jh read more
once upon a time...
The Kehler family was looking for meaningful work in a place that they loved. Young brothers Andy and Mateo, along with their wives, Victoria and Angie, pooled their life savings and bought a rocky hillside farm in Vermont's subarctic climate zone near the Canadian border. What made the Northeast Kingdom region special to them was the sleepy village of Greensboro with its sparkling, secluded Caspian Lake - where their family had found summer respite for more than 100 years.
Greensboro's sparse population and rural locale held few opportunities for conventional career paths. The old dairy barn they found themselves with hadn't seen cows for nearly 40 years. Small-scale farms like this were becoming more difficult to keep up and running - a 50 cow farm like theirs would have to compete with average herd sizes of about 900 cows out west, as all of that milk is priced by the same commodity market. About a third of the farms in town sold their cows in 1998; the same year that the Kehlers bought what locals referred to as "the old Jasper Hill farm."
So from the start, Andy and Mateo realized their farm would have to be different. They set out out to create a model for small-scale dairy farming that could offer more opportunities for Vermont's working landscape. The concept was called value-added agriculture: the practice of transforming a raw material like milk into something more valuable before it leaves the farmer.
As the old barn got fixed up, they built a creamery next door. And because the highest value cheeses in the market were imported, European styles, they also created a cave aging space beneath for cultivating natural rinds. They worked on the pasture, and made places for their young families to live. All in all, it took about 5 years of building structures and skills before they sent their first cheeses to market in 2003.
It was really hard. They didn't have a bulk tank or relief milker in the early days. Cows needed to be pastured and milked every day, and cheeses had to be made and tended to in ripening every day. Plus there was the work of packing little boxes with individual orders for dozens of individual shops and restaurants - and then chasing down all the invoices weeks later. Just as the bleak reality of their new life was setting in, they received an interesting phone call from their neighbors up the road at Cabot Creamery.
Cabot had noticed the early acclaim the Kehlers earned for their fancy little cheeses, while watching the American Artisan Cheese movement pick up steam. They saw British bandaged cheddars popping up on new European-style service counters and on the country's best restaurant menus. Technically, and for a number of styles, Cabot made some of the best cheese in the country, and they had the awards to show for it. What Cabot lacked was an aging space dedicated to cultivating natural rinds - their warehouses were all focused on keeping surface mold away from cheese. The Kehlers were nearby, hungry to grow their business, and most importantly had a temperature and humidity controlled space designed to grow natural rinds. The result was Cabot Clothbound Cheddar.
At first it was just a few racks of cheese, which were dutifully monitored and turned for a yearlong cycle of aging. The result was delicious, but a bit of a conundrum. The basement of the farmhouse creamery was nearing capacity, and it was hard to imagine growing the inventory needed to supply Cabot's core customers. With Cabot's blessing, Andy and mateo shopped the new clothbound cheddar around to their direct accounts - shops and chefs who were used to dealing with fussy, high-maintenance cheeses.
The cheese was a success in unexpected ways - one of the first batches took home Best of Show at the 2006 American Cheese Society Conference. Not one to pass up an opportunity, Andy & Mateo took this achievement to the bank and drew up plans for an expanded aging facility beneath one of the pastures of Jasper Hill Farm.
What came together over the course of the next two years is a 22,000 square foot, 7-vaulted underground aging facility. Conceived of as an infrastructure to reduce the barriers to entry for those interested in value-added production, the Cellars had plenty of shelf space for cheddar as well as more Jasper Hill Creamery and neighboring producers' products.
Ripening work for natural-rind cheeses takes up more than 70% of the labor for a batch of cheese, over its lifetime. By pooling these efforts, farmstead producers could spend more time focusing on the true drivers of cheese quality: milk production and cheesemaking. Instead of sending hundreds of small boxes through the post, refrigerated trucks now pick up pallets of cheese destined for regional and national distributors. The Cellars is now the final stop for cheeses coming from six different creameries. Its mission is to be the standard bearer for quality and innovation in the artisan cheese industry.
Cabot's initial support of this effort was multi-faceted and the volume and consistency of their products moving through the Cellars helps maintain momentum and generate new opportunities for this growing, mission based family of businesses: a nutrient recycler now reduces our footprint on the environment; our onsite microbiology lab helps us explore and amplify the concept of terroir within our collection; a conventional farm has been tailored to raw milk cheese production; a cropping center allows us to make high-quality feed in our challenging climate. All of these projects came about in the wake of this unlikely partnership, highlighting what makes Vermont's working landscape special.
The Kehlers and their growing network of collaborators look forward to an ever more diverse and thriving agricultural tradition in the Northeast Kingdom - one that creates a regional identity for the product developed to suit our region, culture and ambitions for a sustainable future.