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Cheese is an extension of dairyman’s personality

Published on 28 December 2009
Kenny Mattingly and cheese

Kenny Mattingly did not plan on becoming a cheese maker when he decided to return to his family farm in Austin, Kentucky. He just wanted to get back to doing something he loved, being a dairy farmer like his father.

“My dad was ready to phase out of farming full-time, and my interest was to make my living on this farm,” Kenny says. “With the dairy industry as it was in the early 90s, I knew we had to make changes to find a way to make the farm sustainable so we could make a living dairy farming.”

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It was during this transition period from father to son that Kenny went on a trip to Europe with Community Farm Alliance. While there he saw the small farms of Western Europe and experienced the relationship that many Europeans have to their farmers and the local, fresh and artisan foods.

He was inspired to see how small farming operations weren’t getting bigger to survive, like was the trend in many parts of America. Instead these small European farmers were adding value to the products they were producing, many right on their own farm.

“The value-added idea really appealed to me, as did the idea of selling our food to the community,” said Kenny. “So over the next few years we began making plans to add value to the milk we produced on our farm.”

Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese was born in 1998 when the first batch of Gouda was made, and since then has grown into a family business that produces more than 70,000 pounds of farm fresh cheese a year.

Making of a cheese maker

In the beginning Kenny chose to remain the herdsman on the dairy farm, and only helped his father and mother make the cheese when needed. Then about three years into the business his parents decided to step away from the daily responsibility of making cheese and Kenny stepped into the role of primary cheese maker.

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“I quickly got bored with making the three cheeses we had at that time, Gouda, Colby, and Cheddar,” laughed Kenny. “So I started playing and began developing new cheeses, I think this was just an extension of my personality to take on new challenges.”

Today the family owned artisan cheese operation produces 27 varieties of cheese, but Kenny doesn’t plan to stop there. He believes the more cheese he makes the more confident he becomes in his abilities, and then he sees more out there he wants to try.

“I guess you could say my cheese making is an extension of my personality,” laughed Kenny. “I’m a multi-tasker, I like a challenge, and I never slow down, that is how I’ve approached cheese making over the years.”

The Farmhouse Cheese Shop

Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese shop is located on the Mattingly family farm in Austin. Customers are encouraged to come out and visit the shop, see where the cheese is made and of course meet the cows that make it all possible.

Even though they encourage customers to come out and visit the cheese shop, Kenny points out that the majority of their cheese is not sold to individual customers at the shop. Instead, most individuals that enjoy Kenny’s Farmhouse cheese purchase it at farmers’ markets or specialty stores across the state. Also many people are introduced to the cheeses at restaurants that have put the cheeses on their menu.

Kenny admits that there is a part of him that would like to see one of their cheeses on a shelf in a New York City specialty market, but he isn’t as focused on the national marketing scene as he once was.

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Planning for the future

Kenny recognizes that the business has grown quickly, with recent years seeing a 30 percent growth in sales. As a result, the focus for the small family operation has been more on ensuring quality product is available to customers. As the third generation looks to return to the family farm and cheese business, the challenge for the Mattingly family now is looking at ways to continue to grow, yet remain a sustainable farming operation.

“I think for now we need to focus on what we do best,” said Kenny in talking about the future of the operation. “That is producing milk from cows raised on a sustainable family farm, and then taking that raw, unpasteurized milk and making our quality line of cheeses.” PD

—Excerpts from the Kentucky Center for Agricultural and Rural Development news release

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