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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
||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
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.”