This is my tenth interview with cheesemakers from around the world. They have all been great but my interview with Vicky Brown of Little Brown Farm has to rank up at the top as a favorite. Vicky is a very generous woman with information and her time in doing this interview.
About seven years ago, Vicky and her family left the fast lane and headed to Whidby Island in the Puget Sound of Washington State to follow their dream. Today they milk about 20 does on their farm and are developing a small herd of ewes which will soon also contribute milk to the farmstead cheesemaking production.
Vicky names all her animals and has known most of them from birth. Obviously she and her family love their herds and consider them family… A lot like here at The Manse… I, too, consider The Man and The Lady my family…
We have never tasted Little Brown Farm cheeses but we met Vicky through another of our favorite goat cheesemakers, Rhonda Gothberg of Gothberg Farms. And anyone Rhonda loves… we love…
I’d like to thank Vicky for opening her heart and her generous giving of her time; you will, too, once you’ve read this interview…
Spaulding Gray: I noticed on your Facebook page that you had a pledge drive to assist your farm. Tell us about this and the experience and the future of the project.
Vicky Brown: I am lucky enough to live in an amazing community, on Whidbey Island, WA. One of my favorite artists, Anne Belov, was running a Kickstarter project to help fund future studies for her work. Supporting her and watching how it went, I was introduced to Kickstarter.com.
It didn’t take long for us to develop a project of our own. As a farmer we always have projects – this year we have $48,000 of improvements to make not considering the Kickstarter project.
With Anne’s help we launched a fundraising project to help our micro-creamery develop an appropriate aging place for our cheeses and room to teach classes without jeopardizing our products, and even room for people to drop by and get cheeses from our farm.
Running the project was a LOT more work than I anticipated, and with 5 days left (53 days from the start of the project) we weren’t even 60% to our goal. The interesting thing about Kickstarter is you only fund your project if you hit your goal. It wasn’t looking good.
Then there was a blog, in Ohio, and neighbors and friends forwarding links like crazy through social media. Suddenly we hit our goal with 26 hours to spare! In the last 26 hours we even exceeded our goal with enough room to help us with a fencing project we are working on.
Before the last week, I had already started to recognize the true value of our campaign. Although the funding was awesome and spectacular, that wasn’t the largest benefit. The real benefit was feeling the community (from neighbors to cheese lovers in Denmark) support in a concrete and tangible way.
Kickstarter let us know that we aren’t on our own. I felt very alone for our 4 year journey trying to break through red tape to get open, but now I know people support us, and they want us to be successful. And they love our cheeses!
Before funding we felt that love in a wonderful and tangible way. Hitting our funding goal was overwhelming. When our house kitty (Cinderella) gets too happy, when you’re petting her just right, she purrs and purrs and purrs. Sometimes it gets to be so much she can’t think of any other way to express how happy she is, it just bursts out in a love bite. That’s how we felt when we funded. We couldn’t contain the amount of support and joy and love we had felt, we will be looking for ways to show our gratitude for many years to come (love bites aren’t an option for humans… our health department frowns upon them)!
Spaulding: What did you do in the “city” and why did you decide to raise goats and make cheese?
Vicky: I had a lot of jobs in my urban life. I held titles from Operations Manager to Director of Human Resources to Chief Financial Officer. I worked in companies that ranged from small law offices to PR firms to publically held technology companies.
I grew up in Wisconsin, cheese was always part of my life, but I had never really met a goat (other than at the zoo in the petting zoo area) until about 10 years ago.
My daughter, now 22 years old, actually met goats first, she got a goat as an FFA project to help keep her focused on constructive things through her turbulent teen years. I spent a lot of time at the farm where we boarded the goat and found that they were unique and interesting.
After my corporate job and my teenage daughter, I found spending time with the goats made life seem not only bearable, but enjoyable. There’s a little more to the story, including a dramatic near-death experience, but we can save that for sharing over a can of tuna. Basically, for me it was definitely goats first.
Then the lovely woman that we boarded the goat at graciously kept sharing her time and knowledge. She taught me my foundation of goat husbandry knowledge (information she had attained over nearly 30 years of raising goats), and then started to share other things, including fiber work, candy making, grain milling, baking and cheesemaking.
Well, the cheesemaking stuck, and I knew that with goats and cheesemaking my life could be complete.
Borrowing from my corporate background, I developed a business plan. I set off to educate myself about cheesemaking and travelled around the United States taking classes, learning from cheesemongers and cheesemakers and milk producers nationwide. I studied goat husbandry and regulations and ended up with a 380 page blueprint for our future.
SG: What was the first cheese you made after “escaping” the city?
VB: My first cheese was Ricki’s mozzarella. It was awesome! It was fresh and delicious and only ended up costing 4x what it would have cost to purchase some. My second batch was a hockey puck. The third, a doorstop. The fourth, just when I was ready to give up hope, perfection again.
I was never fond of goat milk mozzarella though, so I quickly moved on to other cheeses. My mentor taught me a recipe for feta. I could make this cheese! And I could EAT (a LOT of) this cheese! Ohhhh it was so good. The hardest part was waiting the short period of time from when the cheese is ‘done’ to when it is ready. Many cheeses have a period of time when they are ‘green’ (not quite developed or ripe).
9 years later and I still make that feta, we call it Pheta because it isn’t a traditional feta so we needed to somehow differentiate it. We used to make a traditional feta too, but don’t even bother anymore with the popularity of our Pheta.
