jersey cow

We’re continuing our stroll through local cheesemakers of America, but we’re not quite ready to leave New York State yet! Last week, we discovered New York goat cheese, but goats are not the only animals supplying high-quality milk to cheesemakers in the Empire State: today, we’re talking about cows.

Wake Robin Farm

Wake Robin Farm, a family-run farm in Central New York, started its career as an organic vegetable farm. One of its co-owners, Meg Schader, was happy to discuss their views on organic farming, sustainability and, of course, cheese.

Meg and her husband Bruce have been running the farm together since 1999. With Meg’s degree in agricultural science from Cornell University and Bruce’s lifelong experience, having been raised on a conventional dairy farm just two miles away from Wake Robin, they make an ideal team!

“For seven years before we started our dairy, we ran an organic vegetable farm,” Meg says, though their dairy farm is not certified organic. “We had initially planned to certify our dairy, but haven’t done so for several reasons. We do feed organic grain, graze our cows as much as possible, feed our calves real milk, and we do not use synthetic pesticides or herbicides anywhere on our farm.”

As with other farmers Organic Authority has spoken to, Wake Robin’s decision not to become certified is based entirely on the health of the animals. “We have found it necessary to use antibiotics for pneumonia, and hormones for retained placentas, but hormone and antibiotic use is not routine on our farm – in fact it is very infrequent,” Meg says. “However, on a farm of our size, every cow is valuable and irreplaceable, and that is one of the reasons we are not certified organic.”

However, as with many local producers, Meg and Bruce don’t find that the absence of official certification poses any problem with regards to their business within the community. “Since we retail most of our products, we find that most customers are willing to listen and learn about what we do – beyond just looking for the label ‘organic’,” she says. “It would certainly be easier for marketing to have the word ‘organic’ on our products. On the other hand, since we don’t, it opens a conversation with our customers, and I like to think that we are helping to educate consumers about agriculture in general, which is a good thing. My husband, who grew up on a ‘conventional’ dairy farm, taught me very early in our relationship that the similarities between organic and conventional faming are much greater than the differences.”  

Meg and Bruce obviously care about what they do, something that certainly comes through in their discussions with their customers about their products, which include fresh yogurt and five homemade artisanal cheeses including Bailiwick Cheddar and Caerffili, a Welsh-style cheese. Three of their cheeses are award-winners: the Mona Lisa, a mild and mellow cheese, won the Silver Medal in the 2009 North American Regional Jersey Cheese Awards. Opus, a must for stinky cheese lovers, took the Bronze medal in the 2010 World Jersey Cheese Awards, and the newest Wake Robin addition, Floradell, is a mellow, Alpine-style cheese that won the Silver medal in the 2010 World Jersey Cheese Awards.

Meg’s favorite product, however, “the product that I feel best exemplifies what we do,” is their cream-on-top whole milk, plain and simple. “It is the real deal, so creamy and delicious, and since we don’t standardize our milk, it highlights the seasonal variations in butterfat and color of our milk. It is simple and wholesome, and I love that we can get it from the cow to consumer in less than 6 hours. When you put ours next to milk from the grocery store, the differences really challenge the assertion that ‘milk is milk’!” Both milk and cheese lovers should check out this New York cheesemaker!

Mecox Bay Dairy

For Art Ludlow, farming has always been in his blood. “I’m on the same farm that I grew up on,” he says of Mecox Bay Dairy in Bridgehampton, a farm that, when he was growing up, was principally a potato farm. “In 1959 or 1960 we went totally potatoes and got rid of the cows,” he recalls, though in 2000, he made the decision to stop growing potatoes, mainly for his children.

“We lose land every year,” he explains. “We rent about half our land, and people kept selling it. We decided that for the future, if any of our kids wanted to farm, it would be too difficult.”

“With an area like we have here — good soils, a market at our back door, a long growing season — it’s ideal for getting closer to the consumer and selling directly to them. People would come in the yard and ask, ‘Why are you growing potatoes?’ We said, ‘We always have’, and we wanted to change that answer.”

The Ludlows started making cheese in 2003, and they quickly considered going organic, but for the moment, they haven’t become certified. “It’s an evolving process,” says Art. “What we’re looking at are the people we’re selling to. Organic is definitely good, but to be certified organic is a lot of miscellaneous busywork that we don’t have a lot of time to do. We’re not really up on what actually is required. We’re trying to do as much organic as we can; we’re just not going through the process of being certified.”

Art expresses the same worries about his animals’ health as other small farmers we’ve encountered. Art’s farm has 12 cows on it; if one falls ill, it’s important to be able to treat her. “We’re trying to work on that and be as close to natural as we feel we can be,” he says, and he also points out, “I think a lot of what people are looking for — close and local — and that is as good as organic is.”

“I do think about it; I don’t worry about it, mainly because I sell most of my products through local farmers markets, so I have a relationship with my customers. I’m open about everything we do here. It’s not something I’m wringing my hands over.”

Art’s business definitely isn’t suffering; his products are all being sold at various farmers markets all over the South Fork of Long Island, with help from Art’s son, Peter. “He’s pretty much in the business already,” Art says. “He graduated from college 2 or 3 years ago and came back to the farm and got involved in the business. He’s working on getting us to be a little more sustainable, growing crops that we can feed to the animals.”

As for the products themselves, Art has a hard time deciding which of the six different cheeses he makes he prefers. “I would take all six of my cheeses over anything else that exists,” he says. “But my personal favorite happens to be Mecox Sunrise.” Mecox Sunrise is a tomme-style cheese with a washed rind and a slightly pungent flavor, like an époisses. Like all of his cheeses, Mecox Sunrise is a raw milk cheese.

“We’re just trying to be sustainable, so we’re making the cheese, we’re getting into producing more of our own feeds for our animals, we’re raising Berkshire pigs and feeding them whey, slaughtering them and selling the meat at the farmers’ market. Bull calves are either grown for veal or made into steers and slaughtered and sold at the market. We fatten them up ourselves and make sure they’re handled properly… Nothing gets thrown out, basically. That’s the whole thing. It’s not just cheese.”

For more local cheese, look no further: 

Image: Newtownia