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Artisan cheese-making brings them a new slice of life

Dairy farmers hit by a sour economy find renewed purpose as makers of handcrafted cheese.

October 21, 2010|By Kirstin Jackson, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Karen Bianchi-Moreda led her family's transition to Valley Ford Cheese. With her is dad Paul Bianchi.
Karen Bianchi-Moreda led her family's transition to Valley Ford… (Rose Halady )

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.

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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.

Landaff Creamery

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.

Achadinha Cheese

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.

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