An Organic Cheese Maker's Story
Clover Mead Farm is a small creamery dedicated to keeping organic cheese available in the North Country
If a piece of twine on a bail of hay hadn't broken, sending Sam Hendren flying out of a hay mow, he might never have won a bronze medal at the International Cheese Competition in Trinity, England this past spring.
Hendren is the owner and cheese maker of Clover Mead Farm, a certified organic farm located in Keeseville, New York. He has been making organic cheese for several years, but started the cheese making business with no experience.
Hendren recalls starting the farm fourteen years ago. "I was milking 40 cows, selling the milk to Ben and Jerry's. I fell out of a hay mow [a loft in a barn designated for storing hay] (while) pulling on a bail of twine and took a year off to recover," Hendren explains. When Hendren recovered, he quickly saw that he would have to begin large scale milking to stay in the business. The notion of having all those cows was too much for Hendren, who didn't want to deal with all the mud, work, and manure. "We shut down the milking business and started taking cheese lessons," Hendren says. Hendren and his wife took cheese classes in New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire, all the while developing their cheese making skills. With the advice of friends, he designed and built the cheese parlor. "My first cheeses were bad," Hendren says with a chuckle as he recollects. "We were new."
Today, Hendren has honed his cheese making skills, and has developed a knack for making a wide array of superb organic cheese. On any given morning around nine, Hendren can be found in his cheese parlor, checking up on the previous day's production, and also making up new batches of cheese. With his small staff of dedicated cheese makers and farmers, Hendren is a busy, but content man.
One such morning, Hendren is already standing behind a car sized basin, stirring the concoction with a rake. The calming tones of a French talk radio station waft out through the sliding glass door. Hendren has already put on his white coat, white shoes, and white cap. His careful, but deliberate motions show his years of experience in the cheese making process. As he patiently stirs the creamy white mixture, he talks intently to an assistant, making sure everything is going according to plan.
Currently, Clover Mead Farm makes ten to twelve thousand pounds of organic cheese each year. They offer nine different kinds of cheese, with fresh or soft cheese available in the summer months and hard or aged cheese in the winter months. Accompanying the farm is a cheese cellar, which holds some cheese for up to eight months.
"We shut down the milking business and started taking cheese lessons."
Although Hendren has only produced organic cheese, his farm wasn't always organic.
Before the fall, Hendren used organic feed, but it was commercial. Under the rules of being certified organic, organic farmers who buy feed have to buy it from a certified organic feed dealer. Today, the nine Jersey cows that are currently milked enjoy an organic life. "Most dairies confine their animals, and will feed them a mixture of corn, soy and genetically modified food," Paul Papadatos, dairy farmer at Clover Mead Farm says. "The cows here are grass fed and aren't given any hormones or antibiotics."
Besides offering the cows the freedom to leave the barn and graze at any time, Papadatos adds that the cows get December to April off from milking. "This farm respects the animals," Papadatos says. "We don't treat them like machines."
But being—and staying—organic requires farmers to do much more than simply let their cows graze on hormone-free food.
Clover Mead Farm is monitored by the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), one of several organic associations in the United States. Once a year, a representative is sent to check records and receipts on the certified organic farms within their district. "If I buy grain from someone, I have to have their certified organic certificate on file," Hendren explains. According to Hendren, the inspection is "thorough" and covers everything from forms, files, invoices, and bills to actually going into the barn to monitor the well-being of the cows.
Besides selling their cheese at a store on their farm, Clover Mead Farm sells cheese through a network of farmers markets. The Cheese is available at farmers markets in Lake Placid, Schroon Lake, Troy, and Plattsburgh. Also, Clover Mead Farm sells cheese to food co-ops in Albany and Syracuse. "We love the cheese," Travis Hance says, General Manager of the Syracuse Real Food Co-op. "Sam really knows how to make a quality product." Hance also adds that the co-op uses Hendren as a source to find other local cheese makers.
Clover Mead farm is one of the few organic cheese producing farms in the North Country. Although there are 29 organic cheese farms in New York (according to the New York State Cheese Makers Guild) and 37 in Vermont, (according to the Vermont Cheese Council), there are only four organic cheese makers in the area, and none as close to the north country as Hendren.
"Organic farming doesn't begin and end with poising the soil."
Another aspect to organic farming is the amount on which certified organic farmers rely on each-other. Hendren has to find organic feed producers as well as other certified organic farmers to organize and attend organic farm markets. On a macro level, food co-ops, like the one in Syracuse, have to organize and rely on certified organic farmers, in order to continue providing organic foods to the public. Hance believes in the process of organic farming; "Not only is the product of a higher quality and you feel better about spending your money on it," Hance says. "It tastes better, too."
Hendren shares this view of organic farming.
"I find it easy to be organic," says Hendren, who believes that philosophy plays a major role in a farm's decision to go organic. He believes that a farmer has to make the choice about how they want to treat the earth when considering going organic. Hendren feels this way because he knows that there are alternatives to using hormones to enhance production. "Organic farming doesn't begin and end with poising the soil," Hendren says. "There are organic methods to do the same thing."
A Tale of Two Cheese Makers.
According to Hendren, there are very distinct types of cheese makers. Although there are several different kinds of cheese-makers out there, here are a couple.
Artisanal Cheese Maker
An Artisanal cheese maker is a person or company that does not use their own milk for the cheese making process. They get it shipped in, and develop their cheese from that point on. Most cheese factories fall into this category.
Farmstead Cheese Maker
A different type of cheese maker is the Farmstead Cheese Maker. This is that category which Sam Hendren falls in. In the practice of Farmstead Cheese making, the farm raises their own animals, and uses the milk from their farm to make their cheese. The farmstead cheesemaker has several tasks to manage at once; management of the farm on a business level and management of the cheese making process from production to sales.
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