Two brothers dream of helping a struggling economy and saving Vermont's rural landscape by returning to raw-milk cheese production.
Brothers Andy and Mateo Kehler live in Greensboro, Vermont. With a population of 200, it is little more than a handful of unpaved roads in the rural north of the state. The Kehlers make raw-milk cheese on their farm, Jasper Hill, and also age cheeses from other small farms in the area in their Cellars at Jasper Hill, part of a small cultural revolution changing the world of American raw-milk cheeses. The aim of these visionaries is simple: to preserve Vermont's landscape, traditions and local economy through high-quality and high-value cheese.
Jasper Hill Farm and Cellars at Jasper Hill represent above all a commitment towards a place that the Kehlers love. Milk for butter and cream has been produced here since the 19th century. Problems arose when many of the local farms decided to sell only milk. Fluctuating market prices and tough competition from Midwestern states, with their immense plains and mild climate, led to the failure of many farms.
"In 1955, there were 12,000 dairy farms in Vermont and there are just under 1,000 left. Now the economy is largely tourism, which is based on the work that is done by the farmers and the timber industry. They make this state look so beautiful!" says Andy Kehler. "As for Greensboro, in 1973 there were 35 farms. In 1998 there were ten, now there are eight. Dairy is struggling. In the last ten years there have only been two years where the price paid was more than the price received for milk."
Clearly it was necessary to find a solution to avoid the complete extinction of the dairy industry, so well suited to the state. That solution was to make cheese. By moving from selling milk to producing cheese, producers were free to decide their selling price and could finally make a reasonable living. Not that the transition was simple: It required knowledge, technical assistance and suitable facilities.
"Cheesemaking is not a professional career in the United States like in Europe. It is difficult and takes a lot of time to get new cheesemakers at a technical proficiency to be profitable," explains Andy. And this is where the Cellars at Jasper Hill come in, a complex of seven aging caves kept at different temperatures and humidity levels, ready to house a wide variety of cheeses. The Kehlers also offer assistance, facilities and production and aging know-how to anyone who wants to start making artisanal cheese.
The Kehlers' strategy
The idea is simple: Small-scale producers who have a farm and dairy cows can start making cheese with the support of the Kehlers, who are present from the outset and help resolve any hitches along the way. The style of cheese is decided by the cheesemaker, depending on the type of cows and their own preferences.
After production, the cheeses are sent to the Cellars at Jasper Hill caves to be aged by professionals who can increase their value and quality. They are then distributed through the Kehlers' extensive network. As a result producers increase their earnings, are motivated to keep improving and stay on the market and in the local area. But as Mateo says, "the Cellars will only be successful if there are more than 10 farms in Greensboro in the next five years."
Setting up the Cellars required a significant investment and a detailed business plan. The majority of the funding comes from the Cabot Creamery cooperative, which entrusted the Kehlers with the aging of their flagship cheese, a traditional raw-milk Cheddar. By working with the cooperative, the Kehlers have been able to pay the costs of building the caves and to invest in new projects. Cellars at Jasper Hill became operative in 2008, but it will take 30 years to repay the initial set-up costs. And the biggest investment has yet to come: completely filling all seven caves, which will require involving more producers and selling more cheese.
In an article in Diner Journal, Mateo wrote: "Our goal is to double the number of cheesemakers in Vermont over the next ten years. The Cellars is a bank, trading on cheese and banking on the future. Cheese is a store of value, an original form of capital that increases in value over time. We have a comparative advantage; it is not the production of fluid milk, it is the green, green grass, and we seek to create longevity and break the burst cycle by seeking out those aspects of our landscape that contribute to the uniqueness of our products, because those can never been co-opted and mass-produced on the far side. We are building a local economy that is an expression of the landscape".
The Kehlers make four cheeses from the milk of their 45 Ayrshire cows: raw-milk Bayley Hazen Blue; Moses Sleeper and Constant Bliss, both bloomy rind; raw-milk Winnimere, whose rind is washed in a lambic beer from a local microbrewery; and Harbison, a bark-wrapped bloomy rind cheese.
In addition to their cheeses and Cabot Cheddar, the caves house cheeses from other small-scale producers in the area: Oma from Von Trapp Farmstead, Landaff from Landaff Creamery, Hartwell from Ploughgate Creamery, Weybridge from Scholten Family Farm and Ascutney Mountain from Cobb Hill, an agricultural commune. The hope is that many more will join the group, inspired by the venture's success.
Cellars at Jasper Hill is the result of a dream, a gamble, a clear entrepreneurial vision. It speaks of a passion for good cheese made from raw milk, cheese that expresses where it's made and the people who make it. The vision might be outside the mainstream in the United States, but it is attracting more and more attention. As Mateo says, "it is totally appropriate to remember that all capital originates with sunshine and soil."