Generally, when we think of U.S. Artisan Cheese, we think of Vermont, Wisconsin, California and the Pacific Northwest. But all over America there are great small-batch cheesemakers working their craft to produce fabulous cheeses they can be proud of and we as a cheese community can also herald.
Recently I had the honor to go “behind the scenes” and chat with Mat Willey, Head of Communication for Sweet Grass Dairy, located in Southwest Georgia near the state line with Florida… not generally thought of as a cheesemaking area… but as you will soon learn… pretty much a perfect place to make cheese.
In 2010, The Lady attended the ACS Conference in Seattle, and had the opportunity to taste and snag a wedge of Thomasville Tomme which she brought home to The Manse for me to review. It’s a 4 Paw winner!! Sadly, it’s also the only one of their cheeses that I have had the honor to taste.
Today we have the opportunity to hear from a member of the cheese community who assists his cheesemaker in “spreading the curd”. I am pleased to introduce you to Mat Willey:
Spaulding Gray: First of all, thanks for taking the time to sit down and chat with me today. You are Director of Communications at Sweet Grass Dairy. Tell us about your job and how you assist the dairy.
Mathew Willey: At Sweet Grass Dairy, I’m in charge of representing the company through a communication strategy that, above all, emphasizes our commitment to hand-crafting cheeses utilizing old-world techniques while relying on sustainable agricultural practices. This includes spearheading all of our social media efforts, creating much of marketing, editing all website content, drafting all official Sweet Grass Dairy materials, and answering customer inquiries on a daily basis.
Additionally, I work with media contacts and public relations firms who visit the farm and our Cheese Shop to ensure that they have the best experience possible and that every question gets answered. Also, I head up our community outreach efforts through educational presentations, talks with various groups, and by serving on local committees that are working to make Thomasville an even better place to live.
Spaulding: Sweet Grass is located in South Georgia, not generally known for cheesemaking. How did the owners come to make cheese and why this location?
Mat: Everyone here has gotten some form of the question – ‘You do what? And, you do it where?’ We understand that on the surface it seems strange. Trust me, folks aren’t shy about calling us crazy. But, we don’t think that’s because of our chosen passion.
But, this whole thing makes perfect sense when you step back a little bit. First, South Georgia gets a lot of sun. Second, grass just needs a little water to grow. So, if you have access to water, your pastures have the potential to be green and healthy all year round.
That’s not to say that dairy farming is easy. It’s not. It takes a ton of hard work, years of dedication and an uncanny ability to constantly change up when things aren’t working. It’s not something that folks should get into lightly. It’s a lifestyle, not a hobby.
Once you wrap your mind around all of that, then you begin to realize that South Georgia is the perfect place for a cheesemaker. Also, fortunately for us, we have a secret weapon.
The current owner’s in-laws, Al and Desiree Wehner, founded Sweet Grass Dairy in 2000. However, they had been dairy farmers since the 1970s. And, in the early 1990s, they made a decision to move away from the dominant mantra that the ‘Bigger is Better,’ mantra and that every farmer should stock their herds full of Holstein cows. Al and Desiree went the opposite direction. They bought Jersey cows, decided to have smaller herds, and installed irrigation systems on each farm. They moved 180 degrees away from conventional farming to a method that emphasizes rotational style grazing.
Rotational style emphasizes moving the herd every 12 to 24 hours from one pasture to another. The cows only eat grass and are outside nearly 22 hours a day coming into the barn just twice a day for milking. The huge irrigation system means that the cows are always near water. The Wehners run three farms that support approximately 1500 cattle. That approach provides the highest quality milk, which is the foundation for both Sweet Grass Dairy’s cheeses and Dreaming Cow Yogurt.
The current owners, Jeremy and Jessica Little, haven’t changed anything from the original approach. The values are still the same. The cows are still out on pasture eating the healthiest grass and soaking up as many nutrients as possible. Jeremy, our head cheesemaker, often tells people that his job is to ‘not screw up the milk.’ His vision is to fuse old-world techniques with new world flavors to create complex cheeses that keep folks coming back again and again. We think it’s working.
SG: What cheeses do you make? Raw or pasteurized? What type of rennet?
MW: We make five cheeses on a regular basis. Of those, three are made with raw cow’s milk and two are made with pasteurized milk. In all of our cheeses we only use traditional rennet.
Additionally, we do create other limited production cheeses that typically only available locally through our cheese shop. The Thomasville community has given us amazing support since day one, so we like to give them first crack at some of those cheeses. Plus, when we do experimentations, those typically wind up in the hands of locals. It’s immediate feedback and that’s absolutely priceless.
Spaulding: Have you ever eaten Velveeta? When and where?
Mat: Honestly, I cannot remember actually ever eating Velveeta. I’m sure it was in probably every cheese dish we were served as school kids in the cafeteria, but it’s probably a shorter list to include what wasn’t put into those meals. I digress.
I think that even as a kid, I had an aversion to eating cheese that came to you in this oddly shiny, yet not quite foil wrapping from a brightly colored box that looked like an hyperactive three-year old was in charge of creating the packaging. I was probably a little frightened of it.
Now, there is simply zero chance that I’m going eat something that is legally labeled as a ‘Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product.’ I don’t even want to try and decipher what that means. Plus, there are ‘ingredients’ in the Cheese Product that I can’t pronounce. And, given that making cheese essentially requires four easily pronounceable ingredients – I can’t bring myself to try anything that reminds me of a block of orangish-yellow Elmer’s Glue which has been left out overnight to solidify.
Spaulding: Where is the scariest or strangest place you have gone in search of a cheese, a mac n cheese or a grilled cheese?
Mat: Here’s the amazing thing, you don’t really have to search for good cheese anymore. Here in South Georgia, Cypress Grove is on the shelves at our biggest grocer – Publix. Honestly, I think that people having access to high quality products like that is great. Plus, with our Cheese Shop, we get all of these amazing cheeses from all over the world. Jessica and Jeremy are always looking to bring in the best of the best, so I try anything new whenever I can.
SG: Which of your cheeses would you pair with one of my favorite delicacies, terrapene carolina triunguis? Have you ever seen one roaming around the dairy?
MW: First, we’re huge sanitation sticklers so there are no mice running around our cheesemaking facilities. However, if we did happen to find one while wandering around our 140 acres, we’d have grand plans for it.
Spaulding: Mat, please understand, I never meant the cheesemaking facilities; I was referring to the grassland where, sometimes, turtles are known to roam… I hope I didn’t offend you… none meant…
If you aren’t near a cheese shop that sells Sweet Grass Dairy’s Award-winning cheeses, you can purchase through amazon by clicking on the icon below.