Thursday, March 24, 2016

Organic Cheese Plant Working to Meet Demand



Health-conscious consumers sometimes choose to eat organic cheese over the regular variety, and they’re willing to pay more for it because of how it’s made.

Those are the kinds of consumers being targeted by Homestead Heritage Cheese, an arm of certified organic dairy farm Homestead Fields on Eiss Road near the hamlet of LaFargeville in Jefferson County. A creamery built on the farm started making cheese curds in October for the business, which is a brainchild of farm owner W. Edward Walldroff and his son-in-law, David Van Pelt II.

During a tour of the creamery at the 130-cow, 700-acre farm, Walldroff said the launch of the cheesemaking business came after years of careful planning. While the facility is now making only cheese curds, he said, production will be expanded next spring to include cheddar and possibly blue cheese.

Production has started on a small scale at the creamery, where a partial batch of cheese curds is made once a week using a 245-gallon vat and other equipment bought from a company in the Netherlands. But Van Pelt said he believes the business will expand rapidly as more retailers decide to buy wholesale batches of cheese curds. He said the farm, which became a certified-organic operation in 2006, is among a handful across the state that make organic cheese.

“We’d like to soon be in New York City and in a couple of artisan cheese stores in Rochester,” said Van Pelt, who completed a course in the summer of 2011 at the University of Vermont’s Institute of Artisan Cheese to become a cheesemaker.

The business already has begun to sell organic cheese curds to retailers in the north country, Walldroff said. Eight-ounce packages of curds - priced in stores from about $6 to $8 - are sold at the Mustard Seed health food store in Watertown, 1000 Islands River Rat Cheese in Clayton and a bookstore at St. Lawrence University in Canton. 

“We want to sell it in college towns where there’s a more health-conscious population,” Walldroff said, adding that his long-term business plan calls for eventually opening a retail store in a community along the St. Lawrence River. “We’d like to be able to do it in the next two to five years, and it would be like a health-food store.”

Walldroff, whose family has operated the farm here for five generations, said the farm has been run for nearly a decade as an organic operation. To receive a national organic certification, milk is made without using any antibiotics or pesticides. Cows are fed only a mixture of grasses and grain grown organically on the farm.

Cheese products made by the farm will complement the organic beef it already sells to area businesses, Walldroff said. The beef comes from the farm’s cull cattle - those not producing enough milk or getting too old.

“It all starts with the barn on the ground and the breeds of cattle that are going to produce milk for the best cheese,” Walldroff said. “We’re producing cheese here that others aren’t going to be able to duplicate, and we’re marrying it to an upscale market as a value-added product.”

Van Pelt is responsible for making cheese curds each Sunday at the creamery, in the same structure as the milking parlor. The process starts at 6:30 a.m. and typically finishes about 9 p.m., he said, after curds are packaged.

The farm bought the cheesemaking equipment in the fall of 2014, thanks to a $12,000 loan from the Development Authority of the North Country’s value-added agriculture loan fund and a $48,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Business Enterprise Grant program.

Though the stainless steel vat has room to make larger batches of cheese curds, Van Pelt said, he is now making batches of about 80 to 100 pounds to meet the demand of clients. To start the process, milk is pasteurized by heating it to a temperature of 145 degrees for 30 to 45 minutes.

He said milk then is cooled to below 100 degrees. Live cheese cultures are added to the milk, which begins to thicken as it’s agitated in the vat. The mixture is stirred slowly until it’s thick enough to cut into slices with a curd knife. 

As part of the process, called “cheddaring,” the semisolid curd is separated from liquid whey that is released from the bottom of the vat. The whey is fed to cattle.

“Cheesemaking suits my personality and detail-oriented career background,” said Van Pelt, an accountant at Carthage Area Hospital for five years before joining the farm about four years ago.

About 150 packages were made from an 87-pound batch of curds, he said. The curds, which are lightly salted, stay fresh for about a week.

Walldroff said he plans to build a concrete “aging facility” at the farm next spring that will be used to age cheeses. He said the aging process can last from six months to two years. 

The climate-controlled facility will be built by Jason Schnauber, a co-owner of the farm who is engaged to marry Walldroff’s daughter, Monica Schnauber, a Clayton native, said his construction experience has come in handy on the farm. He helped build the creamery during the past two years. But he said his daily chores vary widely.

“One day I’m a farmer,” he said, “and the next I’m a veterinarian or a builder. Every day has a different chore.”

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