The cheese industry is making a comeback in Perry
At one point, Wyoming County had a thriving cheesemaking industry. That all but dissipated in the 1930s. Gary and Betty Burley, owners of East Hill Farms, are looking to revive the industry and Perry will be at its epicenter. The couple plans on building East Hill Creamery, a cheesemaking plant with a retail store attached.
The long-time dairy farmers are getting ready to pass their farm on to the next generation, yet they are not quite ready to retire.
The Burleys were first considering Warsaw for their cheesemaking plant, however zoning issues were a concern. The pair then looked at Perry and it offered another location that suited the couple’s needs -- Route 39 near Camp Road.
“We want to do something,” Gary said. “For the last three years we’ve been planning this. We are going to be bringing in a French couple to teach the (cheesemaking) craft and the aging process.”
The Burley’s started their dairy farm with just 18 cows and 100 acres of land in 1981. The first generation farmers now have 1,200 milking cows, 2,500 total head of cattle and more than a 2,000 acres of land.
About three years ago, the couple took a cheese making course in the Central New York area. After that, Betty started making cheese in the kitchen -- which became an all-day process. The cheese they are planning to make will be considered an Artisan Cheese, a specialty cheese in the Alpine and French styles which are a semi-hard cheese.
“Some days I say, ‘What the heck am I doing?’,” Gary said. “But I don’t want to die with the regret of not trying.”
East Hill Farms uses a rotational grazing method for their cow herd. In other words, their dairy cows will produce a flavor that is distinct for this area. By rotating the herd, they eat a variety of grasses, flowers and herbs. While not an organic farm, they simply use a method specific to their needs.
“We think our milk is special because we allow our cows to graze,” Gary said.
The Burley’s own the Tarentaise Cow. According to the American Tarentaise Association: Tarentaise cattle in North America were originally imported from the French Alps and improved over the past 30 years to provide the beef cattle industry with the traits required to complement the British breeds and bring higher profitability and efficiency to commercial cattlemen. Tarentaise cattle provide natural muscling, increased milk, excellent fertility, legendary longevity, feet and legs built to travel, length and thickness in a moderate frame, and an adaptability to widely varying range conditions.
For the Burleys, they are the perfect cow for their cheese type.
The taste of the cheese can be changed by the process, the heat (temperature used to cook), culture (changes the ph of the milk), and by the size of the curds.
“What you do in the process is how you cane the flavor, but that is just one part of the overall process,” Betty said. “Aging, how long it’s aged, is another process in which the taste of the cheese is changed.”
A mold is used to form the cheese -- in their case, a round wheel will be used -- the ‘paste’ is put into the wheel for 24 hours. The use of the wheel is tradition for the French. Cheese itself was used when no refrigeration was available because it held in all sorts of environments. Furthermore, the wheels were portable and the cheese tasted better the longer it aged. For their purposes, raw milk cheese has to be aged at least 60 days before it can be consumed.
“It’s not cheese until it ages,” Gary said. “It’s said that cheese developed because when milk was carried in calf stomachs, at the end of the day, it had turned into cheese. I’m not sure how true much of that is, but it does make sense.”
Renit is a complex of enzymes produced in stomachs of ruminant mammals -- cattle, sheep, deer -- which is used in the production of most cheeses. Chymosin, its key component, is a protease enzyme that curdles the casein in milk, helping young mammals digest their mothers' milk.
“Basically, it’s the stomach of calves,” Betty said. “Eventually we will be making our own culture and renit. But that (the length of time for the aging process) is the scary part. We are going to make this chess and then wait six months to see if people are going to buy it.”
Environment is another factor in the cheese aging process: the more humid the cave is, the creamier the cheese. The plant will have four caves for the aging process. One cave will hold 700, 60-pound, 18-by 6-inch wheels. The wheels will have to be turned three times-a-week, rubbed with salt and turned again to help develop and promote good bacteria. Their first cheese, to be named Silver Lake, will be a younger cheese, one that hasn’t aged for very long.
“It’s a three-legged stool,” Gary said of the cheese making process. “You have the cheese maker, the milk from our own cows and the aging process. This will be a cheese that is distinctly from Wyoming County.”
The couple will also be using bass wood for their shelving, because the flavor of the wood will not be absorbed into the cheese. Europe predominately uses Norway Spruce, however, Gary said they would be using their own resource for the shelving as well as using the same timber for an upstairs education center in their Swiss Chalet-type of building.
“Right now were are going to start with making one cheese,” Gary said. “When we perfect that, we will add another cheese. We have to keep in mind that the goal is to produce three types of cheese. This is especially important when we order the equipment. Each cheese takes a different method.”
Furthermore, the cheese vats will be made of copper. According to Gary, this does a lot for the flavor of the cheese.
The Burley’s plan on selling their product direct from farm, to plant, to storefront.
“We went to Alabama and we met a person who is similar to us, with a similar interest and she has been doing this for a very long time,” Gary said.
They both say that to prosper, one needs to make an idea fit to what is around that area. They also draw strength from friends in Virginia who have a successful cheese plant/retail shop.
The East Hill Farm, belongs to the Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), a leading milk marketing cooperative and dairy food processor. They serve nearly 13,000 members through their core business of marketing members’ milk, paying them a competitive price and being a leader in the dairy industry. Furthermore, they offer programs and services that make it easier and more profitable for their members to farm.
East Hill Creamery will be seasonal, due to the grazing habits of the cows and would produce approximately 120,000 pounds of cheese annually, accounting for 10 percent of East Hill Farms’ milk production. East Hill Farms milks 200 cows daily -- 1.2 million pounds of milk annually -- with grazing locations in Warsaw and Dansville. The Burley’s children are coming up into the dairy business and will be doing the milking and running the business, so Gary said it was time to step back and start a new venture.
“It’s a slow process, but it’s a step in the right direction,” Gary said. “We would like to begin construction by May 1 (2015).”