CUMMINGTON, MA – High humidity, the kind that sends people running into air conditioned cars and offices – who needs it? Cheese does; 90 percent humidity, in fact, the kind experienced early this August, is exactly the kind of humidity that cheese needs to ripen and allow cultures inside it to mature and enhance its flavors. Humidity is also vitally necessary to keep the cheese vigorously plump and stop it from drying out. In other places in the world, like the famous Franche Comte` region in eastern France, there are coveted caves that are used to age cheese.
At Grace Hill Farm in Cummington, MA, first generation farmers Max and Amy Breiteniecher erected their own above ground 20-by-25-foot cave that emulates a natural cave’s 50-degree temperature and 90 percent humidity. Inside it, they age their own artisanal cheese produced from the raw milk from their herd of 10 Ayrshires and Normande cows.
They produce Clothbound Cheddar, an English farmhouse cheddar aged nine months, a gruyere-like hard alpine-style cheese called Wild Alpine aged nine months, a raclette style called Valais aged three months, a camembert-like brie called Cheesecake aged two months, and a Hilltown Blue, after the hill towns in which they reside, aged four months. FDA regulations require all raw milk cheese to be aged at least two months.
There is no long walk required to the cave at their farm as it is inside the 40-by-30-foot building that houses the milking parlor, the bulk tank room and the cheese making room.
They celebrated their farm’s fifth birthday on July 10. Along the way, the couple had a baby, Charlie, who is now three years old. Amazingly, he was born on July 10; he couldn’t have timed his arrival any better to coincide with their farm’s anniversary.
As the farm has grown, they have expanded from producing cheese to supply local stores and restaurants, and selling their cheese at farmers markets in Northampton and Amherst to having their cheese distributed through a regional distributor to Boston, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York. They met the regional distributor at a 28-member MA Cheese Guild meeting this spring. Breiteneicher also drives to Cambridge, MA, each Wednesday to sell cheese.
In season, they make 15,000 to 16,000 pounds of cheese. They do seasonal milking April through Christmas. “We are the smallest cheese producer in the state by far,” said Breiteneicher, but they have quickly made their mark and are already regionally famous. Their farm will be featured in a revolving photo essay backdrop board behind speakers and performers at the Farm Aid concert in Hartford, CT, on Sept. 22.
They have also expanded from making cheese in a hard-to-find 400 liter Dutch Van Zijll Zuivelgereedschappen brand vat to another equally hard to find 800 liter C. van’t Riet vat that came directly from Holland.
They own 120 acres, land that they bought in 2012 from the Dawes/Thayer family, who had farmed it since the 1700s, raising sheep and as a dairy.
The cows are kept on 34 to 40 acres of rotational pasture, moving from pasture to pasture every 21 days. Like people, cows also eschew being uncomfortable in the heat. “They don’t like it when it’s hot. When it’s really hot, we give them places to get into the shade,” said Breiteneicher. Their cows are a variety of ages, with the oldest being six years old. They are exclusively grass-fed, consuming no hormones or antibiotics, and are fed hay in winter. He has found them to be very hardy.
Breiteneicher still enjoys the process of making cheese and milking.
“The greatest difficulty is trying to figure things out while having an enormously heavy workload. From 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. I’m busy just doing work, seven days a week. Even sending an email takes time out. Trying to run and build a business is a major challenge,” he said.
Last year they added raising a cross of Berkshire, Tamworth and Gloucester Old Spot heritage breed pigs to sell as meat. They raised 10 pigs last year and 12 this year. The pigs are fed whey, extra milk and organic feed from Vermont.
Their success is no accident. It was carefully cultured, like their cheese. Breiteneicher brought with him a wealth of cheese making and animal husbandry experience gleaned through an odyssey of working at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, VT, Chase Hill Farm in Warwick MA, and Sidehill Farm in Hawley, MA.
For more information, access www.GraceHillDairy.com.