Friday, January 29, 2010

Accountant Turned Dairy Farmer

It's no secret that it's hard to start a dairy farm from scratch these days. With significant cash outlay needed for equipment and animals, ever-rising farmland prices and a cyclical high/low market in which to sell milk, if you're not a farm kid who inherits or has the chance to buy into your parents' farm, odds are you're going to choose a different profession in life.

Such as writing a cheese blog, or becoming an accountant.

Richland Center dairy farmer Jeff Jump is an accountant. He's also a dairy farmer. And he's the type of guy Wisconsin is going to have to start recruiting if we want our small-scale, traditional dairy farms to continue to exist in America's Dairyland.

Jeff, 44, his wife Connie, and their two children, Cody, 14 and Molly, 13, moved from Chicago to Richland Center in 2003. Today, they run an 80-acre dairy farm, which when they purchased it, consisted of an old dairy barn that had seen better days, an amazing crop of weeds and thistles, and an old farm house in need of repair. Today, the house has been remodeled, the old dairy barn has been cleaned up and is being used as a calf care facility, and the Jumps have added on a Swing-8 New Zealand style milking parlor and a composting barn/loafing shed, where their 53 Jersey cows look like they're pretty much having the time of their lives.

"We call it the beach," is how Jeff describes his composting barn, which features a clay base and two feet of sawdust mixed with ground corn fodder. Unlike a freestall barn, the shed has a completely open floor plan, with feeding bunks facing the outside, where the Jumps' cows enjoy fresh air while eating breakfast, lunch and dinner.

"When you get up in the morning, go out to the barn and 90 percent of your cows are laying down, sleeping or chewing their cud, then you've got some pretty happy cows," Jeff says. And he's right -- these girls have got it pretty good. They live on a tidy farm with owners who treat them right. Pick any of the Jumps' cows or calves, and you can literally walk right up to the animal, stretch out your hand and pet it. I'm living proof, as I nearly lost my scarf to a group of calves who decided I was a mid-afternoon snack. I had to yank half of my scarf out of the throat of a 6-month Jersey calf to reclaim it.

So how does a big-city accountant come to be a Wisconsin dairy farmer? A native of South Bend, Indiana, Jeff is a graduate of Indiana University and is a Gulf War veteran. He was working for a food company in Chicago as their chief accountant, when he had the opportunity to invest and do the finances for Hilltop Valley Dairy, a small yogurt company in Richland Center. He had always been interested in the dairy industry, and knew the opportunity would allow his family to get out of the city.

So, for the next several years, he and his family became the stereotypical "city slickers move to the country and get adopted by their neighbors." During the day, Jeff worked for Hilltop Valley. In the evenings and weekends, he played farmer.

"I really wanted to understand the whole circle of the dairy industry, and our kids were at the right age to join 4-H. So we started reading books, talking to the neighboring farmers, and bought a couple of Jersey calves," he said.

But, lo and behold, it turns out that calves grow up. So the Jumps studied the breeding process, got their heifers bred (in fact Jeff learned so much about the artificial insemination process, that he's now an Area Board Rep for Accelerated Genetics -- funny how life works), and then his pregnant heifers had calves.

"Then, we were like - oh my gosh, what do we do with the milk?" So Jeff purchased a portable milking machine - the kind you find at small county fairs - and milked five cows twice a day, dumping the milk, as he couldn't get a milk hauler interested in picking up milk from five cows.

At some point, Jeff says he woke up one morning and realized: "I've got a herd." So he "went off the deep end," built a milking parlor, started milking 10 cows and by now was big enough for the local milk hauler to stop every other day and pick up the milk from his tiny bulk tank.

"The people in this community are amazing," Jeff says. "We are surrounded by neighbors and friends who helped us get to the point where we are now."

That point is a 53-cow Jersey milking herd, with the intent to grow to 100 cows. Jeff's hired some help with the milking and farm chores, as last year, after Hilltop Valley was sold to Schreiber Foods, he began working for Meister Cheese in Muscoda as their finance director and field rep.

With his unique skill sets of being able to run numbers, as well as knowing first-hand how dairy farms work, Jump holds a unique position at Meister Cheese - so unique that President Scott Meister can't figure out a title for him.

"We have to come up with a creative combination of Chief Financial Officer and Head Field Representative," Meister says. "Jeff's got it all - and he's got an amazing repertoire with our dairy farm patrons. We're very lucky to have found him."

I'd say Wisconsin is pretty lucky to have Jeff Jump and his family. As good stewards of the land, conscientious dairy farmers and active community members, perhaps the answer to growing America's Dairyland is to start luring the accountants out of Chicago, one prospective dairy farmer at a time.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Colby Conundrum

Jon Topp of Chesterfield, Missouri, is on a quest to find the Colby of his youth. Growing up in the 1960s in central Iowa near a small country store that carried the "absolute best Colby cheese," Jon remembers eating Colby in longhorns, wrapped in cloth and wax.

