Appeared October 2008 in Dairy Foods Magazine
Copyright BNP Media

Artisan cheesemakers find different paths to sucession for their businesses.

Helen and Rick Feete of Meadow Creek Dairy, Galax, Va., have two grown children who have studied dairy science, milked cows on two distant continents, and done their share of work on the family’s farm and creamery.  But Helen’s baby of late has been Grayson, a surface-ripened cheese aged for more than two months, that was judged the best farmstead cheese at July’s American Cheese Society Competition, and went on to be the runner up in the Best of Show, chosen from more than 1,000 cheeses entered.

And while she’s young enough not to have to worry about it right now, when Helen thinks about the future of Meadow Creek and Grayson, she knows that unless her children decide to enter the family business, she and her husband will have some serious decisions to make down the road.
“I would hate to see Grayson not survive if we are not making it,” she says.  “The same with Rick. He has built this herd and this pasture.  To us being a sustainable business is as much about making sure the business is sustainable as it is about being sustainable environmentally.”

The creeping anxiety felt by the Feetes is fairly common among artisan cheesemakers in the United States, and their circumstances are not so unlike those faced by families who build and operate any other type of small business. Planning succession from one generation to the next (or from one owner to another) is often what makes the difference between a business that has a brief moment of success and one that becomes a pillar of an industry. Among the things that distinguish American artisan cheese in this respect is the fact that the entire industry is only one generation old.

Raising Grayson

There was a time when Helen, who heads the cheesemaking for Meadow Creek, doubted that she would ever be able to turn the excellent milk from Meadow Creek’s herd into the kind of washed-rind stinky cheese she had become so intrigued with.

“I was interested in washed-rind cheeses at the beginning (1998) but had given up on being able to make one,” she says.  “Then in 2000 we went to Ireland and the town of Durrus and there was a washed-rind cheese there called Durrus, and I loved it and then I had the bug again.”

The cheese that Helen eventually developed is named after the county where her farm is located. It took years to perfect.

“We had a hard time getting the temperature and humidity right during the aging, but once we got that, then we started to get the cheese where we wanted it,” she says.

The result is a semi-soft cheese with an orange sticky rind, and a creamy, glossy, yellowish paste with tiny holes. It has a soft buttery, creamy texture and a meaty, pungent flavor.

The cheese took third place in its category in 2007, but still, the Feetes were completely surprised when word came from Chicago (the Feetes were not able to attend) that Grayson was in the Best of Show winners’ circle.
“We were ecstatic,” Helen says. “We couldn’t quite believe it. We had to pinch ourselves for awhile.”

In effect Grayson is a cheese that’s more than 20 years in the making. It would not have been possible were it not for the work that the Feetes have put into developing their farm, their creamery and their cheeses.

The family enterprise began long before 1998 with Rick and Helen learning the dairy farming business by working for other producers. Only after several years did they buy their own farm and begin building a closed herd of Jerseys that now totals about 80.  They chose Jerseys in part because the cows are smaller and less costly than Holsteins, but also because they produce an excellent quality of milk, especially when placed on a grass diet.

Rick Feete practices intensive rotational grazing, and the western Virginia climate means the cows are in pasture year-round. As they continued to improve the quality of the milk from their herd, the Feetes naturally wanted to turn it into cheese, although Helen said the idea had been in the back of her mind all along.

“We took things one step at time trying to really get a handle on one part of the business before moving on to the next.”

Currently, the Feetes’ daughter Kat, and son Jim are both involved with the growing business, as is Kat’s husband Dan Zlotnikov, but Helen says she is reluctant to pressure the next generation of the family to take the reins at Meadow Creek.

“We really want them to do what they want to do, so each season we only ask for a commitment for the year,” she says.

Second careers

While artisan cheesemaking is quite young in the U.S., there are already some cheesemakers and cheeses that have become legend. Among them are Uplands Cheese Company and its Pleasant Ridge Reserve.

Mike and Carol Gingrich, the cheesemaking couple, make up half of the partners in the business. The other half is Jeanne and Dan Patenaude, who have raised herds of dairy cattle for more than 20 years, on 300 acres in Wisconsin’s unique Uplands or Driftless Region. The farm is located in an area known as Pleasant Ridge.

Together, the two couples bought the land in 1994, and 14 years later they are contemplating retirement. For Mike, at least, it would be a second retirement. Like many American artisan cheesemakers he got involved with cheesemaking as a second career, having worked in corporate sales for Xerox.

The Patenaudes now operate a herd of up to 200 made up of no fewer than nine different breeds. The cows are on a primarily grass-based diet, grazing in 20 different managed paddocks throughout about eight months of the year. The grasses and legumes in the Uplands pastures provide some of the best cheese milk anywhere, Gingrich says.  Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese, a cheese similar to the French Alpine classic know as Beaufort, is the proof. It took the top prize in the American Cheese Society competition in 2001, less than two years after Uplands began producing it. It is also the only cheese to have taken the Best of Show twice, having won again in 2005.

