Small-Scale Cheesemakers in
Northern New Jersey
• Ken and
Julie Bechtold, Stoney Croft Farm Dairy,
163 Beaver Run Road, Lafayette, NJ 07848, 973-875-5611.
Sell aged, unpasteurized, whole milk colby (plain,
hot pepper, basil, dill) and cheddar cheeses at
three local farmers markets: Montclair (Saturdays,
8:00-2:00) and Morristown (Sundays, 9:00-2:00),
and Olde Lafayette Village (Sundays, 11:00-4:00).
Their on-farm shop is open Monday-Saturday, 11:00-5:00.
In 2003 the Bechtolds will also be selling at
a new, ‘end-of-the-workday’ market
in the lobby of a Selective Insurance office building;
for details contact Tara Bowers of the Foodshed
Alliance in Blairstown, 908-362-7967.
• Gail Fatum,
24 Wantage School Road, Wantage, NJ 07461,
973-875-0565. Sells fresh goat cheeses (plain,
garlic, pepper, olive, and dill) at the Lafayette
and Warwick (NY) Farmers Markets, and on-farm
• Eran Wajswol,
Farmersville Cheeses, P.O. Box
502, Oldwick, NJ 08858, 908-832-7088, ext. 105.
You can also check
out their web site. They sell aged, unpasteurized
sheep cheeses on-farm and at selected retail outlets,
available from August until sold out. Currently
expanding; please call for details.
& Nina White, Bobolink Dairy,
42 Meadowburn Road, Vernon, NJ 07462, 973-764-4888,
Recently relocated from upstate New York, will
be selling cheese and bread on-farm and at the
Warwick Farmers Market.
Asked if they make artisanal cheeses, Ken
says "What does that mean? To me that means it has a
weird name and a high price."
Ken is staunchly anti-silage: Silages are
cheap and easy to make, he says, but they produce high-quantity,
low-quality milk, and they create health problems. “Cows
are not made to eat silage, anymore than they were made to
eat large quantities of grain." The difference is evident
in the cows’ longevity: Whereas your typical milking
Holstein retires after 2 or 3 years of service, one of the
Bechtolds’ girls is going strong at age 14.
In 1964, there were 3,500 dairy farms in
New Jersey; today there are 130. In 28 years of farming, Ken
and Julie have seen a lot of that loss first hand. One of
the biggest challenges they face, Ken says, is that “there
are no farm services left!” The Bechtolds get their
cheese cultures and rennets from France, their wax from Wisconsin.
There is no local tractor dealer, so Ken has to order all
his tractor and equipment parts.
||Cheeses aging in the cooler:
The Bechtolds make aged cheddar and colby cheeses with
unpasteurized milk for their mostly middle class customers.
The cheeses pictured here are colbies, which come in plain,
hot pepper, basil and dill.
Posted May 12, 2003: Watching Ken and Julie
Bechtold do the evening milking at Stoney Croft Farm Dairy
is like watching a well-oiled machine in action. An old-fashioned,
somewhat quirky, but rock-solid reliable machine—not
unlike the DeLaval bucket milkers and vacuum pump system they
still use for the job. They’ve been doing this twice
a day, every day for almost three decades, and it shows.
First they move down the central alley of the barn with a
heavy-duty cart like the ones janitors use, dishing out rations
of grain in front of the stanchions, each small pile tailored
to the condition of each individual cow—dry, yet to
breed, just freshened, halfway through lactation. Then they
start the motor on the vacuum pump and let in the cows.
Ken moves from cow to cow, washing the udders, connecting
to the vacuum line, attaching the rubber fingers to the teats.
Julie shuttles from the milking parlor to the milk house,
emptying the fresh milk into the bulk tank, diverting bucket-
and bottlefuls to the half-dozen calves.
That’s right—this 21st-century commercial dairy
has no milk pipeline—or rather, as Julie jokes, “I’m
the pipeline!” This is cutting-edge milking technology
circa 1920, and it works. Tonight they’re milking 15
cows—about as many as they can handle—each producing
between 10,000 and 12,000 lbs of milk a year. Virtually all
of that goes in to making two types of aged, raw-milk cheeses,
made on the farm and sold directly to the consumer through
area farmers markets. The cows are rotationally grazed from
April to November.
If that sounds like a reasonable business plan today, imagine
coming up with it in the early 1980s. You might say that the
Bechtolds were born at once too early and too late—with
the result being that they were forced to develop a combination
of archaic and progressive management practices, a synthesis
of old and new typical of the best kind of sustainable agriculture.
And the cheese, by the way, is outstanding.