He can remember the taste like it was yesterday: mild, deliciously nutty, firm and laced with small holes. Most importantly, like much of the Colby made today, it wasn't cheddary. It was also rubbery, not gooey or wet and had the perfect salt to moisture ratio.

In short, it was perfect. And Jon Topp can no longer find it.

Jon emailed me a couple of weeks ago, attaching the most fabulous spreadsheet listing results of dozens of Colby cheeses he has ordered from Wisconsin cheesemakers during the past several years, all in a mission to find the original Colby of his childhood. Apparently, in an act of complete desperation, he decided to email the Cheese Underground Lady to see if I could help.

I put on my cheese superhero cape, fired up the bat signal and called the person I knew who could help: the amazing John Jaeggi from the Center for Dairy Research in Madison. And in the process, I learned a lot about Colby.

Brief background: Colby cheese was actually invented in Wisconsin by Joseph F. Steinwand in 1885. He named it for the township in which his father, Ambrose Steinwand, Sr., had built northern Clark County's first cheese factory three years before.

The Code of Federal Regulations - as specified in Sec. 133.118, describes the requirements for making Colby cheese. The key difference between cheddar and traditional Colby is that the mass is cut, stirred, and heated with continued stirring, to separate the whey and curd. Then, part of the whey is drained off, and the curd is cooled by adding water, with continued stirring, which is different from cheddar (no added water/rinse with cheddar). The Colby curd is then completely drained, salted, stirred, further drained, and pressed into forms, instead of being allowed to knit together like Cheddar.

According to John Jaeggi, this traditional make method allowed Colby a curdy texture with mechanical openings in the middle. The flavor was slightly sweet with a slight salty note. Best of all, he says, the cheese had a dairy, milky note.

All this was grand until sometime after the mid 1970s, (I can't find an exact date) the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture decided to amend the state standard of identity for Colby cheese, ATCP 81.50(2) by adding this little gem of a sentence:

"Wisconsin certified premium grade AA colby and monterey (jack) cheese shall be reasonably firm. The cheese may have evenly distributed small mechanical openings or a closed body."

This annotation, especially the portion I've highlighted in red, has led to significant changes in the make process of Colby by Wisconsin manufacturers. Because mechanical openings are no longer required of Colby, many processors are making a cheese that resembles mild cheddar and labeling it as Colby. John Jaeggi says that technology improvements have also changed Colby.

"I think cultures are faster. Older cultures were slower single strains, resulting in slower make times. These slower cultures tended to make for a sweeter cheese," Jaeggi says. Another change is the curd wash, he says. Many large manufacturers now do a curd rinse (no hold) after dropping the curd pH down to a 5.60. Old time Colby makers used to drain whey to the curd line while the curd was still sweet - at 6.00 pH or higher. Then after the whey was drained to the curd line, water was added to drop the curd temperature to a set target. After 15 minutes, the whey/water was drained off the curd and then the curd was salted. Most of the acid developed in the press. The reason this changed was larger plants understandably did not want to process all that water along with the whey.

Also, the hoop sizes and pressing of the cheeses is much different today than it was back in the day, Jaeggi says. Traditional Colby was made in the longhorn shape and pressed in 13 pound horns. They were then waxed for sale. Other plants made Colby in 40 pound blocks.

A Wisconsin cheese company still making Colby in those 40-pound blocks is Hook's Cheese in Mineral Point. Back in 1982, cheesemaker Julie Hook actually captured the World Championship Cheese Contest with her Colby, and husband Tony and fellow cheesemaker says they haven't changed the recipe since then.

"We can't keep up with demand," Tony told me this week. "Usually, we sell Colby at 4-6 weeks because that's when I think it's at its peak, but lately we've been selling it even younger because people seem to like it so much."

Tony says he is one of very few cheesemakers still making traditional Colby - washing the curd and not pressing it in a huge vacuum machine, which closes the small mechanical holes that used to make Colby, well, Colby. "We're still making it the old fashioned way. We're not cutting corners and we're not cutting up mild cheddar and calling it Colby. Our Colby is real."

Two other cheese plants still making Colby in the traditional manner, according to Hook (and who, coincidentally both received the highest rankings by Jon Topp in his cheese quest - Jon hasn't yet tried Hook's Colby), are Widmer's Cheese Cellars in Theresa, Wis., and Gile Cheese & Carr Cheese Factory in Cuba City.

Sadly, Topp may never find the Colby he grew up with, Jaeggi says. "Most traditional Colby was made by small cheesemakers in the 50s, 60s and into the early 70s. Each factory has their own unique flavor profile. What Jon is remembering from the Colby (he grew up on in Iowa) is possibly a flavor profile from some long gone small cheese factory."

Keep the faith, Mr. Jon Topp. And keep us posted if you find the cheese of your childhood.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Antithesis of a Cheese Snob

"Cheese is food, not a status symbol."

