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New York graziers venture into cheesemaking

Cassi Jo Schriefer Published on 11 June 2015

dairy cows in a pasture

Around 8:30 p.m. on the night of Aug. 28, 1981, Gary Burley came home from visiting a neighbor of his and found the lights on in his barn. As he went out to see what was going on, he found his wife, Betty, very excited that their first cow had calved and was fresh to milk.

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Betty and Gary remember that night as vividly and lovingly as when they first started having children. To them, it was their dream finally coming true and the beginning of a life adventure (and many more dreams) in the dairy industry.

Their first fresh cow turned into many, and they now run 1,300 cows on two dairies and are opening a $3.7 million creamery as a way to market their milk in the form of cheese. Here is the story of how it all began and why they are embarking on a new journey of opening a creamery.

Gary and Betty both grew up in western upstate New York. Gary served for four years in the U.S. Army and had plans to go to college, but the love of the land and agriculture ran too deep in his soul, and he bought a farm instead. Betty graduated from high school and worked as a secretary for the county judge at the courthouse.

cows on pasture

There are a lot of things Gary and Betty could have learned in college, but hard work, dedication and making the most of life’s journey are things they can’t teach you at a university, and those traits are what have made the Burley family business what it is today.

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In April of 1981 (34 years ago for those who don’t want to do the math), Gary and Betty were married. They had purchased their first 100 acres in Warsaw the prior December, and they started their marriage with 19 mixed-breed dairy cows, or “mutts” as Gary calls them. Five children and several cows later, Gary and Betty now have two dairies, East Hill Farms LLC in Warsaw and Graceland Dairies LLC in Dansville.

The oldest daughter, Holly, manages Graceland with the help of her youngest brother, Kyle, who assists with feeding and managing cattle and seeing that the little things get done in Dansville. Gary and Betty’s oldest son, Rollin, followed in his father’s footsteps and is serving as a U.S. Army Warrant Officer W3 and is a Blackhawk helicopter instructor pilot. He has done two tours in Afghanistan flying Medevac.

The middle son, Ryan, is beginning to step into management at the home farm in Warsaw and is learning the ropes. The youngest daughter, Diana, works at East Hill and assists with bookkeeping and calf raising. Between the two farms they have 12 employees, more than 2,000 acres of pasture and grasslands (owned and rented), along with 700 acres of timber and a large vegetable garden for home use and canning.

Many people would be happy with the type of growth and success the Burley farms have experienced. The Burleys, however, are not ones to settle. They have decided to pursue their lifelong dream of making cheese.

dairy calves

They are a unique dairy as they have the ability to keep their cows on pasture eight to nine months of the year. This grass-fed milk gives them an incredible opportunity to make their own style of Alpine cheese, similar to the Beaufort and Gruyere style of cheeses made in the Alpine region of France.

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When asked why they would want to get into the cheese-making business, Gary and Betty said that they want to step back and give the next generation an opportunity to run the dairy and not shadow them.

As Gary said, “The next chapter of our life is the personal challenge and passion to turn our unique grass-fed milk into a special cheese far different than anything else on the market today. It gives us a sense of accomplishment and happiness to share health benefits, flavor and wholesome goodness with the world through our cheese and to give others an opportunity to help along the way.”

Their challenge first began when Gary and Betty decided to investigate cheesemaking about three years ago. They read that the New York Cheese Guild was hosting a cheese-making workshop on Saturday, so they went.

They learned the basics and realized how much local consumers are hungry for artisan cheeses. They made multiple practice batches at home for fun. They decided to join the American Cheese Society and attended their annual conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2012.

They were exposed to at least 1,500 different cheeses that week, and they were able to “rub elbows with the best.” They saw all sorts of cheddars, Goudas, mozzarellas, Brie, etc., but they knew they wanted to make a very unique cheese unlike any of these.

dairy cows on pasture

They continued to seek educational opportunities and participated in a basic cheese-making course offered at Cornell University. Through the course, they learned about a “Cheese Boot Camp” offered by Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York City.They journeyed to NYC for that class via Amtrak and learned a lot more about cheeses.

After all this, their hearts were still drawn back to the Alpine-style cheeses, and they knew that’s what they wanted to produce. So they decided to go to none other than the Alpine region of France to learn more from the true experts of alpine-style cheesemaking.

It was in France in January 2014 where the Burleys met Alexandre Pellicier. (A friend and fellow creamery owner introduced them.) Alex grew up milking cows on the sides of mountains in France and learned to make cheese when he was 15.

He consults part-time for people like the Burleys who want to make a very specialized type of cheese. He has since been over to visit East Hill Farms, and he will be a very important part of the Burleys’ future cheese.

In order to make their cheese, the Burleys knew they would have to build a creamery, complete with cheese-aging caves. They are using oak and hemlock from their own woods to build part of the creamery, called East Hill Creamery, and they will use basswood to make the shelves for the cheese to age on inside the caves.

They hired a forester to help them cut the right trees at the right time and to make sure they are making their woods better for future generations. The goal is to have a retail store attached to their creamery. They hope to give tours and educate people about the cheese-making process and history of dairy in the area.

East Hill Creamery will be integrated from start to finish, with all the milk coming from East Hill Farm cows. This will give the Burleys a chance to really be advocates for the dairy industry and to tell people the whole story from the baby calf to the wheels of cheese aging in the caves.

Alexandre Pellicier, Gary and Betty Burley

In a world where more and more people are disconnected from the farm, it is wonderful to see people like Gary and Betty who are stepping up and showing people where their food comes from. What’s perhaps most incredible is that they started with 18 cows and 100 acres.

They have really made the most of every opportunity and have not been afraid to work hard at it. East Hill Creamery is no different because there is an opportunity to supply consumers with a product they are asking for: artisan cheese produced by a family farm.

All of us in the industry have a chance to find our own niche markets and to share our story. It’s important to tell the world why we do what we do as dairy farmers and to always look for the open doors. The Burleys have made their life what it is by not being afraid to try new things. As Gary has said, “I don’t want to die with the regret of not trying.”

And soon, Gary will see his efforts come to completion, as East Hill Creamery is expected to open in December of 2015, just in time for Christmas. In the meantime, you can follow the progress via the East Hill Creamery Facebook page or their website, where there is a new blog post at least once a week.

Gary and Betty want to keep the world involved in the process and be transparent about everything from calving to the cheese, so this is a great way to keep up with them. And hopefully, this Christmas people from all over will be able to enjoy a nice piece of aged East Hill Creamery cheese. PD

Cassi Jo Schriefer is a sales representative for Elanco Animal Health and enjoys helping the Burleys be agricultural advocates and promote their creamery.

PHOTOS
PHOTOS 1 & 2: There are a lot of things the Burleys could have learned in college, but hard work, dedication and making the most of life’s journey are things they can’t teach you at a university, and those traits are what have made the Burley family business what it is today.

PHOTO 3:The Burleys feed their wet calves via a nipple bar in pens of 15 calves.

PHOTO 4:The cows at East Hill are rotated to 65 different paddocks throughout the grazing season.

PHOTO 5:Betty and Gary Burley met Alexandre Pellicier (left) in France in January 2014.He would become vital to their cheesemaking success. Photos courtesy of Gary and Betty Burley.

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