The Gingriches and the Patenaudes don’t anticipate that any of their children will change careers and take over the farmstead cheese operation, so they will entertain offers from buyers.

“We’ve made it known that we would be willing to sell the entire business,” says Mike Gingrich. “But only if we found the right people who would run it the same way, otherwise, we’ll keep doing it ourselves.”

Pat Elliott, who makes sheeps milk cheese in northern Virginia, a couple hundred miles from the Feetes, understands their concerns, but she is fairly confident she has found someone who will continue making cheese at Everona Dairy once she’s had enough of it. An award-winning cheesemaker herself, Elliott began Everona 10 years ago as a second business. Elliott, who’s in her 70s, has run a country medical practice for more than 40 years.  She still does both, but she now has help with the cheesemaking from her daughter-in-law Carolyn Wentz.

“She’s a florist by training, and it seems that’s a good background for cheese,” Elliott says. “She’s very thoughtful about how things go together—colors and flavors and so on.

“My son Brian says he doesn’t do sheep, but he’s involved,” Elliott says. “He likes fixing things around the creamery. I don’t know for certain that they will want to take over the creamery, but I hope so.”

The lineup of cheeses at Everona, includes Piedmont, Stony Man and Pride of Bacchus. A profile of Everona Dairy can  be found at Dairyfoods.com.

Southern cheese

While Meadow Creek and Everona were just getting established, Fromagerie Belle Chevre, Elkmont, Ala., was nearing its 10th year in business. Liz and Tom Parnell were among a handful of pioneers in southern artisan cheese when they bought a small creamery in 1989, determined to make and sell fine goats milk cheeses in the French tradition.

Many years later, Tasia Malakasis, an Internet marketing professional with a passion for fine foods, was shopping at Dean and Deluca’s in Manhattan when she came across a lovely goat cheese from her hometown in Alabama.

“I thought I knew a little bit about artisan cheese and yet I had never heard of Belle Chevre, even though I was back home in Alabama on a regular basis,” says Malakasis.

“I was delighted that I had found the cheese, but I was also a little perturbed that I could find it in New York, but no one in Alabama knew about it.”

Malakasis contacted Liz Parnell wanting to visit the creamery, and after a few conversations and visits her interest became more than just that of an appreciative end customer.

“I had a good career, but food has always been my raison d’être,” Malakasis says. “So it didn’t take long before I started thinking that I wanted to buy the creamery.”

Parnell said she didn’t know what to make of Malakasis at first.

“I really hadn’t thought of selling it when Tasia contacted me. But I’m also a realist and I realized this company was going to die with me, if I didn’t do something,” she says.

“I had talked to her on the telephone a number of times. When she first came to the creamery I told her we had 30 to 45 minutes but we talked about two hours. She asked some pretty straightforward questions.”
This was the foundation of what became a six-year-long courtship.

“We had some conversations over a number of years,” Malakasis says. “In 2006 I was working in Philadelphia but I still had my home in Alabama, and I just couldn’t get this idea out of my head —that this is what I wanted to do—so I quit my job.

“I called Liz and I said ‘Liz, I just quit my job and I’m coming home to make cheese,’” she explains.

Parnell says she was kind of shocked on getting the news.
“My first reaction was ‘what was she thinking?’ We really hadn’t talked specifically or done any kind of negotiations. But after I recovered, I said OK; let’s see what you can do. So I sent her out there and I gave her some of the messiest jobs as well as some of the most fun jobs and she just went with it. And the more she was around the more she took to it.”

More than 15 years in the young industry had shown Parnell exactly what combination of enthusiasm and aptitude separated a budding artisan from a burnout candidate.

“She was a natural as a cheesemaker and as a marketer, and no matter what it was I asked her to do, she never flinched,” Parnell says. “She found me I didn’t find her, so I can’t take any credit for this. But I don’t think I could have found any better.”

Within a year, Fromagerie Belle Chevre had a new owner.

While Parnell was able to build the company’s reputation in major markets through national competitions, Malakasis is now interested in building local awareness of artisan cheese, and she is lobbying Alabama state officials to develop infrastructural support for Alabama artisan cheese, similar to that found in Vermont or Wisconsin.  Belle Chevre was also recently featured in a short film about southern cheesemakers commissioned by Whole Foods Foods Markets.

Parnell still spends some time at the creamery, when there’s a need or when she gets an urge to make some cheese. Another sign of continuity involves Belle Chevre’s full-time cheesemaker, Viola Mills. The original cheesemaker at the creamery, she continues to work with Malakasis. Mills’ daughter and grandson are also working at Belle Chevre.

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