The Bechtolds keep their dairy operation
simple ... and survive

Ken and Julie Bechtold make aged, raw milk cheddar and colby on their north Jersey farm. No milk pipeline, vintage cheese vats, aging instead of pasteurization: It all adds up to no debt, a decent income, and great cheese.

By Laura Sayre

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, Needmore Farm, 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 by appointment.
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.
Jonathan & Nina White, Bobolink Dairy, 42 Meadowburn Road, Vernon, NJ 07462, 973-764-4888, www.cowsoutside.com. 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: creative use
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 cheese-making time.

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 time.

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.

Recognizable cheeses at moderate
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 against anything.

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.

Pasture management: 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.”