The secret life of cheese
At Lifeline Farm in Victor, Montana, the land tells its story in milk. Biodynamic farmer Ernie Harvey says you can taste the fields and the seasons unique to his corner of Montana in every bite of cheese … unlike the homogenized, mass-produced cheeses available in the supermarket.

By Andy Smetanka

“The proof of the pudding is in the tasting,” says Lifeline Farm’s Ernie Harvey, hoisting a block of Lifeline extra sharp cheddar. In his checked wool pants, knit cap and ratty sweater, he looks like the poster model for International Farmer, circa 1925, just as at home in Vilnius or Yorkshire as Victor, Montana.


The pound and a half of rich yellow cheese he holds in his hand has taken over a year and a half to reach its present state from the milk from which it was made, and if you ask Ernie, the story doesn’t even start there. It starts with vibrant life-forces concentrated on the 500 carefully tended acres he leases for his dairy operation. Ernie’s trained eye sees an ever-so-slightly yellower cheese than the milder cheddars, colored by the seasonal blossoms his cows grazed on two springs ago. He tastes his fields in the cheese, and everything that draws energy from them. He tastes life.

And so he should. Lifeline Farm is one of a growing number of biodynamic farms in the United States and around the world, businesses dedicated to the agricultural application of a natural philosophy whose proponents see it as more than just a means of raising wholesome and nutritious food. If Ernie Harvey didn’t taste life-force in his cheese, he wouldn’t be a very convincing adherent to biodynamic farming.

Cheese is the way a specific region or landscape tells its story through milk, in the same manner that wine is how a place tells its story through fruit or grapes. At least it should be. A slice of cheese from a block of most commercial cheddars, produced in a huge batches from the mixed-up milk of a dozen or more dairy farms scattered around the Northwest, doesn’t tell you any more about a particular farm than a Bennetton commercial tells you about a specific country or culture. If you know what to taste for, though, a slice of Lifeline cheddar can speak volumes about the passing of seasons in one tiny corner of Montana—hardly a state renowned for its cheeses—and the organisms that thrive in its soil. And if Ernie Harvey has his say, this 24-ounce block of Lifeline is only the foretaste of a regionalism in cheese-making. And, like he says, the proof of his methods is in the tasting.

Got milk?

Lifeline Farm sits about a mile outside of Victor on Pleasantview Drive, one of those waving roads where people coming in the other direction customarily nod and lift at least two fingers from the steering wheel in salute. You turn into the driveway by the mailbox with the “Got Milk?” sticker and a pack of four nearly identical Border collies charges out to meet you. Three of them are sisters; the father, Champ, has had both of his back legs broken from lying under trucks, but he still gets around fine, and with more gaits than an Icelandic pony. Another quartet, this one of grubby ducks, pecks around the edges of a block of ice hauled off a 75-gallon watering tub for the knobby-kneed calves that stop and stare as you walk past. A gray tabby with the stocky build of a bulldog bats a freshly killed starling around beneath the wheels of a steel refrigerator tank. The only sounds at ten in the morning are the hum of the automatic milking machine and the patter of rain on tin roofing.

Inside the milking parlor, Lifeline milker Clint Weidkamp coaxes a new heifer into the first of four stalls. There’s a note written in marker on sheet of dry-erase board to keep “kickers” out of this stall—the same milk pipe has already been broken twice by lunging hooves—so Weidkamp fits this one with an aluminum brace that clamps around her right hindquarter and makes it uncomfortable for her to lift her leg. The air is moist and rich with the distinctive smell of milking: raw milk, teat dip, grain dust, the gentle cider scent of fresh urine. Fresh manure, too, dollops of it ramping over the concrete lip of the stall floor like lava bombs flung from a brown volcano.

Weidkamp has been with Lifeline since September, 2001, a 15-year veteran of farming from Washington state who lives just across the field from the dairy. The last place he worked had a carousel milker that could handle 600 cows in three hours. Here it takes him about five hours to milk the 90 cows that file into the stalls four at a time, twice a day. Milk production is lower at Lifeline, too, he says. In Washington, he got used to “hundred-pound cows,” sagging with milk from hormones that cause the animal’s body to think it is nursing a calf all the time, keeping its milk output high where it would naturally have fallen off.

