The Ripening Age

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Photo by Ezra Marcos

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Photo by Ezra Marcos

DAIRY FARMS ARE like clockwork. Day in and day out, rain or shine, holiday or Monday, there’s a herd of cows that must be milked every twelve hours.

“People say if you’re not born on a dairy farm, you have to be crazy to go into dairy,” said Jonny Steiger with By George Farm in Southern Oregon’s Little Applegate Valley. “There’s no getting away from it. You have to do it every day of the year.”

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Photo by Ezra Marcos

Steiger grew up on a large dairy farm in Wisconsin. When he started his own farm, he decided that 700 cows were too many. Instead, he and his husband, Tyson Fehrman, went with five Jerseys, a doe-eyed breed known for their good looks and rich milk. Right now they are sharing the raw milk with investors through a herdshare. Think community supported agriculture. Next spring they will become one of only a handful of Oregon farms producing artisan cheese from cow’s milk.

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Photo by Ezra Marcos

Steiger spent years working other jobs in Wisconsin and Southern Oregon, where he moved in 2008. But at the end of the day, “it’s hard to take a dairy farmer off the farm,” he acknowledged. In 2008, he joined Rogue Farm Corps, which provides aspiring young farmers with training and mentoring. He fell in love with making cheese. After the program, he returned to Wisconsin and continued his education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Dairy Research.

One winter back in the Midwest was enough to convince Steiger that he wanted to return to the West Coast. He and Fehrman started looking for land in Southern Oregon and found an 87-acre spot outside of Jacksonville with plenty of room for livestock, a vegetable plot and a creamery.

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Photo by Ezra Marcos 

Steiger’s day starts at 6:30 a.m., when he wakes up and milks the cows. He uses a machine to save time and his forearms. It takes about an hour. After that comes poultry chores and either weeding or harvesting vegetables.

In the afternoon, Steiger turns his attention to cheesemaking. He starts with the approximately seven gallons of raw milk he’s collected that morning. It goes on a big pot on the stove, where he slowly raises the temperature, then inoculates it with cultures that separate the curds from the whey. He stirs the mixture as it begins to coagulate, keeping it at a steady temperature to control the acidity. Finally, “it’s letting the curds speak to you to tell you when they’re ready,” he said. He ages the cheese in a large cave-like refrigeration unit for six weeks to six months, depending on the type of cheese.

Steiger has been perfecting his technique and developing recipes over the past two years. His goal is to produce hard cheeses similar to Swiss and parmesan, soft cheeses such as fromage blanc, and a Wisconsin delicacy, cheese curds (which he likes beer-battered and deepfried). Once the 700-square-foot By George Creamery is up and running, Steiger hopes to make about 300 pounds of cheese a week, scaling to 1,000 pounds a week as demand grows.

“When you ask a restaurant if they’re interested in artisan farmstead cheese they say, ‘Great, how soon will you be in production?’” Steiger said. “With Southern Oregon becoming so well known for wines, it’s nice to say there’s a dairy just down the road that’s creating cheese with a similar flavor profile.”

Oregon is definitely a dairy state. Milk is the fourth most valuable agricultural commodity and brought 260 farms in twenty counties more than $532 million in gross sales in 2013. Oregon consistently ranks in the top five states for milk quality, said Tami Kerr with the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association.

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Photo by Ezra Marcos

Good milk makes for good cheese. Even so, most artisan cheesemakers in Oregon have chosen to focus on goat cheese rather than cow’s milk cheese. Cost is the biggest barrier. “Dairy cows are an incredibly expensive investment,” said Robin Frojen, manager at the Oregon State University Creamery, which makes cheese and supports artisan cheesemakers around the state. “Goats are smaller. They require less. You can keep the milk a little longer, so you don’t have to immediately turn it around and produce something with it.”

Those who enjoy Oregon cheese are happy that a few people are willing to make the investment in cows. Chef Mike Hite, with Elements tapas bar in Medford, uses hard and soft cheese in his Manchego bacon dip.

Jeff Nizlek, the owner and chef at Silver Grille in Silverton, features cheese prominently in many dishes including raspberry fromage blanc tart, which blends the soft cheese with sweet ingredients for a delectable dessert.

Megan Henzel with Roost, a “simple little corner restaurant” in Portland’s Buckman neighborhood, recommends grating hard cow’s milk cheeses like romano or parmesan over everything from popcorn to salad. She adds copious amounts to her mustard green pesto, which she serves with grilled meat, fresh shrimp, or spread on toast and topped with fresh farm tomatoes.

 

 

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