One of the 130 remaining
dairies in NJ,
down from 3,500 in 1964
||The milking barn with it's
retail store at right.
Stoney Croft Farm Dairy lies near the center of Sussex County,
New Jersey’s hilly and still relatively undeveloped
northwestern corner. Unlike many of the old dairy farms around
here, which sit astride roads grown into busy two-lane highways—the
house on one side and the barns on the other—the Bechtolds’
property is tucked away at the end of a 1/2-mile dead-end
lane. It’s a beautiful spot.
“After 30 years, I’ve never got tired of this
place,” Ken says, looking around with satisfaction.
The house dates from the late 18th century. The barn—built
in 1949 after the original one burned down—is a traditional,
Dutch-roofed bank barn, with a large open hayloft above and
a 12’ x 14’ addition that serves as the milk house.
The Bechtolds own the house, the barn and other outbuildings,
and 21 acres of surrounding pasture; they have a longstanding
arrangement with their nearest neighbor which gives them access
to an additional 100 or so acres of pasture, rent-free. In
this late but warm spring, the fields are green and the grass
is just starting to take off. From the top of the ridge at
the back of the property, Ken can point out two or three other
remaining dairies nearby, a handful of new, multi-million
dollar horse barns, a bit of preserved farmland, other land
scheduled for subdivisions.
Keeping it simple:
of appropriate technology
||Ken Bechtold with his 1960
bulk milk tank. This 200-gallon tank, with its
freon cooling system still intact, holds the milk until
Ken got hooked on farming as an undergraduate at
Susquehanna University in central Pennsylvania—living
in a rented farmhouse, growing most of his own food, and getting
to know his Amish neighbors—and those early habits of
self-sufficiency, thrift, and hard work have stuck with him.
The whole operation features creative use of appropriate technology.
Years ago he and Julie ripped the new-fangled chain-scraper
out of the manure gutter and went back to shoveling manure
by hand into an old bucket-and-pulley system. “Our barn
cleaner’s a pitchfork,” Ken smiles. “I bet
there isn’t another dairy farmer in the state who’s
still using one of these.”
They use a belt-driven forage chopper to grind straw and
waste hay into bedding, and a modified, two-wheeled hay crusher
mounted with a couple of 60-gallon drums to spread whey—leftover
from cheesemaking—back on the pastures as fertilizer.
Their cheese vat is a retrofitted 200-gallon, flat-bottomed
Girton bulk milk tank, heated by circulating hot water. In
1988, Ken explains, “The tank cost me $100, and I paid
$1000 to a plumber to get the system set up. Nowadays you
can buy a small-scale cheese vat, made in Holland and imported
through Canada, but when we got started there was none of
that. Value-added wasn’t even a term then.”
A second 200-gallon tank—a round-bottomed, light-green
enameled classic, made in 1960 and with its freon-cooling
system still intact—holds the milk until cheesemaking
The cows are all Jerseys, known for their good nature, easy
calving (“in almost 30 years, I’ve had to pull
one calf,” says Julie), excellent grazing ability, and
high-fat, high-protein milk ideal for making cheese. The Bechtolds
used to keep a bull, but switched to artificial insemination
because it’s easier to schedule the arrival of the calves:
4 or 5 in the spring and 6 or 7 in the fall, to utilize the
full range of the grassland and to spread the milk supply
across the year.
As a general rule, they make the spring milk into colby and
the fall milk into cheddar, using recipes modified from what
they call the “cheese Bible,” Frank Kosikowski’s
Cheese and Fermented Milk Foods (1977). Julie makes cheese
about every 7 milkings, or 3 1/2 days; it takes her 10 hours
to make a batch of cheddar, 7 for colby. They use a single-sized
cheese mold, yielding an 8-9 lb wheel, for all their cheeses,
and stack 16 at a time (one batch) into an old cider press
with the barrel removed. After pressing, the cheeses are allowed
to air dry for 4-6 days, coated with wax, and returned to
the cooler for aging.
prices for middle class customers
||The on-farm shop is open 6
days a week. When the windows were replaced
at teh school where he used to teach, Ken salvaged a couple
and installed them here so that customers could have a
view into the milking parlor. They also sell their cheeses
at 4 local markets.
Making aged cheeses allows them to use unpasteurized
milk (60 days’ aging is the legal equivalent of pasteurization),
and as Ken observes, “you make a much, much better cheese
if your milk is unpasteurized.” The Bechtolds like making
cheddar and colby because their mostly middle-class customers
find those types familiar. “I’ve been asked if
we make artisanal cheeses,” Ken says. “But I think,
what does that mean? To me that means it has a weird name
and a high price.”