The Washington cows were fed TMR, or total mixed rations: hay, grain and silage blended for maximum protein content and chopped so finely that the farmer had to add straw just so his animals got enough fiber. Lifeline cows eat hay and organic barley in the winter, grass and grain in the summer. In order for the cheese to bear the emblem of the New York State-based Demeter Association—the national certifying organization for biodynamic farming—Lifeline has to raise 80 percent of its own organic feed. No synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, growth hormones or chemical treatments of any kind are used. Antibiotics are equally verboten, Weidkamp says, except in special circumstances, in which case the milk can’t be used and the treated cow is taken out of the milking herd.

“Ernie’s cows are really healthy in general because they have a lot stronger immune systems,” he observes, dipping a heifer’s teats in iodine solution and yanking a rope that opens the stall to send her back into the yard. “A lot less problems than I’ve ever seen, with everything from calving to feeding.”

Lifeline treats occasional ailments in its herd with homeopathic remedies manufactured primarily for humans. There’s a medicine cabinet full of them, its corners laced with cobwebs and rimed with barley dust like everything else in the corner of a milking parlor, shelves filled with small brown bottles factory-labeled with herbal and mineral ingredients and the symptoms they treat. Arnica Abrotanum for indigestion with appetite. Antimonium tartarticum for loose cough. Silicea—powdered flint—for suppuration. Sepia—powdered cuttlefish—for “indifference” in humans, ringworm in cattle. Even the dairy farmer’s old standby, bag balm for chapped teats, is verboten on a Demeter-certified farm—it contains petroleum products. For inflamed udders, Lifeline milkers lay on a dollop of Ernie’s Mastitis Salve, made from bee balm, marjoram and lard rendered from the farm’s own pigs. For injured teats, Ernie’s Injured Teat Salve—lard, calendula and tea tree oil.

“The vet we have is like, ‘You might as well throw all that shit in the garbage,’” Weidkamp admits. “He says, ‘It ain’t worth it.’ Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, is kind of what I think. Never seen the book of do or don’t.”

The book of Steiner

If there is a big book of do or don’t at Lifeline Farm, it’s probably Agriculture or something else written by Austrian-born philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner. Or by one of Steiner’s many students. Steiner, a prolific polymath who delivered over 6,000 lectures in Europe during his lifetime, laid the foundations for a number of economic, social and spiritual movements— including biodynamic farming, the principles of which he first laid out in a course of eight lectures delivered to German farmers in 1924. Chief among Steiner’s teachings were the concepts of the Earth as a living and constantly evolving entity, and of individual farms as unique, self-contained organisms that have also evolved on the basis of local or even micro-local conditions. Renewal of the soil with specially made compost, renewal of Christianity with an infusion of folk wisdom and ancient teachings, ecology, nutrition, health and vitality are all bound up in Steiner’s overarching philosophy, called anthroposophy (“wisdom of man”), of which biodynamic farming is merely one outgrowth.

Proper care of animals is a key principle in biodynamic farming. Lifeline Farm cattle are not polled; the horns are considered an integral part of the cow’s “astrality,” or animal nature, her essential cowness, and they “ray” a certain kind of energy back into the cow’s digestive system. Their tails, also untrimmed, dangle within a few inches of the ground in Alanis Morrisette spiral curls curls caked with manure.

To the newcomer, there’s something both endearing and slightly ridiculous about some of the more visible aspects of biodynamic animal husbandry—like a five-year-old boy whose mother has never cut his hair. But this is not to say that the Lifeline folks don’t see the potential for humor in their methods, which admittedly put them at odds with farming practices that hew more closely to the materialist sciences. It’s serious business, but both Ernie and his partner, Jennifer Holmes, punctuate their various biodynamic dissertations to me over the course of three days at Lifeline with ready wit and easy laughter.

“Ernie says that a lot of it sounds like voodoo,” Jennifer says, laughing as she pours a pail of yellow colostrum into plastic jugs to freeze for the calves to feed on later. “And he knows a hell of a lot more about biodynamics than he lets on. Last night we were talking about what to say and what not to say, because a lot of it sounds like pagan ritual, with astrology and cosmic rhythms and things like that. Some people look at it as non-scientific, but if you talk to farmers who are two generations back, they say ‘Oh yeah’ about a lot of things we do.”

