Over the past summer, I decided to visit New York State's two non-profit commercial cheese making farms. The trip was a mix of work and pleasure; I interviewed the cheese makers, and then enjoyed their cheeses in the evening, with friends, over a campfire.
Teaching children to be stewards of the land is embedded into the mission statements of both Sprout Creek Farm (Poughkeepsie, NY) and Hawthorne Valley Farm (Ghent, NY). The not-for-profit models promote philosophies of sustainability and community, and challenge the notion that privately owned farms are the only option for the future of farming.
Margot Morris, President at Sprout Creek Farm, is the remaining founder since the farm’s inception in 1974. Her previous career was as a teacher in Connecticut.
“We came about at an interesting time, when students lives were becoming more structured, with less time to play outside and learn from each other,” Margot Morris said. It has been Sprout Creek Farm’s goal to provide a regional space for children to learn about nature and the cycle of life. “We don’t hide anything from the kids,” she said, referring to the frequent birth and death of animals on the farm.
Hawthorne Valley Farm has had a similar mantra since 1972. The farm is the first cheese making operation to be certified biodynamic in the country. Biodynamics, a holistic system of farming that aligns organic practices, animal welfare, and land preservation into its daily regimen, helps serve the farm’s largest interest in holistic education. The Hawthorne Valley School, located just across the street, is also a Waldorf School, and supports creative action and community building as center to their daily practice.
These farm sites offer up a new way to think of how farms can act as incubators for larger societal and agricultural change. The two farms serve as pioneers for the non-profit agricultural industry in the US, and as Morris jovially stated as she recounted the history of the farm, “We were all learning as we went. It made the teachers and the students work together as equals.” Hawthorne Valley follows a similar mantra. Jeremy Shapiro, one of Hawthorne’s young cheese makers, said, “We’re not doing this just to sell cheese.” However, like any small to medium scale farm, their major struggles are their financial ones.
Morris, an exuberant woman with a great passion for teaching, believes wholeheartedly that the Sprout Creek Farm model can be replicated. But she emphasized how important it is to be able to fundraise and think creatively about fundraising. Funding comes through mixed avenues: agricultural grants, product revenue, individual donations, and summer educational programs. Shapiro of Hawthorne Valley’s perspective was less optimistic, “Funding is always a problem.” They have just lost a $250,000 grant that funded cheese making costs. Their immediate solution is to rely on extra profits from their line of Sauerkraut, which is in fact their most lucrative product currently. Hawthorne also has an impressive farm store with a selection comparable to Whole Foods in its variety.
The farms also face another obstacle that small to medium scale agriculture faces: the current government still builds policy and regulations around large industrial scale farming. Artisan cheese making operations are familiar with the challenges in selling expensive, unsubsidized, cheeses. These farms must identify their market niche and cater to a specialty market of consumers that have the time and income to prioritize agricultural preservation. And the cheeses must be delicious and defined, catering to a large audience in terms of flavor profile. Morris, who speaks highly of her Head Cheese Maker Colin McGrath, said his mission in the cheese room is to, “influence the American palate with something palatable.”
Sprout Creek’s cheese making operation began in the early 1990s, and Morris credits their success to their Head Cheesemaker, McGrath, who has been working there as a cheesemaker since he was 19 years old. The cheeses have won numerous awards through the American Cheese Society, the U.S. Cheese Championship, and Good Food Awards. The cheeses are medium bodied, with just enough complexity and body to set them apart from the standard supermarket shelf. The majority of the cheeses are made with milk from their mixed herd of cows, but they also have two distinct goat cheeses; a fresh, sweet, milky goat cheese and an aged goat cheese with floral and mineral notes.
Currently, Hawthorne Valley seeks more distribution channels for their cheese, and they see re-branding as critical to their success. They initially started their cheese making in the 1990s by making standard products with no definitive names such as Cheddar, Swiss, and Havarti. They approached their cheeses as American staples in any household. Currently, however, the cheese makers and the marketing team are focused on making their cheeses stand out among the common staples. Though they have biodynamic, organic, and kosher certification, they believe it is not enough. It is necessary that they focus on the artistry and the craft in their marketing campaign. One example is the naming of a new Alpine style cheese as Mosaic, due to its characteristic rind mottled with colorful, edible flora from the cheese cave.
“Our labels were from the 1990s, it’s time for a change,” Shapiro said.
Hawthorne Valley’s New Branding
According to Morris, any cheese making operation that produces over 50,000 pounds of cheese a year will have major sustainability issues in terms of dairy byproducts. Namely, whey-the water content expelled during cheese making-and manure. Shapiro also agrees with this stance; larger creameries have environmental problems that become hazardous. The main example in New York is Chobani Yogurt, whose methods of straining their yogurt have had to dispose of 66 million gallons of acid whey in one year of production. “Whey can be nutritious for the soil and for pigs, but it has to managed. Otherwise, it’s toxic,” said Morris. Chobani is a classic example of capitalism scaled too rapidly; the state of New York eventually forced Chobani to shut down some of their factories due to their negative environmental impact. According to Shapiro, there are many local dairy farms who now currently have nowhere to sell their milk, which they had scaled in Chobani’s favor. Instead, these dairies will pour their milk down the drain while still being compensated through a Chobani severance pay. There is no current agricultural infrastructure that can manage this level of wasted product.
The future of non-profit farming is rooted in community development, according to Morris. The layout of her farm is designed to welcome the visitor, with glass windows that provide peeks into cheese making production and the animals in the barn. Morris would like to see her cobbled together model launched regionally, and she believes it’s possible.
“The world is ready, go get it,” Morris said. She emphasized how her initial career was not as a farmer, but as a teacher. She simply expressed her values through the farm medium.
Hawthorne Valley has an apprenticeship program for the future young farmers of America, and the majority of applicants are serious about their farming career.
“We live in a special area for farming. I’ve lived here all my life, and it is only after I returned from college that I realized it,” said Shapiro.
It is true that the future of this model of farming will rely on founders willing to wear many hats. A certain back to the land idealism can fuel the initial passion of non-profit farming pioneers. But in order to sustain this model, it will be essential to work with regional councilman, planners, and state government. When creating a more aggressive development plan, a deeper study of urban farm initiatives could also be beneficial. If done correctly, non-profit cheese farms have the potential to become a staple of American society.
How important do you think farming is to enhancing the quality of community life? Feel free to share anecdotes in the comment section below.