Mountains of Cheese
Dairying is rooted in the agricultural history of the high country
Cheese production has grown rapidly in the past 50 years, with large commercial plants becoming commonplace, forcing small cheese factories and dairy numbers to plummet, leaving farmers to say goodbye to the cows that yield the gold we call cheese.
In 1970, the average American consumed eight pounds of cheese per year. Since then, that number has spiked with the help of pizza, nachos, quesadillas, and of course, the most popular cheese dish, macaroni and cheese. That number now sits at an average of 23 pounds of cheese per person, per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
With over 2,000 types of cheese, and a drastic increase of consumption, one would think that dairy numbers would be rising, with agricultural booms and local cheesemakers stacking wheels on wheels of cheese. But that is simply not the case.
Since the 1970s, there has been a steady increase in milk production, but simultaneously a consistent decrease in the number of dairy farms. This is due to an increase in livestock per farm, but a decrease in number of farms, creating a monopoly-like system of production, according the the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As the number of dairies in the United States began and have continued plummeting, North Carolina followed suit and dairies have been selling their cows and closing their doors for over two decades.
Archive newspapers from the early 2000s for agricultural areas in the mountains of North Carolina are riddled with headlines highlighting the decline in farming and agricultural revenue, and very specifically, dairy farms and cheese plants.
In 2014, the Asheville Citizen-Times published an article on an Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project farm tour with the headline, “Farm tour a reminder of sources of our food.”
The article read:
“When Carolyn Bradley asked the middle schoolers she taught for nearly three decades where their milk came from, she often didn’t like the responses.”
“‘Mayfield,’ some would respond, referring to the dairy products company. Others would simply say, ‘The supermarket.’”
These sentiments, and the desire to teach people that their food comes from more than the shelf of a grocery store, are still reflected today by local farmers in the high country.
At the 2016 Appalachian State University Food Summit, which was held to bring farmers, community members and sustainable development students together to foster conversations about the local food system, the common consensus and message given was said best by Jon Fannon, local farmer and owner of Western Organic Wasabi & Sustainable Agriculture, when he said, “It’s a difficult path. Farming is not easy, but it is rewarding.”
Speaking on harsh winter seasons, the lack of people buying local products, and the challenge of trying to have a positive attitude about farming when facing economic deficiencies, farmers shared their personal stories at the Food Summit. Each farmer on the panel touched on how people should put a face to the food they buy and consume, knowing that when they buy locally – fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy – they are not paying to continue the growth of large commercial productions, but they are paying for hard work and water, feed, and genuine care for the goats and cows who make the local cheese that people want.
Putting a face behind the production of cheese is easier to for Don Long, the curator at the Museum of Ashe County History in Jefferson, North Carolina, who was born in 1942 and a native of Ashe County since 1963.
“Cheese was very important, along with other agricultural products that were storable and shippable during the 1800s when everything had to go by wagon,” he said. “It was one of those things that was non-perishable. It wasn’t like milk – you could put it on a wagon and carry it somewhere. So it was one of the export products of the county and it formed a good portion of our agricultural income.”
In the early 1990s, and particularly before the turn of the century, dairying – and therefore cheese and butter production – was an vital part of Ashe County as well as the rest of the high country, including Avery and Watauga counties.
Kraft Cheese Company came and set up a plant in West Jefferson around 1933, but was not the first, nor the last cheese plant to settle in the area, Long said. Ashe County Cheese, originally owned by Kraft, was started in 1930.
“But the other [cheese plants] faded away, particularly after the middle of the century, because more and more Ashe County young people were moving away to get jobs and find income,” Long said. “They didn’t want to spend their life pumping gas or milking cows. So mom and dad had a hard time running the dairy farm without their children to help. And it was harder to find hired help, and it was expensive.”
Long said, “Dairy farming kind of faded out after that. Simply because of the difficulty of getting enough help to run a farm when the cows didn’t understand about vacations.”
“Fifty years ago there were 357 dairies in Ashe County,” Carol Coulter, owner of Heritage Homestead, a goat dairy and small cheese plant in Ashe County, said. “They were selling [milk] to the cheese plant and the extension and there was enough money in it.
