By Isaac Bonnell
With autumn upon us, the tastes of summer are slowly fading into memory. Fresh veggies straight from the garden and local u-pick berries make way for hardy winter crops and warm, hearty soups.
But one local food is always in season: cheese. And Whatcom County produces a lot of it. From goat cheese to raw milk cheese to fresh cheeses such as quark and paneer, local dairy farmers are capitalizing on the growing market for fine farmstead products.
In late August, Silver Springs Creamery, the newest artisan cheese maker in the county, was bestowed with two first-place awards at the annual American Cheese Society convention in Seattle. The creamery’s Farm Fresh Jersey Yogurt was named the best all-milk yogurt in North America and its aged goat’s milk cheese called Big D won first place in its category.
For owner Eric Sundstrom, the awards are a perfect capstone to what has otherwise been a rocky start for his business. He bought the 37-acre dairy farm in 2006, fixed it up and bought Jersey cows with the intent of making his own cheese. A devastating arson in 2007 destroyed the barn, killed some of his cows and set him back a few years, but the event has changed the business for the better.
“After the fire, we got goats to take the kids’ minds off of the loss of the cows,” Sundstrom said. “The goats have helped a lot. If we were to have only cows, we wouldn’t be doing as well.”
In fact, the goat milk and goat cheeses are selling so well that Sundstrom can barely keep up with demand. He used to make a “LaJersey” cheese with milk from his Jersey cows and his LaMancha goats, but now his 13 goats can’t produce enough milk to make fresh milk, yogurt and three kinds of goat cheese.
Help is on the way, though. Goats typically have two to three kids a season, meaning a herd can grow quickly. Sundstrom is expecting to have 40 milking goats next spring.
With just eight cows and 13 goats, Sundstrom has his hands full. He milks at 6 a.m. and at 6 p.m. He grows his own hay on the property. He bottles milk daily and makes cheese every three days. Then there’s farmers markets and running the farm store.
But Sundstrom, who has a degree in dairy manufacturing from South Dakota State University, enjoys every minute of it.
“I worked for the big companies for a while and decided that’s not what I wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to run a farm,” he said. “You can set your own schedule — but it’s still a busy schedule.”
Pleasant Valley Dairy
Making cheese at Pleasant Valley Dairy is a family affair. Joyce Snook makes the cheese, her son, Seth, oversees the dairy and her daughter, Mattie, runs the farm store. Over the years, they’ve all taken their turns at making cheese, Mattie said, so not a day of production is missed if someone is ill.
Joyce first learned how to make cheese from her father, who started the dairy farm in 1963 and began making cheese about ten years after that.
“They made the first batch in the kitchen,” Joyce said.
The farm has since grown to include 60 cows that produce enough milk to sell to Darigold and make about 130 pounds of cheese a day. And the farm now produces eight different cheeses: six varieties of gouda, a farmstead cheese, and mutschli, which is similar to Swiss cheese.
From the beginning, the goal has been to make wholesome cheese from the highest quality milk, Joyce said. For that reason, Pleasant Valley uses raw milk – meaning it hasn’t been pasteurized – to make its cheese, he said.
Remaining small and family-operated is another important goal for the dairy, Snook said. Pleasant Valley cheese is only available locally, and much of it is sold through its farm store.
“We don’t want to send a whole batch of cheese to California just because a few people down there want it,” Snook said, referencing to the amount of fuel it takes to deliver a few pounds of cheese.
Basically, her motto is that cheese produced here should be enjoyed here.
Appel Farms is by far the largest producer of cheese in the county, with 300 cows and 20 employees who make cheese six days a week. Much of that success has come from two types of cheese that are not seen in most grocery stores: quark and paneer.
Quark is a fresh cheese that is popular in Eastern Europe and paneer is a fresh cheese that is common in India.
“When I talk to tours, most people have never heard of cheese like quark and paneer,” said John Appel, who owns the farm with his brother Rich.
Cheesemaking runs deep in the Appel family. John’s father started the dairy farm in 1966 after moving to Ferndale from Holland. At that point, making cheese was more of a hobby and friends and relatives would often get a gift of gouda during the holidays.
Then a German businessman asked if Appel’s father could make quark to sell in German delis. Production began in 1988 and now Appel Farms markets the cheese under its own brand.
“Once we started making quark, that’s when the cheese business took off,” Appel said, adding that many European expats were thrilled to have a taste of home. “We got letters for the first 15 years from people who couldn’t find it in this country.”
The Appel family happened upon paneer in a similar way. An East Indian man approached them about making paneer to sell in specialty stores and now it’s one of the best-selling cheeses on the farm.
“If enough people ask for a certain kind of cheese and I can figure out how to make it, we’ll market it,” Appel said.
Along with quark and paneer, Appel Farms makes a wide selection of flavored goudas and cheddars, feta and squeaky cheese, a type of fresh cheese curd.
So no matter what season it is or whatever cheese your taste buds prefer, local cheesemakers are sure to have the right snack for your tastes.