Give me that old-time biodynamic cheese

Whether or not they agree with all particulars of biodynamic farming, the old-time farmers would almost certainly approve of how the cheese is made: by hand, in small batches. For the past four years, Lifeline has been hauling its milk once a week to a plant in Bozeman run by a third-generation cheese-maker named Daryl Heep. Lifeline’s two refrigerated trailer-tanks hold five thousand pounds of fresh milk each—slightly more than the milk vat at the Bozeman plant can handle, with the result that it takes two batches to make each tank of milk into cheese.

“It takes a lot more labor and a lot more time,” Ernie says, “There are more risks of inconsistency in the cheese just because you’re doing more than one batch. However, if you screw it up, at least you only screw up half as much.”

Step one of the cheddaring process: The cheese is banked and cut into slabs to allow more of the whey to drain off. After being flipped and stacked three times into ever-taller piles, it will be run through a cheddaring mill that shreds it into small curds. Very few commercial cheese-makers still practice this traditional technique. All photos by Chad Harder
First the milk is pasteurized—brought to 150 degrees and held for 20 minutes. After it’s been cooled to a constant 90 degrees, a freeze-dried bacterial culture is added—about a handful for every thousand gallons of milk—and the cheese-maker begins to monitor the pH to see how the culture is progressing. When it reaches a certain level of acidity, the cheese-maker adds an enzyme called rennin which coagulates the milk-cheese liquid and renders it the consistency of stiff custard, and starts testing it with methods like running a finger under the surface skin to examine the way it breaks and slides off.

“It is a hand process,” Ernie explains. “Kind of like kneading bread and knowing when the glutens are right.”

When the consistency is to his satisfaction, the cheese-maker makes two passes through the batch with a pair of stainless steel “harps,” one strung with wires to cut the curd horizontally and the another to cut it vertically, allowing the yellowish whey to drain off. At this point in the process, jack cheese is cooled with water, salted and flavored (with hot peppers, for example), and the curds placed into 40-pound blocks in collapsible stainless steel boxes that go under a press for six to twelve hours. If the batch is to become Lifeline cheddar (both cheeses are made with the same culture), the curd will undergo a cheddaring process to create its distinctive crumbly texture. The curds are pushed into two banks, cut into slabs to allow more of the whey to drain off, flipped and stacked three times into ever taller piles. Then the slabs are run through a cheddaring mill, which shreds them into the irregular lumps that some cheese outfits package and sell as “squeaky cheese.” The rest of the curd is salted, pressed, vacuum-sealed in plastic bags and placed in cool storage. The culturing process continues as the mild cheddar is allowed to age for about two months. If it’s destined to be sharp or extra sharp cheddar, two months is only the beginning.

“Cheese is neat,” Ernie tells me, “especially cheddar, in that it’s always been a way of banking your milk. And cheddar, of course, increases in value. First you have your mild and medium, and then you have sharp, which increases its value by 20 percent. And then extra-sharp is another 20.

Additional stages in the basic process also create Lifeline’s third basic cheese variety, which is made from a different culture than jack and cheddar. That’s the mozzarella—or kind of mozzarella, anyway.

“It’s a bit of a confidential process, that one,” Ernie says elusively. “It’s not mozzarella, it’s montzarella. Montana mozzarella.”

“But it’s not like most mozzarella,” he hints, “where it’s reheated and stretched. We do it a little differently by heating the curd, mechanically agitating it and then pressing it into blocks.”

There are as many ways to make cheese as there are cheeses, he proclaims, and each cheese-maker will have his own technique. I tell him I like the idea of a cheese-maker’s confidentiality concerning the mozzarella process, and we let it go at that.

The rule of thumb for figuring cheese from milk is ten pounds of the former for every hundred pounds of the latter. Eleven gallons of milk weigh about a hundred pounds, so it figures out to roughly a pound to the gallon.

Lifeline cows, however, produce about 13 pounds of cheese per hundred gallons. The higher yield, Ernie says, is due to the breed and the way the animals are fed.

“The Brown Swiss breed’s milk is very high in proteins and solids. During the cheese-making process the protein, casein, makes this web that kind of catches the solids in the milk, so the yield is determined by the amount and quality of this protein. The fat is only useful up to a certain point. It depends on the process and the quality of the protein, but only a certain amount of fat can be absorbed into the curd.”

