From the Burbs to the Curds
Artisan Cheese Makers Embrace Voluntary Conservation at Award-Winning Vermont Dairy
by Amy Overstreet
The story behind Vermont’s Consider Bardwell could be the plot for a really great movie. The lead characters are Russell and Angela, two New York City executives who decide in their fifties they want to buy a farm, raise goats, and be artisan cheesemakers. The setting is a 300-acre dairy farm and cheese operation in West Pawlet, Vermont. And the best part of the story? They had no previous farming experience. What could have been a comedy is an inspiring story of dedication and perseverance. This is the true tale of an architect and a literary agent who pursue a dream to farm sustainably through a voluntary conservation approach, and create a unique farm-to-plate product. And their partnership with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is helping to ensure the health of the natural resources on their farm.
The story begins in 2000, when the couple visited friends in Dorset, Vermont. They were inspired to search for their own farmstead, and discovered a beautiful property straddling Vermont and their home state of New York. They made an offer and closed on the property in 2001. But, Angela admits they knew little about managing land and nothing about farming. “I was scared to go back in the woods when we were looking at the property!” she remembers. Soon after purchase, they connected with local NRCS soil conservationist, Sally Eugair, to improve the farm through participation in two Farm Bill programs.
They secured Vermont’s first Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) easement in 2011. This program was rolled into the new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) in the 2014 Farm Bill. The GRP easement permanently protects 195-acres of healthy grazing lands for their herd of Oberhasli goats and enabled them to convert all the continuously cropped cornfields to lush, healthy grasslands. They learned that converting the cropland to grass provided a healthy and sustainable forage source for their goats and also protected water quality. “The grasslands also provide a valuable nesting and breeding area for many bird species,” explained Eugair. They also installed vegetative filter strips along the riverbank to prevent harmful runoff from entering the waterbody.
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) enabled the couple to provide a high quality forage source for the goat herd. Their EQIP plan helped them in many ways including installing fences to restrict animal access to waterbodies, implementing prescribed grazing, pasture and hayland planting, tree planting, and transitioning their pastures to an organic seed mix. Well-managed grazing systems improve the health and vigor of plants, enhance water quality, and reduce soil erosion. Their prescribed grazing plan allows the grass to recover while paddocks are resting and encourages the animals to uniformly graze the land.
The dairy has a rich history that began in 1864, when Consider Stebbins Bardwell started the first cheesemaking cooperative in Vermont. Russell and Angela started from scratch when they made the decision to revive the farm, and embarked on a quest to teach themselves everything they could about the art of cheesemaking. They took courses and consulted with experts in the field. They received their Vermont creamery license in 2004, and started making and selling cheese commercially. Today, they have a full-time staff of 20, including three cheesemakers who produce small batches of cheese from unpasteurized milk that is antibiotic and hormone free. Last year, they made over 97,000 pounds of cheese from the milk of 150 goats and 65 cows without the use of pesticides or fertilizers. And, their cheeses have been winning national and international awards for the past ten years, and their product is served in some of the nation’s finest restaurants.
There are many keys to their success, but Russell’s skills as an architect were a “secret weapon” in the design of their operation. He was the architect of the special caves where the cheese is aged. They also learned they needed cow’s milk because goats only produce eight months of the year. So, they worked with local dairy farmers to secure a steady source of high quality cow’s milk. Their other secret weapon is Leslie Goff, who started helping out at the dairy in 2005 at age fifteen, milking goats. Eleven years later, Goff is the Creamery Manager and Head Cheesemaker, overseeing all production and supervising a staff of five. “I fell in love with the cheese making process and the satisfaction of continuously improving and developing a great product,” she explains.
A typical day for a cheesemaker includes washing vats and equipment, turning the cheeses from the previous day, and lots of cleaning. “In a creamery, cleaning is about 80% of the job,” says Goff. A typical part of the work also includes milking the goats and managing the delivery of cow milk that arrives from three partner farms. The cheese then sits on wire racks to dry for a few days, and when absolutely dry, it goes into the cave to age. “The thing I love most about being a cheesemaker is being able to work with local farmers and help support them. I’m proud to work with some of the best quality milk producers in Vermont, and because cheese starts with the milk, it is very important to have the purest raw ingredient available to make the best cheese in the country.” They use only microbial (non-animal) rennet in their cheese making (used in the production of most cheeses) and their non-animal alternative is suitable for consumption by vegetarians. The rennet is what starts the coagulation of the milk or the formation of the curds.
When asked about the future of the business, Angela and Russell hope to expand. “We are not the kind to retire,” they explain. Both still maintain their full-time jobs as an architect and literary agent. Russell says he believes part of their success is due to their ‘vertically integrated business’ approach. “We raise the animals, make the cheese with milk that we produce, and personally take our product all the way to the consumers.” They believe this is important to their audience who are more aware of how their food is produced.
And, their dedication to voluntary conservation is ensuring that the natural resources at Consider Bardwell will be healthy and vibrant for generations to come. This real-life city slicker-turned-farmer success story, which unfolds much like a movie script, is nowhere near its conclusion. With the couple’s dedication and passion for what they do, the story of Consider Bardwell is just beginning.
Amy Overstreet is the Public Information Officer for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Vermont. She can be reached at 802-951-6796 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, visit http://www.considerbardwellfarm.com.