Their cheese is priced at a very reasonable $4.50-5.50/lb
(a small amount of 3-year old cheddar goes for $10/lb). Can
they make a living at those prices? Ken stresses that without
his former teaching salary—he retired a year and a half
ago from 28 years of teaching 7th-grade math—and now
pension and health benefits, things would be difficult, but
with no debt and low overhead, he says, “We’re
making money. We do all right.”
Two further sources of income are surplus hay—last
year they sold $4000 worth—and calves, the heifers sold
to neighboring farmers and the bulls sold for veal at about
17 weeks. (The veal calves spend their young lives in generously-sized
stalls, about 5’ x 15’; Ken’s been thinking
about putting them out on grass as well.)
So far, the Bechtolds have not sought organic certification.
But they already keep meticulous records, they don’t
use milk replacer, and they keep a closed herd—they
haven’t bought a cow in a dozen years. They don’t
use iodine dips, they’ve never used hormones to regulate
the cows’ breeding cycles, and since brucellosis and
TB were eradicated in this area they don’t vaccinate
Even in winter, the cows go outside every day for exercise
and for heat detection. “Our cows are just really healthy—they
never get sick,” Ken says, shaking his head, as though
in wonder that you could manage a dairy any other way.
Stoney Croft cows get top quality hay and at most 8-10 lbs
of grain a day in the winter—a miniscule amount by conventional
dairy standards. Ken is also staunchly anti-silage: silages
are cheap and easy to make, he says, but they produce high-quantity,
low-quality milk, and they create health problems. “Cows
are not made to eat silage,” he says, anymore than they
were made to eat large quantities of grain. The difference
is evident in the cows’ longevity: whereas your typical
milking Holstein retires after 2 or 3 years of service, one
of the Bechtolds’ girls is going strong at age 14.
a lifelong endeavor
||Jerseys on early spring grass.
The farm has very little permanent fencing, but
Ken reckons he needs two acres per grazing animal, keeping
in all about 30 acres of pasture and 45-50 acres for hay.
In the spring he divides his front 10-acre block into
8 paddocks, moving the cows every 2-3 days and taking
the grass down to about 2 inches.
As for pasture management, Ken uses no pesticides or herbicides
(he doesn’t have a spray-rig or a pesticide applicator’s
license), and applies a nitrogen fertilizer once a year at
the most, as suggested by regular soil tests. The farm has
very little permanent fencing, but Ken reckons he needs two
acres per grazing animal, keeping in all about 30 acres of
pasture and 45-50 acres for hay.
In the spring he divides his front 10-acre block into 8 paddocks,
moving the cows every 2-3 days and taking the grass down to
about 2 inches. He runs a flexible, 8’ harrow over each
paddock after grazing, which he says breaks up the manure,
de-thatches the grass, and aerates the soil. The paddocks
get bigger as the season goes on, depending “on the
weather, and the rain, and how hot it gets.” He keeps
another 5 acres close to the barn for a first cutting of hay
before turning it over for summer and fall grazing.
When he wants to re-seed a pasture, Ken lets the cows graze
it almost bare and then frost-seeds in March using a Brillon
seeder and a heavy roller. He grows a variety of hay and forage
species, including oats, brome, alfalfa, and ladino clover.
Although the pastures have improved dramatically since they
first started farming here, he’s still experimenting
with ways to renovate the fields, control weeds, and boost
fertility. Last year he planted a fast-growing, drought-resistant
sorghum/sudan grass for hay and as a cleaner crop before alfalfa.
“I’m really particular about the quality of my
hay,” he emphasizes, since only premium alfalfa hay
can substitute for grass in terms of cheese quality.
In 1964, there were 3,500 dairy farms in New Jersey; today
there are 130. In 28 years of farming, Ken and Julie have
seen a lot of that loss first hand. One of the biggest challenges
they face, Ken says, is that “there are no farm services
left!” The Bechtolds get their cheese cultures and rennets
from France, their wax from Wisconsin. There is no local tractor
dealer, so Ken has to order all his tractor and equipment
parts. Parts for the DeLaval milkers also have to be ordered.
They take their veal calves to a slaughterhouse in Pennsylvania,
an hour and a half away.
Now that they’re reaching their early fifties, moreover,
bucking the trends of modern farming will come down to their
own physical stamina and their kids’ potential interest
in taking over the business. So far, none of the three children—aged
16, 19, and 25—has volunteered.
“They know it’s not an easy life, milking cows,”
acknowledges Ken. “People are always telling me, you
should do this or you should do that to make it easier on
yourself,” he muses, admiring the view down the pasture
in the evening light. “But I just think, things are
all right like this.”