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Calkins Creamery grows with an arsenal of artisanal cheeses

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairyman Published on 15 May 2017
Highland Farm

Emily and Jay Montgomery came home to Highland Farm, operated today by Emily’s father and brother, William and Zack Bryant, in 2006. The farm, located in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, has been in the family for seven generations.

Milking 86 registered Holsteins, with a closed herd of roughly 160 head, the family owns 260 acres and farms about 300 acres.

With degrees in food science and experience in the corporate food industry, the couple established Calkins Creamery. Construction on the creamery, once underway, took nine months. Emily Montgomery educated herself about cheese making, taking classes, reading books and practicing at home. Attempting to begin the creamery debt-free meant working off-farm during the planning process. Her husband continues to be employed off-farm to provide health insurance and retirement benefits for the family.

The creamery, located on the farm, is a “separate entity” than the dairy farm itself, Emily Montgomery, speaking at the On-Farm Processing Forum held in 2016 by the Center for Dairy Excellence, said. “We do it to try to help sustain the farm. When you farm, it’s in your blood.”

Highland Farm cows

Creamery basics

The creamery uses about 40 percent of the dairy farm’s milk output, purchasing the milk at $2 over current milk pricing. They use the milk to make both aged raw milk cheese and fresh pasteurized varieties. Pasteurization is via vat pasteurization.

It takes 10 pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese, Montgomery said. Cheese making is an all-day process and involves as much sanitation and cleaning as it does dairy processing. Sanitation requires about two hours in the morning and two more at the end of the day, she said.

The creamery began with six aged raw milk cheeses, made a few days each week and sold via several farmers’ markets. They now offer more than a dozen raw aged cheeses, with both wax and natural rind varieties.

Pasteurized cheeses were added six years ago. Unlike the aged raw milk cheeses, these cheeses can be sold immediately. They now make cheese every day, sell via numerous retail outlets in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and process cheese five days per week.

The pasteurized cheeses, particularly cheese spreads, as well as cheese curds – made one day each week – are “a growing market.”

The creamery now participates in one farmers’ market, where sales are very vigorous. Farmers’ markets are labor-intensive, weather-dependent and require too much sampling to be sustainable for the creamery. They do have a very small retail space on the farm, but are located “in the middle of nowhere.” Instead, they have cultivated a niche delivering to New York City and Philadelphia outlets. Their delivery routes to each city run every other week, on alternate weeks.

The farm also ships its cheeses nationally, as well as to some international addresses.

“It’s an avenue that a lot of people don’t do,” Montgomery said of shipping. They ship via UPS Monday through Thursday, ensuring customers get their delivery promptly and perishables are delivered fresh.

There are 10 employees at the creamery, four of whom are full-time. Employees are needed from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. for cheese making. The creamery is currently producing 1,000 pounds of raw milk cheeses per week and about 500 pounds of pasteurized cheeses each week.

Calkins Creamery Daisy and Vampire cheese

Expanded demand

In 2007, the creamery utilized a mere 137,000 pounds of milk. Today, the annual amount of milk needed for their production of cheeses is 528,000 pounds. They’ve increased their varieties to include 20 types of cheese, although having too much diversity can complicate things needlessly, Montgomery said, with each cheese requiring its own production schedule. Soft, slow-drain cheeses require two days each to make, for example.

“It’s a production nightmare,” with all of the varieties being made, she said. “It was a lot simpler when it was just me doing cheese two days per week.”

As they have gotten bigger, they have focused on maintaining quality. Calkins Creamery cheeses have won many awards throughout the years. Cooking Lite magazine featured their “Noble Road” Brie-style rounds in 2012. At the 2016 Pennsylvania Farm Show Cheese Competition, the creamery took home awards in several categories.

“Quality is your main thing,” Montgomery said. “Repeatability” is key to your reputation and success.

The creamery’s cheese sales are now primarily wholesale. While they make less profit per unit this way, other benefits – such as more time to make cheese and less to spend selling it – make this a profitable sales approach for the farm. Advertising, as it has been from the beginning, remains word of mouth.

Many wholesale clients require a hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) plan and send auditors out to the farm. With numerous wholesale accounts, the paperwork has increased exponentially. Employee training is substantial too. While sales continue to increase overall each year, each individual account changes on a monthly basis.

In 2010, the farm began operating a cave system in which they age their cheeses. The state-approved caves allowed the creamery not only to expand production, but to age cheeses for longer than the 60 days required by law, enhancing their offerings.

Calkins Creamery cheese curds

Planning for processing

Montgomery offered some advice for those producers contemplating processing their milk. Before doing anything, meet with the inspectors to better understand the regulations, study the sanitation requirements and plan for growth. Design of the facility is important, and Montgomery recommended having the design process completed by an expert. Visiting other creameries and asking questions are important parts of the planning process.

She noted that the Food and Drug Administration has recently increased inspections of smaller processors, and these random inspections and testing can be intensive and burdensome. State inspections happen every three months too. Mock recalls, where the creamery practices tracking its products, are conducted regularly.

“Food safety is what you’re trying to do,” Montgomery said.

Consider your milk supply. Is it high-quality, and is the supply reliable? What type of cheese do you want to make? What is your target market and how will you reach it? Do you understand the capital costs involved in this type of endeavor, and do you have a plan to realistically finance the operation? Producers need to ask – and answer – these questions early in the planning stage, she recommended.

It isn’t all work and no play at Calkins Creamery, and cheese making is a rewarding way to capture the value of the dairy farm’s milk, and allow the next generation to remain on the farm. Because being a part of the community is an integral part of the small farm, the creamery sponsors an annual “Herd the Curd” 5K run/walk, which rewards participants with cheese curds and allows the family to honor her deceased brother, who was a partner in the farm as well as a firefighter. A percentage of sales of “Smoke Signal,” a Calkins Creamery cheese, are donated to his memorial fund.

“It’s good for us, because of the outreach and support” that the event brings to the creamery, Montgomery said. And “it’s a way to give back to the community.”  end mark

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.

PHOTO 1: Calkins Creamery purchases the milk above current pricing to help keep the dairy, Highland Farm, profitable now and in the future.

PHOTO 2: The milking herd consists of 86 registered Holsteins.

PHOTO 3: Cheeses are given unique names, to avoid fines should the exact composition not measure up to federal regulations about cheese types, such as "cheddar." The names also reflect aspects of the farm's history and heritage, or individual cheese characteristics.

PHOTO 4: Cheese curds, made one day each week, are “ a growing market,” Emily Montgomery said. Photos provided by Emily Montgomery.

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