On a wet spring morning, a tour bus filled with sleepy Boston University students ambled north to Winchendon, Mass., for a tour of Dave Smith’s dairy farm and cheese-making facility, Smith’s Country Cheese, Inc.. Their goal was to see cattle, witness cheese being made, and—of course—eat their weight in gouda.
These dairy trippers are among a growing group of agritourists and locavores interested in sustainability and supporting local farms. Smith has seen increased traffic to his farm, retail store, and gift shop since the recession hit, with gas prices spiking and the cost of food increasing.
“People want to know where their food comes from, whether it’s organic or conventionally grown,” Smith says. “The answer is, know your source.”
And that’s why the group of BU students interested in local food and sustainability trekked nearly 70 miles northwest of Boston to Smith’s farm. Milk from his Holstein herd is sent to Agri-Mark, which merged with Cabot Creamery and markets milk to processors such as Hood, Garelick Farms, and Oakhurst Dairy. Cabot cheeses, butter, and sour cream and Hood’s single-serving milk containers are used in University dining halls and catering services or sold in on-campus retail stores.
From every single-serving milk purchased at on-campus retail stores, 10 cents is funneled to Keep Local Farms, a nonprofit program started by the New England Dairy & Food Council in 2009 to educate consumers about the value of local dairy farms, raise funds to support New England-based farms like Smith’s, and drive dairy sales.
BU has raised at least $2,700 for Keep Local Farms since the program began here last September. The money will join a growing pool of funds that will be divided equally among participating New England dairy farmers, who could receive their first check this fall, according to Rochelle Johnson, a New England Dairy & Food Council nutrition communication specialist.
Smith and his wife, Carol, started dairy farming 42 years ago, but grew frustrated with shrinking profits from the sale of milk, whose price is controlled by the federal government. They decided to diversify their operation by making cheese. The gamble paid off. When they began producing cheese 26 years ago, the yearly per capita consumption in the United States was barely 10 pounds. By 2008, that number had more than tripled.
“I’d been farming for quite a few years, and I just felt that cheese was exciting,” Smith says. “It was one of the growth areas in the dairy business.”
Taking shelter from a steady drizzle, Smith ducked into his cheesemaking facility with nearly a dozen BU students in tow, each donning plastic booties and hairnets. Visitors dipped their covered feet in sterilizing solution before encircling a giant stainless steel vat of curdling milk. The room smelled like a curious mixture of wet cement and the inside of an empty milk jug.
While cheesemaker Ashley Girouard cut curd with a metal rake, Smith went through the step-by-step process required to produce their cheese. Starter culture, or good bacteria that gives cheese its flavor and texture, is added to heated milk. The addition of rennet divides curds from the whey. The curd is cut, drained twice, placed in molds, and pressed before being brined and waxed (for gouda) or vacuum-sealed (for havarti and cheddar) and aged.
“Cheese is like you and me,” Smith bantered. “The older it gets the more flavor and character it develops. So it becomes much sharper with age.” Surrounded by gouda wheels, which look like giant red gel capsules stacked on shelves behind him, he laughed at his own joke.
Temperature, starter culture, and holding times determine a cheese’s flavor. All of Smith’s cheeses are made from raw milk, which true cheese connoisseurs use for its richer flavor. About 40 percent of the farm’s milk is used to produce cheese, the rest is sent off site to be bottled.
Back at Smith’s farm store, BU students hummed their approval of his cheeses as they stabbed toothpicks into one sample after another. The farmer held up a wedge with his picture on the label and cracked a parting joke.
“I always tell everybody I’m the big cheese, but my daughter says, no, I’m the aged gouda,” said Smith, a smile creasing his suntanned face.
John Hutchison-Maxwell (CAS’11), one of the dairy trippers, was impressed by what he saw. “I really liked the raw look at the entire process,” he said. “I would love to learn someday about aging and cheesemaking.”