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Cheese to Please: Couple morphed dairy farm into maker of coveted, artisanal food

By Michael Hastings

Article from journalnow.com


Kendall Russell, an intern at Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, Va., washes the rinds of cheese
in the cheese cellar. Washing the rinds helps the cheese ripen. Journal Photo by Jennifer Rotenizer

When Rick and Helen Feete were married in 1977, they decided they didn't want to live in the corporate world. Instead, they chose life on a farm.

"We were basically fleeing the city for a place where they don't have interstates," Rick Feete said.

His wife added, "This was the '70s and everyone was thinking ‘back to the land' and self-sufficiency."

The couple worked on a dairy farm in Harrisonburg, Va., for a few years to learn the business. They eventually bought a farm in southern Virginia, near the North Carolina line.

They opened their commercial dairy in 1988, then moved to a new 175-acre property outside Galax in 1993 when they wanted to expand.

In 1998, Helen Feete started making cheese from the milk of their Jersey and Jersey cross-breed cows. And now Meadow Creek Dairy is winning awards and national recognition for its cheese.

People can buy their cheese in such well-known places as Murray's Cheese Shop in New York. It even has been served in the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., considered one of the best restaurants in the country.

In Winston-Salem, the cheese is sold at City Beverage and Whole Foods Market. City Beverage will have a beer-and-cheese tasting featuring Meadow Creek this Saturday from noon to 4 p.m.

Meadow Creek has a herd of about 150 cows, 90 of which are currently milking.

The Feetes raise their cows on pasture for the best milk. They are making cheese five days of week right now because this is the time of year when cows give the most milk.

"Cheese was in my mind probably from the second or third year we were in business," Helen Feete said of the couple's decision to switch from just a dairy farm to farmstead cheese producer.

"One reason is that it's a value-added product. The other was purely personal interest on my part. I've always been interested in food and cooking."

Even after the idea of making cheese got into their heads, they spent years getting the milk business on a solid footing. "We wanted to make sure the dairy was making money. Really, the dairy has funded the cheese business," Helen Feete said.

The Feetes still sell milk, but they are making more cheese every year. Last year, their cows produced 116,000 gallons of milk. Rick Feete said they used about 50 percent to make 64,000 pounds of cheese. But about 75 percent of the revenue came from cheese.

Rick Feete and his son, Jim, 26, handle the farming. They have studied New Zealand dairy practices to make the farm more efficient, including an open-air milking room that is less stressful and more "cow-friendly" because it does not close in the cows.

Their daughter, Kathleen, 28, now helps Helen Feete make the cheese. Altogether about 10 people work on the farm, including interns. Meadow Creek's growing reputation has attracted people from as far away as Venezuela who want to learn how to make artisanal, hand-crafted cheese.

Meadow Creek is part of a nationwide movement to develop new, distinctive types of American cheese. The idea is to create a cheese that no one else has -- and to make it by hand in relatively small quantities. That allows artisanal cheese makers to charge a premium price. Meadow Creek sells most of its cheese wholesale, but retailers generally charge about $20 a pound for it. Meadow Creek will sell directly to consumers by appointment, but it does not give tours of the farm.

Meadow Creek makes three kinds of cheese. All are made with raw milk, which Feete prefers because she thinks it leads to better flavors than pasteurized milk. For safety reasons, federal law requires her to age all raw-milk cheese at least 60 days at a temperature of about 38 degrees.

Many bacteria will "age out" over 60 days, she said, and any other bacteria, such as E. coli, will become visible by then.

Feete is confident of the cleanliness of her operation, but she also gets samples of milk, cheese and swabs of the cheese-making area tested monthly.

Before Helen Feete started making cheese, she took a cheese-making course at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif. She and her husband also travel to Europe to study the European styles of cheese-making that they prefer.

Still, she said, her education in cheese making is ongoing.

"It's been maybe the past four years I really started getting it together with the Grayson," she said. "With every trip to Europe, I've really increased my knowledge. I've seen what I need to do with the cheese."

She used to make a fourth cheese called Whitetop, but finally had to give up on it. "When it turned out good, it was great. When it didn't turn out, I had to throw too much away."

Feete hesitates to call cheese-making an art, but she said that it is a challenging craft that involves a lot of critical factors. "I've finally learned enough to see what variables I need to change to get the cheese I want," she said.

"Now I'm enjoying teaching it to others, and I love to see my daughter doing it."


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