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Farmstead cheese is creamy, sexy—and a heck of a lot of work
YOU HAVE TO BE HALF-CRAZY TO ENTER THIS BUSINESS,” NATHAN ARNOLD, COfounder and lead cheese maker at Sequatchie Cove Creamery, says to me while leaning over the 750-liter stainless steel vat holding the beginnings of a new batch of blue cheese. He is elbow-deep in the creme brûlée-like curds, inspecting to make sure they are consistent in size. The whey will later be drained off, creating the conditions for the blue cheese curds to dry and age properly.
Standing in my hairnet and men’s nonslip clogs, I admire Nathan’s attention to detail and start to wonder, “How does crafting cheese become one’s everyday? When does such a passion develop?”
Nathan and Padgett Arnold, the couple behind Sequatchie Cove Creamery, tell their story as one largely born of a need for efficiency and independence. Having always worked for themselves (first in establishing Crabtree Farms before moving on to Sequatchie Cove Farm), Nathan and Padgett are fiercely determined to do work they are passionate about. Moreover, they (along with the Keener family who owns Sequatchie Cove Farm) have the dream of making the farm self-sufficient for several families. All involved knew that this meant some kind of expansion; however, as a small, family-owned, livestock farm, one can’t compete in scale. It could never be feasible to price Sequatchie Cove’s products against a large commercial operation. So, when you can’t make more of something, you simply have to make it better.
Nathan put it this way: “When you are a pasture-based farm, your product is grass. Your grass becomes animal protein as meat or milk. So, start there. Ask how you can make your grass (and the protein that follows) more profitable. How can you grow internally? We found we had to make a better value-added product from the raw materials we already had on hand.” Specifically, Nathan began looking at heritage breeds of dual-purpose cattle that are raised for both their meat and milk. Two birds, if you will.
“But we couldn’t just do milk,” Nathan quickly threw in. “You look around the commodity milk market and dairy farms are going bankrupt everyday.”
So if you can’t sell your milk as is, how do you move forward? Answer: Add value to the milk by crafting it into an unrepeatable product such as farmstead cheese.
“We are making something nobody else can make,” Padgett explained. “Cheese is similar to wine in that you are harnessing the energy of a single place. The flavors of our cheese don’t and can’t exist anywhere else.”
The reason for this exclusive flavor is that farmstead cheese begins with raw milk from the farm. As such, the ingredients and process are entirely unique for each cheese maker. The flavors begin in the grass, move through the animal, and present in the milk. For instance, Dancing Fern, a funky cousin of brie that Sequatchie Cove Creamery produces, has become its trademark cheese in the national market. Dancing Fern is highly labor intensive, requiring weekly saltwater washes for months on end. Andrea, Nathan’s assistant cheese maker at Sequatchie Cove Creamery, calls it a “creamy, sexy cheese.” Others obviously agree since it just took third place in the American Cheese Society’s Farmstead Soft Cheese category.
Jim Tanner of Bonnie Blue Goat Cheese, another regional, award-winning cheese maker out of Waynesboro, TN, agreed with Padgett’s sentiment on the uniqueness of farmstead cheese: “The taste of the cheese is all in the milk. Our goats’ milk changes with the season, with lactation cycles, and with changes in diet.” Because these flavor nuances are noticeable in the end product, the Tanners prefer to keep their chèvre minimally flavored, favoring plain chèvre above all.