Virginia Cheese Makers

virginia cheese makersArtisan Cheese – How did we end up here?Virginia cheese

Hello everybody, Melanie Hall here. So glad you stopped by the homestead. You know, we all have a unique life story. Let me share a little bit of mine.

The Beginning . . .

Scott and I met in 1999 in western North Carolina. Two people following similar paths meet and become life-long friends. We apprenticed together at a spiritual training center learning how to teach a meditation technique. This is where we reconnected to our hearts and desire to be close to the land.

During our training we dreamed of a sustainable farm and communal living. We wanted to raise good food as close to nature’s intended way as possible. Experiencing loving relationships with others and soaking up nourishing nature helps us remember our kinship with creation. Two souls had found each other.

Buying Land Was the First Step

In the summer of 2003 we bought our first piece of land in southwest Virginia. We rented a mobile home nearby. At this point in our lives we had a great deal of debt: credit cards, school loans, taxes, and now a mortgage. We set out to pay everything off in full. We would have our farm — but we would have it debt-free. We both took on lucrative jobs in Information Technology as the electronic medical records industry kicked off. Our jobs required extensive travel. We traveled all over the US and to a couple of European countries as well. Every other week we flew home to Virginia to visit our beautiful piece of land.

In 2005 we bought our own mobile home and moved it onto our land. And in the fall we held our wedding at the farm. It was so beautiful. Even though it was November the weather had permitted the leaves to change very slowly. And with very little wind this particular fall, there were many leaves still on the trees. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect time.

Learning to Produce Food

Our first experience with livestock was raising chickens in the summer of 2006.

The contract with our employer was done. I moved on to a different contract and continued traveling. Scott was done with traveling. He remained on the homestead and built a couple of chicken tractors ala Joel Salatin. He raised, and we processed, around 100 chickens. We ate a lot of them ourselves and gave a lot away to relatives and neighbors. This part of the journey was just a taste to get our feet wet.

Twists and Turns and . . . Texas?

Somewhere along that time period we paid all of our debts in full. Now we needed money for infrastructure.

February 2007 Scott went back to work . . .  in Texas.

I was now traveling to various places around the country every week instead of every other week. I lived in hotels and airports. What a far cry from the peaceful life we envisioned. We persevered.

In 2008 we bought an additional 40 acres adjoining our property. We were in debt again. This time for more money than ever before. It’s a good thing that I got to walk around that property occasionally or I might have forgotten exactly why we did that. The “why” had to do with dreaming bigger. We were learning about raising sheep. Still very much a dream at this point . . . we’re still living in Texas.

The constant travel and living out of a suitcase got really old, really fast for me. It was fine when I was traveling with my best friend and awesome life partner. Doing it alone was torture. Within a year I was insisting that Scott get a job closer to home. If I was going to fly home every weekend, I wanted it to be Virginia — not Texas.

South Carolina is Closer Than Texas

From the fall of 2008 until December 31, 2016 Scott traveled 6 hours every Sunday evening to Beaufort, South Carolina. A guy by himself doesn’t need much and a travel trailer we purchased for the task was sufficient housing. Every Friday evening he returned to the homestead in Virginia, six hours again. He did it alone for the first year and a half. Six months later, I got a job offer . . . just outside of Savannah, Georgia.

We moved the travel trailer to a park halfway between Savannah and Beaufort. It was an hour drive for me and 45 minutes for him.

Then in 2010 I got a job offer at the same hospital where Scott had been working for over two years. I jumped on that like a duck on a June bug. All of this unconventional living circumstance was worth the huge amount of stress that came with it. After all, we were now back together as a couple. That was great. We were at the homestead every single weekend. That was great. And it was only going to be for a couple of years . . .

Five years later I was stressed beyond my capacity to remain sane. I needed a nest. For the final two years of working in Beaufort, we rented an apartment. Moving from 100 square feet to over 1,000 square feet of living space was just enough happiness to get me through it. In then end, even that wasn’t enough and we decided to make the leap to full-time homesteaders. Getting that creamery built is the focus of our lives right now.

From Chicken Tractors to Raw Milk Artisan Cheese

Let me back up a little bit and fill in some details of how we grew the farm during this period of time. How did we go from pasture raised chickens to artisan cheese? What the heck happened there? Well, we tried a few different things over the years.

The weekend life allowed us to dabble a bit in a lot of areas. Early on we were clear that raising the chickens was not where our hearts were. Having them for eggs and meat for personal use, yes. But not as our central farm enterprise. In 2009 we put in fruit trees. That’s a long term project that continues to stretch over many years.

In 2010 we bought a flock of sheep and a donkey as a guardian animal for them. We proceeded along the lines of raising sheep and selling lamb as our centerpiece. We learned a lot over several years. At one point we had over 70 sheep. But an issue arose and in 2011 something big changed on the homestead. Love crept in, awakened and rapidly altered the farm dream.

In 2011 we bought cows. I wanted to make my own butter and cheese and I loved drinking raw milk. Still can’t stand the taste of cooked milk. With working toward homestead sustainability as part of our mission, we also wanted beef (and pork and chicken and rabbit). After researching every cow breed under the sun, we settled on the Normande. It’s a dual breed cow. A prolific milk producer as well as producing well-marbled muscle perfectly suited for beef. For more details on these cows, give a listen to the Peaceful Heart FarmCast episode I dedicated to them.

Suffice it to say, I fell in love with these cows. The issue I mentioned was that lamb was not going to produce the income we desired without adding a lot more pasture. Another alternative arose. We could build a creamery and make artisan and farmstead cheese. It just happened to coincide with my desire to have more of these cows in my life. To pay for it, how much longer are we going to have to work for someone else? Yes, that’s the decision that drove the planned two years of living in a travel trailer to a full seven years of craziness.

Peaceful Heart Farm Creamery is Born

Finally, I’ve gotten to the part of the story where the creamery comes in. It has been a wild and varied journey getting here. But this is the one. We are investing all of our time and energy into becoming a local cheese resource for our community. We will use traditional cheese making techniques to develop our local cheeses. I have two recipes that meet my expectations regarding the product I want to sell . . .  and I have two others that are currently in development. One is failing miserably. Fear not! I will prevail. We are going to produce the best cheddar cheese that Virginia has ever seen! With a slight tweak on the salt, I’m expecting my alpine-style cheese to be a winner this year as well.

The creamery still has a long way to go before passing state inspection. I’ve got a little time to get the cheese right. 🙂 In the meantime, I’m getting to know you and getting some really good cooking information together for you.

One of the problems we’ve encountered with our customers is their desire to use locally grow products but often not knowing how to prepare them.

What Else?

At some point we added cashmere goats to our livestock. I’m a big knitter and dream of using only 100% cashmere. More and more my skepticism that I will ever reach that goal increases. You can only do so much! For now they keep our pastures clear of brambles and provide us some really great nutrition.

The only food we don’t produce at the moment is eggs (and coffee). That situation will be rectified in the next few months. Scott doesn’t have the time to invest in building elaborate chicken housing and protection. His priority is getting that creamery functional. Instead, we’ve opted for quail. This is 99% my project. Scott will build a couple of cages that will likely take no more than a day to complete. The rest is all on me.

With the addition of the quail, all of our food will now be produced on the homestead. We spend hours and hours working, sweating and loving every minute of our life.

We are meeting new people just like you at the Wytheville Farmer’s Market. Come see us on Saturdays. The 2nd and 4th Saturday November through April. Every Saturday May through October.

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