In a recent post, I briefly explained the difference between artisanal and industrial cheeses. But among artisanal cheeses, there are also differences. There are cheeses that boast of being ‘farmstead’ cheeses, and there are those that are simply ‘artisan’ or ‘specialty.’
Artisan cheeses should be made by hand, or with as little help as possible from machines, using traditional methods of cheesemaking and treating the process as a craft. Specialty cheeses are made in very small batches, not widely available, and according to the American Cheese Society, are crafted “with particular attention paid to natural flavor and texture profiles.”[i]
A farmstead cheese is a product of a single farm. The cheesemaker wears multiple hats: of farmer, growing the grass and hay the animals eat; of herd master, caring for the herd of cows, goats, sheep, or water buffalo; and of cheesemaker, taking the milk from the farm’s own herd and making it into cheese in a facility within the farm’s boundaries.
A farmstead cheese, sometimes called a ‘farmhouse’ cheese—hearkening back to an agricultural past when the farmer’s wife made cheese for her family from each day’s milking—is a true expression of terroir (a “taste of place”), as all of its component parts are linked to the same plot of land and all of its flavors, smells, and elements of the natural biome.
There are plenty of farmstead cheesemakers in the United States. Oftentimes, a farmer can make some money turning her fluid milk into cheese—whereas she will likely make no money if she just tries to sell fluid milk. It is very expensive to make artisanal cheeses, but it is even more expensive to be a dairy farmer.
This is because milk prices, specifically for cow’s milk, are so low in the US that farmers are paid less for one hundred pounds of milk than it cost them to produce it.[ii] If you talk to a small family farmer, he may confess to “dumping” the excess milk that his animals produce. One cheesemaker I spoke to recently told me that nobody will come pick up your milk if you have fewer than 200 cows in your herd, so you either have to sell your milk without a cooperative or name-brand label on it—hiking up the price so you will make at least some profit after the distributor and retailer take their cut—and trying to sell it into a market already saturated with too many brands of milk at too low of prices—or you turn as much of it as you can into a value-added product (something that takes the raw materials and adds value to them) like yogurt, butter, ice cream, or cheese.
Cheesemaking, although it sounds glamorous, is a tough job. But being a farmer is yet tougher. On a recent work field trip to visit one of the farmstead cheesemakers we support at PCC Community Markets, I gained the utmost respect for farmstead cheesemakers, because they do so much work to make beautiful cheese.
Lost Peacock Creamery sits on the outskirts of Olympia, Washington. The plot of land on which they make goat’s milk cheeses is a hilly farm surrounded by tall trees, other agricultural plots, and residential blocks of single-family homes and tract-housing communities.
We visited Lost Peacock Creamery in early March, following one of the coldest, snowiest months of February in recorded Washington history. It had snowed that morning in the Seattle area, but it was relatively dry and partly cloudy at the farm. We drove over a creek and up a long driveway, being welcomed first by a peacock sitting on a fence with his long plumage draped to the ground.
Brightly colored chicken coops lined one side of the road and ducks puttered around an old truck on the other side. An entourage of ducks and grouses sprinted up the driveway ahead of us as dozens of chickens stared at us from the side. The farm buildings were painted in bold colors with quotations like “keep shining, beautiful one. The world needs your light” and “not by the hair of my chinny chin chin” scrawled on the walls here and there.
After parking, we were whisked immediately to the baby goat barn. The baby goats were the impetus for our trip, as our co-op cheese buyer had announced in her invitation to the creamery, “They have delivered 51 babies in the past 4 days and I can’t keep away any longer.”
During the weekend of the western Washington “snowpocalypse” this February, babies had started to be born in droves at Lost Peacock Creamery. Fifty-one of them came in a four-day succession, but there were more on the way after that. When we visited, only a handful of mamas sat waiting in the pregnancy barn for their babies to drop—and one mother had given birth to twins just minutes before we arrived.
The farm is animal welfare certified. This means that, since the babies can’t stay with their mothers to suckle for their entire kidhood, the next best thing is for them to grow up together in a baby goat community with one or two adult females to act as nursemaids and police officers. The babies learn proper goat behavior together, play, and form bonds before they are old enough to be released into the herd with the adults.
Many of the babies will not stay on the farm. They will be sold to other goat dairies, to start new herds, and to families that want to raise goats. The reality of making cheese is that there must be milk in order to make that cheese, and there must be babies born in order for there to be milk. Ruminant animals (e.g., cows, goats, and the like) don’t just give milk all the time; they must first give birth.
If a farmer wants to grow her herd sustainably, she can’t keep every single baby born in the herd; doing so would lead to over-crowding on the pastures, taxing the land too much, and leading to poor health for all of the animals. Many of the goat farmers I have spoken to take pains to make sure that their baby goats are sold to places that will keep them alive for productive labor or as pets; their lives are valued.
