Artisan 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 homestead 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 helped us remember our kinship with creation. Two souls had found each other.
Three years passed before we made the first step toward our dream of starting a homestead.
Buying Land Was the First Step
In the summer of 2003, we bought our first piece of land in southwest Virginia. It was 20 acres of raw land with no buildings. We rented a mobile home nearby. A little over half of the property was grazable land. The other half was wooded.
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 homestead — but we were determined to have it debt-free.
We both took on lucrative jobs in Information Technology just as the electronic medical records industry kicked off. Our jobs required extensive travel. We became frequent flyers and traveled all over the US and to a few European countries as well. Every other week we flew home to Virginia to visit our beautiful piece of land. Hours and hours went into dreaming about what we were going to do with it. It made the travel easier knowing we were building a dream.
In 2005, we bought our own mobile home and moved it onto our land. And in the fall, we held our wedding ceremony on the homestead. 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 original 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. Now 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 really 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 the end, even that wasn’t enough. In the fall of 2016, we decided to make the leap to full-time homesteaders. Getting the creamery built became the focus of our lives. And indeed, still it today.
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 chickens was not where our hearts were happy. 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 will continue 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 homestead 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 earlier was that lamb was not going to produce the income we desired – not without adding a lot more pasture. Another alternative arose in our dream talks. We could build a creamery and make artisan and/or farmstead cheese. It just happened to coincide with my desire to have more of these beautiful 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. Since December 2016, we have been investing all of our time and energy into becoming a local cheese resource for our community. We use traditional cheese making techniques to create our cheeses. 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 as well.
The creamery still has a way to go before passing state inspection. But we are so close now compared to where we started. And so many adventures along the way. With lots more still to come.
At some point we added cashmere goats to our livestock. I’m a big knitter and dreamed of using only 100% cashmere in my projects. However, you can only do so much! For now, they keep our pastures clear of brambles and provide us some really great nutrition. In the future, meat goats will continue the pasture maintenance task.
The only food we don’t produce in abundance at the moment is eggs (and coffee). That situation was modified when we added the quail.
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.