Are small farmstead creameries the wave of the future?
Eight cows. One farmer. Many happy customers and a rural New York community with a new dairy operation in a time of terrible milk prices.
This is Sam and Denise Hendren’s story.

By Beth Spaugh, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Clinton County, NY

About the author

Beth Spaugh has been a county ag agent for 14 years. She trained as a soil scientist interested in organic agriculture, but works in a region of commodity based dairy and apple farms. She is working on the development of a more local food system to help build the local market and alternatives for producers wondering about their futures.
Contact her at:
Eas9@cornell.edu or visit the Cornell web site for Clinton and Essex counties.

How to find out more about the Hendrens

An organic food home delivery service near New York City is carrying the Hendrens' cheese. They have also joined the Campaign for Real Milk and are listed on www.realmilk.com and are starting a local chapter. To find out where to purchase The Farmstead Creamery’s cheese or to get information about starting your own farmstead creamery, call Sam Hendren at (518) 834-7306 or email him at hendren@northnet.org. Remember he is a farmer and time is short. Your phone call may not be answered immediately, depending on how that day goes.

For information on a variety of small farm topics, visit Cornell University's Small Farms Web Site.

8 Jerseys a-milkin': Clover Mead Farm depends on certified organic Jerseys and a functional farmstead.

Posted May 13, 2003: Some folks decry the decline of small, “family farms”. Some folks also try to do something about it. Sam and Denise Hendren are trying to do something about it.

Sam grew up on a small family dairy farm in Ohio. The family farm -- owned and operated by Sam’s cousins -- now milks about 1,100 cows and has 4,000 acres of crops. Sam has always wanted to farm and could have stayed and worked on that farm, but that’s not the type of farming he wanted.

Like many farm kids, he was told that farming did not offer him a good future, and that he should go away, get an education, and go into business. He did that, but found himself driving around on lunch hour looking at cornfields. Finally, Sam and Denise sold their business. Sam got the farm he wanted and Denise got the contemporary crafts shop she wanted. Sam says they have less money but a lot more fun now.

He wanted a farm style that provides multiple benefits for many people: for the farm family, a pleasant lifestyle that could be attained by people without huge financial resources and the business acumen to manage those large investments’ and for the community, a farm operation that supports the local economy and re-energizes rural communities.

Cheese again at Keeseville farm

Hendren cheeses aging in the farm's cooler. Cheese curd is made from pasteurized milk, but the cheddar, feta, and Appenzellar are raw milk cheeses.

The Farmstead Creamery at Clover Mead Farm, northeast of Keeseville, New York, is his attempt to develop and model such a farm. This is a rebirth of sorts for the farm. Milk was bottled and sold here when it was known as the Signor farm during the first half of the last century.

Sam likes the idea of a small farmstead creamery because it doesn’t take a huge financial investment and is very flexible. Sam knew there would be a learning curve, but the investment in the cows and cheese-making equipment was such that they could survive for a year without selling any product if need be. His start-up investment was less than $5,000 for the milking system, $9,000 for certified organic cows, and $35,000 for the cheese room expansion and equipment. He bought good quality used equipment for the cheese plant and could have gotten started for less money.

The farmstead creamery concept is very flexible. Sam is currently milking cows and making cheese. Instead, he could buy milk and not milk cows. He could raise heifers and beef animals instead of milking. If milk prices got high enough he could add more cows and sell milk rather than make cheese. He could make other types of cheese, make yogurt, cottage cheese, or butter, or sell milk and cream. Vegetables can supplement the cheese sales. He could switch to goats or sheep for those special cheeses. The investment in the small milking setup and cheese equipment does not lock him into one particular production mode.

Sam started milking his small herd of six Jersey cows and making cheddar cheese in June of 2002. His farm and the cheese produced there are “certified organic.” The cows have lots of pasture, and are milked from May through December to take advantage of the pasture season and the nutritional values associated with milk from cows on fresh pasture.