And with that simple sentence, Gordon Edgar won me over in his new book, "Cheesemonger, A Life on the Wedge" (Chelsea Green Publishing, January 2010, $17.95). As the cheese buyer for Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco, Gordon was a cheesemonger before cheesemongering was cool. He's the Barbara Mandrell of the cheese counter.

Fifteen years ago, this former punk rocker bluffed his way into being hired at Rainbow by proclaiming his favorite cheese was “anything raw and rennetless.” Today, he's considered to be one of the hippest, most knowledgeable cheese buyers in the country.

I bought and sped read his book last week as a writing assignment for a magazine and have to admit I was not looking forward to it, as I've really started dreading reading cheese books. Most of the cheese guides hitting the book stores these days are full of pretentious verbiage written by people who assume that by reputation alone, they are THE authority on cheese.

Not Gordon. While several parts of his book caught me off guard - as in spew coffee through my nose surprised - the preface alone was enduring. Here's how Gordon starts:

"There are plenty of great cheese guidebooks out there. This is not one of them." Alrighty then. Well, Cheese Underground readers, I guarantee that by the end of Gordon's book, you'll disagree. While "Cheesemonger" is billed as the story of one guy's memoir of his journey into the cheese business, it's also an inspiring, introspective read for people like me who have always struggled with being cool enough to fit into the hip cheese crowd.

Not that I really fit into any hip crowd - evidenced by the episode this morning at the doctor's office with my daughter. After speed reading Gordon's book for the assignment last week, this week I've been carrying it with me everywhere, taking my time, re-reading it word for word and highlighting passages that especially speak to me. My daughter, who is almost always embarrassed by the fact that she has a mother who eats and writes about cheese for a living, was literally mortified when I pulled the book out of my bag and started talking it up to a complete stranger this morning who, like us, was waiting for his throat culture results (strep throat is making the rounds). Avery immediately ditched me and sprinted across the room, not wanting to be seen sitting with the resident cheese geek.

But now, thanks to Gordon, I fully and whole-heartedly am embracing my inner cheese geekness. I am proud to join Gordon as a fearless leader of non-snobs o' cheese everywhere, keeping in mind that "in the end, the cheese always does the talking."

Amazing cheese doesn't need people like me describing it as a frou frou piece of art. It also doesn't need pretentious authors talking up its "artisan" characteristics or its "terroir." One of my favorite parts of Gordon's book is actually the “Cheese Buying for Beginners” appendix, with helpful hints such as to spend your money on real Parmigiano Reggiano. He states: "Some Reggianos are better than others, but all are top quality. For the sake of Sweet Cheesus, don't buy it pre-grated unless you doing a large event."

Gordon reminds the reader that after all, cheese is just food. Eat it. Enjoy it. Don't be afraid of it, and don't let other people tell you what you like or dislike. And by all means, "buy the cheese that makes you happy." Well said.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Gateway Drug of Cheese

If Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook at Carr Valley Cheese was required to wear every medal, carry every trophy and don every ribbon he's ever won for making specialty cheeses in the state, he wouldn't be able to move under all the weight. Clocking in at more than 200 state, national and international awards in the past five years alone, the man officially is a cheese genius.

The inventor of at least 50 American Original cheeses -- that means he simply made them up, such as an author writing 50 works of fiction -- I like to view Sid's cheeses as the gateway drug to the artisan and specialty cheese world. While each cheese is a masterpiece in its own right, taken together in a wine and cheese pairing, for example, they can often change the mind of someone who is convinced they don't like goat, sheep or "those artisan frou frou cheeses."

While I've always been a fan of several of his cheeses, including Cave Aged Mellage - a blend of sheep, goat and cow milk, as well as Mobay - Sid's whimsical take on the famous French cheese, Morbier, with a layer of sheep milk cheese and a layer of goat milk cheese separated by a layer of grape vine ash and pressed together -- I often discover a "new" Carr Valley cheese that I've never heard of before, and then I find out he's been making it for three years.

Take Chevre Au Lait, for example. Yes, say it out loud and you'll hear an example of Sid's sense of humor. Behind its silly name, however, is a complex, aged, crumbly goat milk cheese, with just the right amount of flavor kick. The piece I had last week was 1-1/2 years old, and it was at its peak. Pair it with a light bodied red wine, and you've got yourself an excellent conversation starter.

While Sid has legions of fans, he also has his detractors. There are those who complain about how many awards he wins at the annual American Cheese Society, and those who insist his American Originals aren't artisan cheeses because he doesn't make them in super small batches. I would tell those folks to visit his factories in LaValle and Mauston and watch any and all of his cheeses still being made in open vats, with cheesemakers boasting more than 50 years of experience still putting their hand in the curd to decide when it should be cut.

Sid and the men and women working for him are some of the most knowledgeable cheesemakers in the world. They deserve each and every ribbon they win, and instead of resting on their laurels, are crafting brand new cheeses every year. It sometimes just takes me a while to discover each and every one.