And it’s hard not to value a baby goat, because they are so damn cute. They hop and jump at us when we enter their enclosure, kicking their tiny legs and peering at us with their marble-like eyes. Some of the tiniest ones wear little knit sweaters; they are the babies who haven’t figured out how to feed themselves yet and require a little extra care. Most of the babies are stoked about the rubber nipple-tipped Jones Soda bottles filled with milk that Rachel Tuller (wearing pink in the photos) keeps handing us to feed to them.
Rachel and Matthew Tuller own Lost Peacock Creamery and the farmland on which it sits. They live in a large studio above the main barn with their two children. The main barn is their home, but it is also the cheesemaking facility where they craft their gorgeous cheeses, the milking parlor, an event space, and a tiny farm store. The goats live in separate barns near the main barn, and on top of the goats, chickens, ducks, grouses, and peacocks, the farm also houses horses, pigs, dogs, and a llama.
After a good 30 minutes spent in the baby goat barn, bottle-feeding the little ones, cuddling them, playing with them, and getting covered in baby goat poop, Rachel takes us on a tour of their farmstead.
She sips casually from a cup of coffee as she leads us from the baby goat enclosure, through a gang of peacocks, to the milking parlor on the back side of the main barn. As we walk past the peacocks, everyone stops to snap photos.
“We don’t milk the peacocks,” Rachel jokes, before launching into an aside. “But people always ask what time the peacocks spread their feathers out, and that’s not how it works. They’re animals; this is a farm. It’s not like a theme park where the next attraction starts at 11 a.m.”
For the record, Rachel and Matthew got the peacocks when they first bought the farm, because Rachel thought it would be cool to have peacocks at their wedding. Since then the first two pairs of peacocks have multiplied into a healthy flock of birds that Rachel says are very difficult to raise.
We enter the milking parlor and line up along the wall to see where the first bit of cheesemaking magic happens.
When the goats are milked, the milk flows through pipes directly into the next room, which is the tiny creamery where they make Halloumi, Thai Garlic Chèvre, Whipped Chèvre, and Three-Legged Goat Gouda, as well as a few special creations that they sell through a CSA to locals who can pick up a box of cheese from the farm every week. As we peek around the parlor, we see some adult female goats staring at us from just outside the entry door, hoping to be let in for some relief from the heavy milk collecting in their udders.
Next Rachel leads us back outside and through a gate into the muddy field where the female goats hang out with their guard lama, Doozy. Rachel informs us that all of the goats crowding around us have already given birth, but there are a handful in one of the barns who are still very pregnant. She and Matthew do “baby patrols” every two hours during birthing season—even during the night. While most of the mothers can give birth with no problems and no supervision, the Tullers want to be sure that they are there for them if they can be, and to catch any problems that might arise.
Matthew is a registered nurse who still works one day a week at a local children’s hospital. He often assists their veterinarian in caring for the animals, and he administers most of the basic healthcare on the farm.
As our herd of co-op cheese specialists marches through the muddy pasture, attempting to side-step balls of goat poop and slippery hills, I can imagine Rachel and Matthew taking turns making the same journey in the middle of the night, with a flashlight, maybe in a robe, heading out to check on their expectant mothers. I come away from this with a deep appreciation for the work of caring for animals, especially when you live your life with them and for them as the Tullers do. It’s one thing to appreciate that care in the abstract—as an idea that you might support—but it’s quite another to actually see in person how hard that work really is.
I also now fully understand why you cannot pasture animals year-round in Washington, as this is my first winter visit to a dairy farm. The mud is an inevitability during the cool, rainy months, and with animal hooves churning up the water-saturated topsoil, there just isn’t any grass unless the animals aren’t allowed to walk there.
Rachel shows us another muddy pasture, inhabited solely by a few male (buck) goats. She says their family of kune kune (pronounced “kooney-kooney”) pigs had resided in that pasture, which they had originally planted with an expensive Pacific-Northwest blend of plants. The goats hadn’t cared for the fancy blend (sort of like when you buy $6 “pet grass” for your dogs and they ignore it), so they had let the pigs hang out there—and they rooted up the whole pasture, utterly destroying the expensive grass.
“Everybody says kune kunes don’t root, and that’s why we decided to try getting some,” Rachel said, laughing. “Bullshit!”
Meanwhile the goats, which are communal animals, had been following us around the pasture, asking to be pet and choosing which human they wanted to adopt into the herd. Every goat has a name—and some of them have pretty wild names, because the farm’s initial Kickstarter campaign gave some donors the option to name a goat—and Rachel and Matthew know them all by name. Rachel tells us which goat is which, what her place is in the herd—and that there is even a “herd queen,” which is a hereditary position that the goats just know and respect.
Eventually Matthew calls their farm dog out to herd the goats away from us so that we could leave the enclosure without them. The dog doesn’t bite the goats, but he intimidates them. Since they like to be together, they start running in groups to follow whoever started running first.
Once outside the gate, Rachel shows us the door to the 100-square-foot creamery, which we won’t be entering with our poop-covered boots. The creamery is where they pasteurize their milk, coagulate it, and drain the curds for soft, fresh cheeses and more aged cheeses alike. Their output is relatively small—based on how much milk they can get from their goats and how much cheese the two of them can produce with only a few outside helpers.
Matthew points out the kune kune pigs, which are in time-out in a small pasture just next to the main barn. He goes to get them a delicious bucket of whey leftover from the cheesemaking process while Rachel tells us that they had recently slaughtered one of the kune kunes. (They refer to this process as “sending the pigs to freezer camp”—which is at once a joke and also a reference to the idea that the pig’s body will live on, even if he is no longer alive.)
They use the whole animal, eating its meat and saving its skin. Rachel described the process of removing the skin, and how it took a few hours of intense labor to remove from the pig’s dense hair. “People don’t pay enough for their food,” she says. “It takes a lot of work!”
And indeed, one of Rachel’s missions is to expose people to the reality of their food chain: to show them not only where their food comes from, but the full journey it takes throughout its production. Rachel is a prolific blogger and Instagrammer, giving their followers the big picture of farm life—from the highs to the lows.
On Instagram, I have watched her post about a baby goat born with his stomach outside of his body; despite desperate attempts to save him, they ended up burying him hours after birth. In the same week, Rachel spoke with pride about her young daughter’s help this birthing season: recording which babies were born to which mothers, bottle feeding newborns who refused to suckle from their mothers right after birth, and helping milk difficult milkers. Rachel also talks about going on dates with Matthew, about their courtship and marriage, and about farmer and business-owner lessons learned—like buying a horse trailer and then having to sell it pretty much right away at a small loss.
A military veteran who has journeyed to Washington, D.C., to lobby for veteran farmers, Rachel is passionate about food—and about producing good food that truly nourishes people. The tagline on all of the labeled Lost Peacock Creamery cheeses says “Ridiculously fabulous cheese, handcrafted in small batches, from the milk of our own goats.”
This is the definition of a farmstead cheese—and by the looks of things on the Tullers’ property, it is more of a farmhouse cheese, made in their literal home.
That is not the sole reason why their cheeses are so freaking good, but it certainly helps. From the clean-tasting, supple fresh chèvres, to the best Halloumi I have ever eaten, Rachel and Matthew’s cheeses are perfection in a bite (or two, or three). They take their job as cheesemakers seriously, and even more so because of the care that goes into every aspect of their animals’ lives—from the land to the feed, to the place where they live and play, to the process by which they give their milk for the cheese.
The life of a farmer is incredibly difficult, and it is an all-hours job that you don’t get to go home from. But despite the labor, the proximity to the land and the animals gives the farmstead cheesemaker ultimate control over his or her cheese—along with the satisfaction of knowing that he or she truly did the best possible job getting it from the land to your plate.
If you can get your hands on some of Lost Peacock Creamery’s cheeses, don’t even hesitate to buy them. They are divinely luxurious and you will not regret it. And, for the amount of work that went into making those cheeses, they are very reasonably priced.
But also remember: You vote with your pocketbook every time you choose to buy one product over another. When you buy a farmstead cheese like Rachel and Matthew’s—or any product that comes from a small producer—you are not just buying food; you are supporting a local business, a family, and in the case of the small family farm, a way of life that is so important to the future survival of a healthy, sustainable food system.
As Rachel recently wrote in the comments to a post she put up on the Lost Peacock Creamery Instagram about some steps they are taking right now to grow their farm—in response to someone asking what would happen once they outgrow the farm:
“We don’t want to be a huge corporation. We want to prove that you can make a living wage (financially and emotionally) through small farming. Once we do that I think we’ll focus on sharing our best practices so that others can learn from and duplicate. We really believe small farms can save the world and we want to be part of it.”[iii]
[i] American Cheese Society. “Cheese Definitions and Categories.” Resources. American Cheese Society, cheesesociety.org/events-education/cheese-definitions/. Accessed 30 March 2019. <<https://www.cheesesociety.org/events-education/cheese-definitions/>>.
[ii] United States. Department of Agriculture. “Milk cost of production by state,” Milk Cost of Production Estimates. Economic Research Service, 2 Oct 2018. Web. 17 Oct. 2018. < https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/milk-cost-of-production-estimates/ >.
[iii] Lost Peacock Creamery. “Feeling the stress of growth around here.” Instagram, 4 April 2019, www.instagram.com/p/Bv2gowhFekr/?utm_source=ig_share_sheet&igshid=h32ngkacev6k. Accessed 6 April 2019. << https://www.instagram.com/p/Bv2gowhFekr/?utm_source=ig_share_sheet&igshid=h32ngkacev6k>>.