The rest, he says, goes out in the whey, which accounts for the approximately 86 percent of the original milk that doesn’t turn into cheese. And it doesn’t take much talking about whey with Ernie to figure out that he wants it back. Right now it’s too much of a hassle, too much wear and tear on the vehicles hauling all that liquid back from Bozeman, but all that will change when the new plant goes in.

Hay to tray

The footings have already been poured. By January, Victor will be home to the first neighborhood creamery to be built in the Bitterroot in decades. There used to be four or five in the valley, Ernie says, but not anymore. They still hold the Creamery Picnic every year in Stevensville, he says with a chuckle, but there’s no longer a creamery.

Reclaiming the protein- and mineral-rich whey—which currently goes to feed hogs in Bozeman—to feed to the Lifeline calves is an important first step because it fulfills one of the key principles of biodynamic agriculture: making each individual farm as much of a self-contained, closed biological circle as possible. And there’s another problem with transporting whey when it’s still warm from the cheese-making process—the longer the culture works on it, the more acidic it gets until the cows’ digestive tracts can’t handle it. Unless it’s cooled quickly with a heat exchanger (more time, more money), it’s only good for feeding hogs like the ones in Bozeman. Having the Lifeline creamery just down the road will change all that, and with hundreds of gallons of the stuff draining from each batch of cheese, there should be plenty to go around. Not coincidentally, Lifeline is planning to increase pig production fourfold.

The whey also makes great cultured butter, Ernie says. Butter and milk are two new areas Lifeline is tentatively planning to expand into. Skim milk is an attractive proposition because of demand for low-fat dairy products, and a happy corollary of skim-milk production is that it also produces butterfat.

And talk about truth in advertising. The picture that graces every package of Lifeline cheese—Katrine the Brown Swiss working on a mouthful of red clover against the backdrop of the Three Sisters peaks—is already an accurate depiction of where the milk is produced. Next year it will sum up a milking operation that can take its product from grass to glass, hay to tray in the same few square miles. That’s local for you.

“We want to develop our own cheeses that are particular to this area and our situation,” Ernie says. “Part of our focus is that we’re also populist farmers, in that we’re trying to produce for our community and not just the gourmet market that a lot of cheese-makers get into, especially small cheese-makers.

“And in some ways it’s paid off to take the populist approach versus the gourmet approach,” he concludes. “I mean, we still think that we produce really high-quality product, but we also produce enough of it and cheap enough that common people can afford it.”

Tasting dandelions

“When you spend a lot of time around cheese,” Ernie says, “It’s amazing how much it changes. We have this cheddar that’s made between the first of May and the first of June called dandelion cheddar. It’s noticeably yellower, because we have a lot of dandelions and the color of the blossom comes through. Once you call it dandelion cheddar, I don’t know if it’s the power of suggestion or what, but you soon begin to taste the flavor of dandelions.”

So there I get a very specific answer to my guiding question of what we taste when we taste cheese. We’re tasting dandelions—hardly anybody’s favorite plant, but I love ‘em. On my last day at the farm, I get Ernie back for buying me lunch at the Hamilton House the day before with some super-special, private-reserve dandelion mead I made earlier this year, and he warms to the topic of humble Taraxacum officinale. Dandelions, it turns out, have a very special place in the biodynamic scheme, linked by Rudolf Steiner to properties of bitterness, the element sulfur, the planet Jupiter and forces of light concentrated in the Earth during winter months. Dandelions, along with a few other plants like yarrow, chamomile and nettles, are the main ingredients in a number of specially fermented herbal “preps” that supercharge the compost Lifeline spreads over its 500-odd acres of leased pasturage.

These are the parts of biodynamic farming that Ernie prefers to remain quiet about—the parts that he says sound kind of like voodoo. As with the medicines he uses to treat the occasional affliction in his herd, Ernie applies the preps at a homeopathic ratio of about one gram of herbal matter per ton of compost.

“It’s beyond molecular possibilities,” he admits. “The dilution is so great that there shouldn’t be any of that in there. And yet, it has a very powerful effect. The great thing about biodynamics is that it works.”

And the proof of the pudding is in the tasting.

Editor's Note: The following piece was originally published in the Missoula [Montana] Independent for the week of November 14-21, 2002. Visit the Independent online at

Andy Smetanka is arts editor of the Missoula Independent, the award-winning alternative newsweekly of Missoula, Montana. He enjoys music, filmmaking, and the birds, bees, cheese and trees of his home state. You can reach him at