Improving production, staying clean

Cleanliness next to ... Dairy farmer and cheesemaker Sam Hendren keeps his milk-handling areas scrupulously clean. He invested $35,000 in renovating this area and purchasing used but serviceable milk-processing equipment.

Sam admits his milk production won’t impress other dairy farmers, but he had very limited selection of certified organic cows to choose from. A couple of his cows are wonderfully typed purebred Jerseys who would probably do very well in a confinement barn where the feed is brought to them, but they don’t aggressively utilize the pasture. They were also all first-calf heifers. This year he culled those not well suited to pasture and brought heifers on line so he is milking eight cows.

Sam participates in the New York State Cattle Health Assurance Program to protect his herd’s health and provide high quality milk as the foundation for his cheese. He focuses on “passive sanitation” to keep his facility exceptionally clean and prevent problems and to minimize the need for harsh sanitizers. For instance, he has boots that are used only in the cheese room, and other boots for the milking parlor, and other boots that are used in the barnyard and fields. By maintaining a very calm environment for the cows, he keeps the milking parlor area clean. The cows very seldom manure in the parlor.

Sam makes cheese three days a week. When I got there for my tour, the milk was in the pasteurizer/cheese vat so we donned hair nets, lab coats, and cheese room boots, then stepped on a sanitizing mat as we entered. The cheese curd is made from pasteurized milk, but the cheddar, feta, and Appenzellar are raw milk cheeses. The pasteurizer/cheese vat is a double duty piece of equipment. It was in use as a cheese vat for making English-style cheddar cheese the day I was there.

To start the cheddar cheese, the milk in the cheese vat is heated to 86° F. He inoculates the milk with a bacterial starter culture that looks like bread yeast granules and lets it set for an hour. Then he adds rennet that makes the milk turn the consistency of thick yogurt as the bacteria consume the lactose in the milk, now called “curd.”

Cheese “harps”, frames strung with what looked like monofilament fishing line, are used to slice the curd into peanut sized cubes. This curd is then slowly heated to 100ºF and held there for half an hour while it is stirred constantly. Whey is expelled from the curds during this process and protein is concentrated in the curds. The whey is then drained off and the curds are stacked into clumps to further drain and compress, a process called “cheddaring.”

The curds are then salted and put into press molds for about 36 hours. The wheels of cheese are taken out of the molds and allowed to dry for 24 hours. Then the wheels are coated with a clear wax sealant and put in the cooler to age. Sam is also making cheeses with different types of rinds, including cloth.

That’s how the cheese is made, but dairy farmers may wonder what the profitability and economics look like. Sam made about 200 pounds of cheese in 2 ½ and 15 pound wheels each week last year. Commercial scale (as opposed to artisanal or small farmstead) organic cheddar cheese is selling for $8/lb. Although his cheese certainly is “artisanal” Sam retails his cheddar cheese for $8/lb, and wholesales it for $5/lb so it will be affordable for the general public. This is about equivalent to a farmer getting $60/cwt for his milk, rather than the $10/cwt dairy farmers are currently getting.

Sam currently sells fresh cheese curd, mild English-style cheddar, and feta and applewood smoked feta, and Appenzellar cheeses. His first sales year was so successful that he is getting low on stock and glad the cows are freshening so he can make and age more cheese. The last of last year’s cheddar is almost aged to his standard and will be available soon. He will be trying some new cheeses this year also.

Community commitment

There is $11 billion of cheese sold in the U.S. each year. Certainly there is room for some small cheesemakers, particularly to replace some of the high-end imported cheeses. There are at least 30 farmstead cheesemakers in Vermont. It’s nice to think that Essex and Clinton counties of New York could be dotted with small farmstead cheese plants.

Sam is committed to trying to revitalize family farms and the communities that depended on them. He is active in the Adirondack Harvest efforts (www.adirondackharvest.com/) to link local farmers with consumers and help consumers identify local farm products to buy and is revitalizing a local Grange chapter. He would love to see a farmstead creamery, with its own distinctive products and characteristics, in every town in Clinton and Essex counties.