What a journey these past three years have been. In February of 2014, I spent short winter days in an abandoned milkhouse nailing ceiling joists to barn rafters and grouting tiles. I worked with Mervin Weaver, a Mennonite friend who's handiwork and thrift would get the job done under budget and faster than anticipated. His uncle Elmer with his flatbed trailer and uncanny knowledge of country backroads hauled a collection of dusty steel equipment from the Pisano’s place in Coatesville. Martha Pisano passed away the year before, and she left behind a suite of micro cheesemaking equipment and a flock of East Friesian sheep. I purchased the equipment from her husband Jerry, and an Amish farmer snatched up the flock (whose milk I would later occasionally turn into cheese). I was so nervous the whole drive back from the Pisano’s farm, looking back to watch a 25 gallon vat pasteurizer tip ever so precariously towards the flatbed railing at every bend in the road.
Getting said equipment through the milkhouse door was no smaller a feat. With the help of three grown men, I installed two vats, three stainless drain tables, and a triple sink into a 15 by 20 foot space that would become my home away from home. In that concrete chamber, I would spend every waking hour for the proceeding nine months, only to come up for air in autumn when the days grew cold and short again. I was 28 years old and I had a mission: to start Oley’s first artisan creamery.
People warned me about all of the things: the hours upon hours of dishwashing, the fact that the regulations are getting stricter, the lack of local demand for premium foods. I floated above these cautions with the inflated sense of optimism that has carried me through to this point. I wanted to be an artist in a studio, situated so perfectly between the farm and the kitchen. I wanted to turn grass into cheese, the most refined food in the world. For better or for worse, my first skill was not in cheesemaking, but in ignoring the constraints of reality to whimsically chase a romantic idea.
I’m glad I did. I’m not just saying that because I have to; because technically I’m locked long term into this business with all of its infrastructure, its debts, its dishwashing. I say it because I mean it from the depth of my heart. Taking a risk on cheese was a good risk, and I’ve been richly rewarded with a supportive, collaborative, inspiring peer group and a growing base of customers that, fortunately for me, appreciates good, strong, stinky cheese.
I choke up when I think of how far the business has come in three years thanks to these two groups of people, my peers and supporters. It is you, dear folk, who took a risk on the new gal in town. It is people like you, Sue Miller and Jaap van Liere, mentors and devoted taste testers. I am, never was, the most experienced in the flock. I was guided primarily by a taste memory of the cheeses I grew up with, the ones my mother introduced me to on visits to Belgium and France. I transitioned from home cheesemaker to professional in a few short years, and determined to start my own production, didn’t stop to think that I could have used more training. The short answer is: I could have. Mistakes were made. Luckily, they were tasty mistakes, at least to those with the adventurous palate. And alas, I made a name for myself with oozy textures and big flavors that were only in part intentional.
The good milk at my foundation is to thank perhaps most of all. I’ve written about beloved Spring Creek Farm before, and I won’t stop praising the Stricker family’s ability to turn luscious grass into high quality milk. It is the finest in the region, I’d venture to say, and I’m equally proud that my grandfather worked with the family on soil amendments during his days as a consultant with Reading Bone. Without the family’s devotion to their herd of Jerseys, Ayrshires and Holsteins, those experiments in the creamery would have turned out all wrong. The gambles worked because the milk was good, and my tinkering was rewarded and encouraged thanks to the riches of butterfat and protein with which the Strickers endowed my stainless steel vat.
Somewhere in the mix, I managed to meet the love of my life and get married. Sure as I was to exist as a peasant Oley Valley cheesemaker for the rest of my life (and just about ok with that notion), I met Pat McPeake and her two friends at the original cheese shop in Oley, the one that happened out of a mini fridge beside my creamery door. She was impressed at my height, and called me the next day to ask - point blank - if I was hitched. Her son Owen was living and working as an acupuncturist in Philly at the time. He showed up to the farm and we walked the trail along the Manatawny, talking about our ancient trades. After a year of shuffling back and forth between his hometown and the city, Owen made the move back to the country, near his family, his beloved natural world and his new love. His small rural practice does well considering its remote location, tucked away on our homestead in the Oley hills. He is part time milk hauler for Valley Milkhouse, cheese deliverer, and strategic advisor. I thank his dear soul for empowering me to keep going, despite the financial strains and long hours. He keeps me honest, true to the passion that brought me here.
A wise woman once told me, "the only thing more overrated than natural childbirth is running your own business." The challenges ahead are real and getting harder. It seems that starting the operation was the easy part; sustaining it will be the real triumph. I am examining the ways I can build a lab and acquire some fairly costly testing equipment to comply with new regulations on antibiotic testing. I am also looking to expand my aging space to improve consistency of the cheeses and enable further experimentation with new styles. I am making arrangements for better transport and shipping to my wholesale partners within the region; I long to spend more time with the cheese and less time on the road. All of these projects cost time, money and wrinkles.
So, at this crucial three year mark, I give pause to thank all of you for leading me to this point of what I would call success. I appreciate how far you have carried me and humbly approach the future with your wind at my back.