Vicky: Learn about it, plan for it, do it. If you wait until your kids are grown, or until your job is right, or until your savings are stable (okay, that might be a good one to wait for), you may never get to it. Life is short, and often shorter than you think.
Borrowing a line from another local farmer – We don’t farm to get rich, we farm because we can’t NOT farm. If you can’t NOT make cheese, do it. Don’t waste everyone’s time with a million reasons you can’t, just do it.
I hear people tell me all the time that they would love to do what I do, but just can’t because it is too expensive (yes, it cost us almost $300,000 so far and we still aren’t to the farm even paying its own expenses yet!), or it is too hard (yes, we work 18+ hour days, 7 days a week this time of year – but get a break in the winter when it’s only 10 hours, 7 days a week!), or they weren’t raised on a farm, or didn’t inherit a farm, or land is too expensive, or regulations are too stringent, or… these are all excuses. If you can’t NOT farm, then you will plan, you will make it happen, it probably won’t be easy, but it will be the best, most rewarding experience of your life.
If you are one of the “can’t NOT” farmers, find other farmers that will talk to you, mentor you, help you, if they love to do what they are doing, they will often share their knowledge. But if you do this be respectful, farmers are BUSY and their time is valuable – training you does not help them to stay sustainable, help think of ways to make it a fair trade. Recognize the value of their knowledge and experience and reward it.
I was lucky and had a delightful and patient mentor in California, but she wasn’t the only one. One of my nearest ‘competitors’ has been gracious and supportive of me as I moved in and opened in her market as well. I still think she has some of the best cheeses on this planet and happy to enjoy them when I can.
I’m lucky to be in a demographic where wonderfully talented cheesemakers like her have already introduced the public to delicious handcrafted cheeses. The bar is very high in the Pacific Northwest. Without an exceptional product, new cheesemakers will fail after the first blush of the rose fades, but because of people like Rhonda Gothberg, there will be a demand for exceptional farmstead cheeses in this area indefinitely.
SG: Do you have any cats on the farm? Do they eat cheese?
VB: We have several cats. We have 2 house cats and 3 barn cats. Our barn cats don’t eat cheese, but do enjoy a nightly warm milk snack. The three in the barn (Junior Mint, Spooky and Punkin) were feral rescue cats, teenagers when we got them. Most humans can’t get near them, but those of us who work on the farm get to enjoy their cuddles and purrs and affection. Junior has even made a habit of riding the feed cart out in the morning, every morning, rain or shine. The three of them are best buddies with our Livestock Guardian Dog, Gabriel and people are often surprised to see them hanging out together.
Our house cats, Cinderella and Kitten (who is now 13) enjoy the stay-at-home lifestyle of reasonably spoiled royalty… But not spoiled enough to get cheese.
Spaulding: What style cheeses do you make?
Vicky: I make several styles of cheese. Most fall into the category of fresh goat cheeses. I make very little traditional cheese.
Our most popular cheeses are our Caprine Cream Chevre (fresh spreadable goat cheese – on the menu at The Walrus and The Carpenter) and our Caprizella (a fresh and an aged version, Italian style – our own creation last spring to replace that goat mozzarella in recipes although it isn’t much like mozzarella at all – also on menus at fine restaurants like Emmer and Rye).
We also make Velvet Rose (an aged, wine-washed rind – named after my favorite goat), Saratoga Satin (similar to provolone – named after Velvet’s daughter) and Pheta.
Occasionally we make whey ricotta and traditional French style chevre.
We are adding a new Havarti style cheese that did quite well in our test markets (sold out 3 weeks in a row!). It doesn’t have a name yet.
We do make a traditional yogurt that is ridiculously good as well. I really enjoy our yogurt and am quite proud of it.
Just this week we are rolling out our newest product… Cajeta! Cajeta is a Mexican goat milk caramel sauce. After living in San Diego for 20 years, living here for 7 without it was too long. It turns out I’m not the only person to miss it. We were going to roll it out a few weeks ago but had one of our favorite chefs come to the farm and after a taste bought our entire inventory.
SG: What cheese would you pair with Egretta thula ?
VB: Oh, that’s a hard question. I know what I would pair with chicken and salmon… but had never considered a pairing with Egretta thula.
I must say that when in doubt, I always reach for our Caprine Cream Chevre, usually one of our flavored ones (we use all local flavors, whether it’s honey from Island Apiaries, garlic from Willowood Farm or lavender or herbes de Provence from Lavender Wind Farm).
Just for the record, I would use the same cheese and add some fresh chives to go with my salmon, and I use the herbes de Provence option with my chicken (does Egretta thula taste like chicken?).
However, if you’re lucky enough to get your paws on some Velvet Rose and a loaf of rosemary bread, you could have your human make you a grilled cheese that will make you forget all about dining on poultry (but not playing with their funny looking feathers!).
Vicky, this has been a real pleasure. Next time The Lady and I visit Seattle, we’ll stop in and visit… we will, of course, call ahead… Thanks again.
You can follow Little Brown Farm at twitter: @littlebrownfarm
You can be a fan on Facebook: Little Brown Farm
And I also encourage you to read Vicky’s Blog!! Lots of fun information and great recipes using cheese from the farm!!!
Little Brown Farm Cheeses are available locally (Whidby Island neighborhood) at the following locations: Bayleaf; 2nd Street Wine Shop in Langley and Oystercatcher Restaurant on Whidby Island. And Saturdays at the Bayview Farmers Market and Coupeville Farmers Market.