taste exceptional as well.

"'Proud and passionate sells itself' is our marketing slogan," Alyce said. "A taste of your product should sell it for you."

THINK YOU WANT TO MAKE CHEESE?

Here are the steps Alyce Birchenough recommends a novice cheesemaker should follow:

1. Buy a book on how to make cheese at home. Try making some cheese on a very small scale and see if you like doing it. Visit with as many farmstead producers as possible.

2. Take a University class on cheesemaking. Alyce went to the University of Guelph in Ontario and recommends it. She also recommends the Small Dairy Resource Book from Vicki Dunaway.

3. Figure out your logistics. Are you going to buy or make your own milk? Are you going to have to learn a dairy grazier's skills as well as those of a cheesemaker?

4. Practice, practice, practice. You want to make all of your mistakes making cheese for your family - not your customers.

5. Choose a cheese you personally like to eat and can feel enthusiastic about. The type of cheese you decide to make will determine the type of equipment you need to buy. Try to make a cheese no one else in your area is making.

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