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Not orange and plastic-wrapped: US artisanal cheese boosts dairy and goes green

Even as the US dairy industry struggles, small cheesemakers are choosing sustainable farming – and leaving their mark

July 27 2023

Hannah Howard
The Guardian

Andy Hatch has watched dairy farms disappear around him. About 15 years ago, 15,000 dairy farms had 1.2 million cows in Wisconsin. Today, only about 6,500 dairy farms milk the same number of cows, an extreme consolidation that has wreaked havoc on communities and the economy.

“Our towns are being depopulated, schools are closing,” said Hatch, a co-owner of Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville, Wisconsin. And the cheese producers, too, are closing. He spoke about a neighboring commodity cheese facility that was purchased, immediately shuttered and relocated to Canada. There, production costs are more affordable.

“Economically, the trajectory we are on does not look sustainable,” said Hatch. “There is not enough industry to employ people. There is not a new form of agriculture that has replaced dairy farming.”

It seems an inauspicious time to take over a cheese business, as Hatch and his co-owners did when they bought a 100-year-old dairy farm in 2014. But there’s a deep irony at work here. Even with a gutted dairy sector and financial precarity, American artisanal cheese has never been so prolific, creative and delicious. Crisis may be the mother of creativity. “American cheese” is no longer the notorious orange, plastic-wrapped “cheese product”. Making cheese as a “value-added” milk product brings farmers more income and sometimes “foodie” adoration, but it’s also an opportunity to develop sustainability models in a dairy industry that’s historically been extremely polluting.

“Sustainability begins with economic viability. You need to be economically sustainable to make the right kind of choices around environment,” said Mateo Kehler, founder and CEO at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont.

Kehler witnessed similar devastation in Vermont as its iconic red barns crumbled. Running a small dairy farm became less and less feasible. “It’s terrifying to watch farms going out of business – an apocalypse playing out in slow motion,” he commented.

Jasper Hill makes cheese with the intention of building environmental and economic resilience in their community. I count among my first tastes of transportive goodness Jasper Hill’s fudgy Bayley Hazen Blue Crafted. Made with the dairy’s own raw milk, it has a toasted-nut sweetness, a peppery tang and a salty finish. Bayley Hazen was named the best raw milk cheese in the world, beating out hundreds of European offerings at the World Cheese Awards in 2014. In Europe, centuries of cheese tradition result in culinary classics that inspire and delight (take Comte, which has been made the same way, in the same spot, for more than a thousand years). But American cheese culture, so much younger, is unencumbered and free to play. Eating Bayley Hazen made me feel like I had entered a new world, full of possibility.

It was a new world for Sarah Hoffmann, who left her job as a successful physician in 2008 to make cheese in Weston, Missouri. She’s now won dozens of awards for the rich, artful sheep’s milk cheese she crafts at Green Dirt Farm.

As the name Green Dirt Farm suggests, great cheese begins with the place – the terroir, the dirt itself. Hoffman explained, “We know that dairy animals raised on diverse grass pastures have a lot more flavor compounds in their milk than when they are fed a conventional dairy animal diet. More flavor in the milk means a lot more flavor in the cheese.”

Hoffmann is part of a movement. The American artisan cheese revolution began in the late 1970s. The back-to-the-land movement had taken hold in California, and a new appreciation for local food made chefs question why they had to import all their fancy cheese from Europe. Women pioneered making small-scale cheese: Laura Chenel and Mary Keene in California (of Laura Chenel Chevre and Cypress Grove) and Alison Hooper in Vermont, who started Vermont Butter and Cheese (now Vermont Creamery).

Cheesemakers continue to take inspiration from recipes and values of the past while looking ahead. If we want healthy rural communities in the 21st century, people like Hatch believe “cheesemaking can be part of the solution.” They see making cheese as an investment in the future.

Kehler said that there has been a “real transfer of equity over the past 50 years, from rural communities to cities and suburbs”. Making high-quality, sought-after cheeses allows Jasper Hill to reverse the flow of capital, moving cash from back into their own land and into rural communities. Distinctive cheese-making operations like those made at Uplands, Jasper Hill and Green Dirt Farm cannot up and move because they are integrally connected to the land. “Our cheese is rooted in the animals, land and people who produce it,” said Hatch. “It’s anchored here.”

While such creameries are trying to revitalize their communities, they also need to reduce their environmental impact. Dairy manure is the US’s largest source of methane emissions. Yoav Perry, founder and cheesemaker at Philadelphia’s Perrystead Dairy, noted that “industrial mega farms that have confined operations and miserable junk-eating herds that are treated like polluting machines in a factory” give the dairy industry a bad name. Those big operations run smaller outfits out of business with the land grabs and lower prices that come with larger size. Their products may be cheaper at the store, but they are “made at the expense of the planet, animals and farmers,” said Perry.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, said Joseph Tomandl, the executive director of the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, a nonprofit that works to make small-scale dairy farming environmentally and financially sustainable.

“It gets harder and harder to compete,” said Tomandl. “We’re trying to level the playing field – which means supporting the climate and environment for future generations.”

Dairies like Jasper Hill are doing their part by planting nitrogen-fixing legumes and effectively creating “carbon sponges to sink carbon into the earth,” said Ellie Searles, Jasper Hill’s cropping manager.

Instead of extracting energy from our landscape, Kelher explained, “we’re building organic matter, sequestering carbon, creating fertility, and becoming more resilient from both environmental perspective and from a human and financial perspective.”

A few years ago, I visited Jasper Hill and toured its state-of-the-art hay machines, which gently dry their own grass into feed for their herds. I still remember the incredible smells: just-mown grass, wildflowers and sunshine. “Our landscape is our most precious resource,” said Kehler. “As the foundation of quality and flavor in our cheese, we must ensure that our farming practices preserve our regional biodiversity, build solid soils and are worked in an emission-sensitive way.”

Jasper Hill’s cropping team practices regenerative agriculture, which aims to replenish often-degraded soil and land while also producing healthy crops. There’s less tilling and tractor use, which lessens erosion. Its 300 cows graze on the grass dried by those machines or eat plants produced on the farm. Their more diverse diet promotes biodiversity. Their waste fertilizes fields.

“One day, we hope we’ll be able to say that your purchase of our cheese sinks X amount of carbon into the soil,” said Searles, the cropping manager at Jasper Hill Farm. But that kind of measurement requires a team, resources and reliable data-collection methods, so it’s something to strive for in the future.

For now, the hard work shows up in the cheese itself. Green Dirt Farm’s Dirt Lover can fit into the palm of your hand. It’s a bloomy rind sheep cheese with a light coating of vegetable ash and won first place for an original recipe cheese at the 2022 American Cheese Society. If you close your eyes, you can taste brown butter, lemon and the wet dirt of the farm, like working in the garden after a rain shower.

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