Valley Bounty: Cheese

Max Breiteneicher has enjoyed the slow season on his farm.

“That section between Christmas and the end of March, all of our cows are just dry, hanging out, eating hay and being pregnant,” he said during a recent conversation.

Breiteneicher runs Grace Hill Farm in Cummington with his wife Amy Breiteneicher. The pair produces raw milk and makes cheese on the small dairy farm, with a creamery on-site.

They stop milking their cows during the winter to mimic a natural lactation cycle, in which a mother cow would typically kick her calf off milking in the fall. Plus, taking a break from milking is rejuvenating.

“The cows will live a longer life, they’ll generally be healthier, there’s a lot of benefits for the animals. In turn, that’s a lot of benefits for us. Because we care deeply about our milk quality,” Breiteneicher said.

Drying the cows off for a few months is also beneficial to farmer health. Breiteneicher explained that during the milking season, he’s constantly juggling jobs on the farm, including milking the cows, making the cheese, and aging the cheese.

“Once we start, I get up at 4am, and I’m done around 8 at night. That’s seven days a week, every day,” he said. “To sustain that for an entire year, especially multiple years in a row, I don’t think it would be possible.”

Taking his cheese from milk to market is a tough task. But it’s enabled Breiteneicher to run his dairy at the small scale he wants. In a time when wholesale milk prices have been low for many years and many dairy farms have needed to expand to survive, he only milks 10 cows, a remarkably small number.

“That’s very deliberately the reason why we are the milk and cheese producer, we’re the distributor, and we’re the sales,” he said. “We’re involved in every part of the process, so that ideally we’re not losing all the value in those different steps in the chain.”

Having a small dairy also enables Breiteneicher to reduce the amount of time his milk spends in storage before the cheese-making process begins.

“We usually make our milk into cheese within 24 hours of it coming out of the cow,” he said.

Milk is a living product, filled with enzymes and bacteria.

“Those things are acting on the proteins and sugars in the milk. So if you have milk sitting in a bulk tank for 72 hours, as opposed to our 24, the cheese you make from the 72 hour batch will be significantly lower quality than the 24 hour milk,” he said.

Breiteneicher produces a variety of raw milk cheeses on Grace Hill Farm, including an English-style cheddar, a gruyere-style alpine cheese called Wild Alpine, a Raclette-style cheese called Valais, and their Hilltown Blue cheese.

Raw milk dairy products must be at least 60 days old before they’re sold. But younger cheeses with more moisture, like brie and camembert, are typically at their prime around 30 days old. So Breiteneicher has also begun making pasteurized milk cheeses over the past two seasons.

He is especially excited about their recent experiments making Fromage Frais, which he describes as “a whole-milk cream cheese style.”

“It can be used in anything from cooking to a spread. It’s the type of cheese that everyone can have in their house, it’s very versatile,” Breiteneicher said. “We’ve found that making it with grass-fed milk, especially very quickly … it really has a brightness and depth of flavor. You can really taste the pastures.”

But as the warm season sweeps across western Massachusetts, the typical excitement of those pastures springing into growth has been hampered by the coronavirus crisis.

“All our markets and events were cancelled. It was about to be quite a busy time of year,” Breiteneicher said.

Grace Hill Farm missed winter farmers’ markets and artisanal food festivals that were cancelled over the past few weeks, including the Northampton Winter Farmers’ Market.

Farmers’ markets were classified as essential businesses that are authorized to continue operating during the COVID-19 emergency, but there is still significant uncertainty about how this year’s summer market season will go.

“For us it’s a bummer. But it’s not as terrible for us as for people with very perishable products,” Breiteneicher explained. “Our cave is full of cheese I made last year, and except for the Blue, they can age indefinitely and they just get better. So we’re losing income, but we’re not losing product.”

As a part of adapting to our new socially-distant way of life, Grace Hill Farm joined a team of farms that is offering a local food delivery service. The newly formed Mass Food Delivery features mushrooms from Mycoterra Farm, vegetables from Red Fire Farm and Queen’s Greens, turkey pot pies and soups from Diemand Farm, tinctures from Sweet Birch Herbals, and, of course, cheeses from Grace Hill Farm. Learn more about this service, which will deliver farm-fresh local food straight to your door, at massfooddelivery.com.

Grocery stores and farm stands are remaining open throughout the coronavirus pandemic, and Grace Hill Farm will continue selling their cheeses at a number of stores including River Valley Co-op in Northampton, the Atlas Farm Store in Deerfield, and Atkins Farm Country Market in Amherst.

Once they are up and milking again, Grace Hill Farm will also continue selling their fresh raw milk on-site at the farm.

Many other farms and local food businesses across the Valley have put in place new systems to continue serving the community during the COVID-19 outbreak. Visit buylocalfood.org for the latest updates.

Noah Baustin is the Communications Coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture)

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