“Slowly as milk prices dropped, people just got out of it because you were losing money to raise cows and the kids running the dairies left,” she said.
But though cheesemaking has radically diminished over the years, Coulter, along with a small number of people in Ashe County and the high country, continue to produce cheese.
Cheesemaking would possibly seem like a corporate production, but many people are cheesemaking hobbyists. For example, Lanae Ball, a professor in the nutrition department at Appalachian State University, taught a fermentation and cheesemaking class on April 12, teaching students how to make their own cheese from their own house.
Though Ashe County Cheese is a larger production, they still operate and produce cheese in the renovated and updated original facility in downtown West Jefferson, getting their milk from from Taylorsville and Tennessee.
As Ashe County is a larger cheese factory, Carol Coulter, owner of Heritage Homestead, a goat dairy and small cheese plant in Ashe County, knows the pains of working an everyday family-operated dairy.
“It’s expensive. We are an inspected dairy so we had to meet all the regulations,” she said. “I think we have $180,000 in the just [cheese facility and milking parlor], nevermind barns and fencing. It’s not cheap to get into and it takes a while to recoup your money.”
But she takes great care of the animals that produce her product.
“The goats live better than most people,” she said. “Good housing, good healthcare, good feed. They make good, sweet milk. That’s a key ingredient. It’s hard to make good cheese out of bad tasting milk.”
“Goat milk is structured like human milk so it’s easier to digest,” Coulter said. “So we sell to a lot of people who are lactose intolerant, gluten intolerant or have other stomach issues like ulcers, diverticulitis. Doctors prescribe goat milk a lot when people are struggling with dairy. It’s a big part of our clientele.”
Coulter identified with Fannon’s Food Summit comment regarding the sometimes seemingly futile work farming can be, but the rewards that come from that hard work.
“Ninety-seven percent of the time I enjoy [having a goat dairy], but every so often when I’m tired and I have to go back out at night and I’m like, ‘What were you thinking? What are you doing?,’” she said. “It was hard getting up today because it was cold and it’s going to be hard tomorrow getting up because it’s cold and I’m frozen by the time I’m done milking. But in the summer it’s a great way to wake up.”
“I wake up early, no one else is up, it’s quiet,” she said. “The girls [goats] come up and they’re happy to see me. I tell them all my problems, they’re agreeable, they listen really well. It’s a nice way to get centered at the beginning of the day. I love my girls, it’s a lot of fun.”
Though Coulter and her husband, Lon, produce goat cheese, the process of cheesemaking is practically the same compared to cow’s milk.
Lon described the cheesemaking process in which Carol milks the goats in the milking parlor, brings it to the cooler, and then places it in “an icewater bath.” Once 50 gallons of milk has been collected, they put it in the pasteurizer and heat it to 150 degrees, then cool it down and “put some lactic acid bacteria in it and let that sit with rennet added to the coagulant.”
Cheesemaking takes time, and Lon joked about the tedious process.
“It’s like watching paint dry, making cheese,” he said. “I do something for like, 10 minutes over the course of 36 hours. Feta [cheese], over the course of seven hours, I do something for an hour and a half. Gouda maybe two hours in a 12 hour day. Most of my time is spent over that sink washing up.”
Even though cheesemaking can be a long and slow process, there are still local cheesemakers across the region who fall into the North Carolina Cheese Trail, which highlights local cheese productions.
“The dairy business has shrunk, but the town itself, [Jefferson], has actually grown,” Long said. “Since the 1960s it has gone from a little rural agricultural small town with fourteen hardware stores and two tractor supplies to what has now become a retirement destination, an arts community, and tourist attraction and destination.”
Though cheese and agricultural small-scale production has dropped, there are people who are still passionate about farming and dairying, who will continue to create their products, selling them at local food stores and farmers’ markets.
“We have changed in terms of emphasis in the county, but the county is thriving and we’re doing better today than we were doing when I first moved up here,” he said. “So I’m happy.”
Published on April 22, 2016.