In September, the hills of western Massachusetts surrounding Hillman Farm are blazing with autumn color. Carolyn and Joe Hillman’s herd of 50 Alpine goats are outside grazing, as they are for most of the year. This pasturing of goats is largely responsible for the nuances of flavor found in the Hillmans’ Harvest Wheel, a raw goat’s milk cheese aged four to six months in a cave that Joe built himself. Aging the wheels provides a firm, dry texture with a rich and nutty flavor. The farm itself is a wonder — a barn heated by a wood-fired furnace and milking machines that, thanks to Joe’s ingenuity, can be run on a car motor if the power cuts out, which it often does in winter.
The Hillmans are representatives of a larger movement of artisan cheese makers emerging throughout New England. While the perception is that the region has always been a center for dairy (both milk and cheese), the reality is that many family farms have been unable to compete in an unpredictable milk market. Producing cheese has allowed them to hold on to their land, diversify their products, or begin a farming life anew. This community is creating cheeses that rival European examples yet are distinctly of New England, rooted both in the skill of the craftspeople and in the land on which the cheeses are made.
Orb Weaver Farm
“We didn’t know how little we knew,” exclaims Marjorie Susman, who, with her partner, Marian Pollack, produces Orb Weaver cheese on a broad tract of land in northern Vermont. The farm is situated in a gentle valley, with the Green Mountains rising above and fields stretching wide and impressively across the valley floor. The women maintain a four-acre vegetable garden in the summer and spend the fall and winter milking their cows to make their signature creamy, butter-yellow cheese with a slight tang, similar to a Colby.
Marian and Marjorie have been on this land for 25 years, originally as dairy farmers. In 1995, they abandoned selling their milk in favor of expanding the cheese business. Now they produce 7,000 pounds yearly and sell most of it in and around the Middlebury area. Eight Jersey cows produce all the milk for the cheese, limiting production to only what two women and eight cows can do in a year.
Orb Weaver Farm’s cave-aged cheese, although made with the same recipe as their waxed wheels, has a nutty, slightly piquant flavor and a drier texture. Making unwaxed, natural-rind cheese requires more work because cave-aged cheese needs constant attention—from brushing the rinds to inhibit excessive mold growth to flipping the cheeses to prevent the butterfat from settling on one side. This required extra care is part of why these cheeses are so special and fetch a higher price when sold.
Willow Hill Farm
Willow Smart and her husband, David Phinney, tend a herd of 120 East Frie-sian sheep on their land in Vermont. They run a certified organic sheep’s milk dairy.
Sheep’s milk cheeses tend to be richer than those made from cow’s or goat’s milk, owing to the high butterfat content of the milk, which can be up to three times that of cow’s milk. That explains why sheep’s milk cheese is often described as having a “rich mouth feel,” a characteristic that makes it very popular. The East Friesians are great milking sheep, with an average production of about 160 gallons of milk from a ewe each year.
Willow Hill Farm creates a wide variety of cheeses, ranging from their Alderbrook, a soft and buttery cheese, to the Mountain Tomme, a blend of sheep’s milk from the Willow Hill sheep and cow’s milk from a neighbor’s farm. In total, Willow Hill Farm produces nine distinct cheeses, six of which have won awards for their excellence.
Sunset is not the end of the workday for Kristan Doolan and George vanVlaanderen, the owners of Does’ Leap farm; it’s the beginning of evening chores. When George walks in the door after his day job teaching at the nearby high school, Kristan hands over their two small children so she can begin the nightly milking. With a fledgling farm, George’s day job is a necessary one, since he and Kristan are still trying to find a niche for their impeccably fresh goat’s cheese.
The couple began making cheese in 1999, and their small operation still presents plenty of challenges. They own one of the few certified organic goat dairies in Vermont. During peak times, the dairy produces more than 100 pounds of cheese a week, including a fresh chèvre, a soft-ripened caprella, a feta, and an aged tomme.
Their small-scale operation has Kristan and George milking 44 Nubian and Alpine does, with a good deal of the cheese going to local restaurants and shareholders in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms.