When Brent Zimmerman went on a vacation to Italy in 1991, he never expected the return trip would take 23 years. Nor could he have anticipated how an elderly Italian woman who had lost her sight would nurture Zimmerman’s gift for cheese making and help launch him into a successful creamery business.
“I always knew I would end up on a farm,” said Zimmerman. “I just didn’t think it would be in Italy.”
However, the mountainside community of Caprese Michelangelo provided the kind of welcome to rival the lure of a return ticket. “When I started seriously thinking that staying was an option, raising sheep on the mountain was one of the easier ways for me to get a work permit,” said Zimmerman. “I was happy to buy a flock of sheep and live as a shepherd.”
Lamb dishes were common in the region and with lambs being harvested at six to eight weeks, “the sheep still have a lot of milk to give, so tradition calls for making sheep’s milk cheese,” explained Zimmerman. “Tuscany is known for sheep’s cheese, Pecorino, more than cow or goat cheese.”
Longing for the farm life, Zimmerman and business co-owner Alessandro Voglino, located a 17th century farm that had long ago been abandoned. Together, the duo renovated the historic property and began building a small creamery, working and learning alongside their neighbors, mostly women, who had been making cheese for decades.
“I loved making sheep’s cheese with my elderly neighbor ladies up on the mountain. Mama Rosa was blind and 95 years old. She would reach over and feel the cheese I was pressing, then smack my hand yelling, ‘Not so hard!’” Zimmerman smiled warmly. “Such a good memory and such a good start to cheese-making.”
Within the decade, a goat creamery came up for sale and Zimmerman and Voglino jumped at the opportunity. “That’s how the business got started. I raised Oberhasli, which is one of the more popular breeds in Italy along with Sanen.” Oberhasli and Sanen goats are known for milk production and overall good temperaments.
The business grew steadily, but after more than 20 years of cheesemaking in Italy, Zimmerman began imagining a life back in the United States.
“I loved my experience, felt part of my mountain village community, made many friends and had my share of successes in farming and marketing and yet, the idea of being part of the American farm scene certainly had its draw.”
While Voglino continues to keep the farm going in Italy, Zimmerman spent the past two years developing a farm property in the Hudson Valley of New York into a full-scale creamery.
Lime Kiln Farm located just outside of Coxsackie provides ample room (over 400 acres) for a growing business. The farm is named for the now-defunct lime brick kiln, located just before the entrance to the farm, once used by farmers to produce soil-amending quicklime.
“Apart from its size, beauty and the room for growth, the farm is also very convenient to New York City and airports for flying back and forth to Italy,” said Zimmerman. The proximity is also convenient for Voglino, who checks in on the farm’s progress every few months.
“I have to keep Italy close,” said Zimmerman. “Of course, the consumer and farmer relationships of the Hudson Valley called to me as well. I want to know the people who want my products. I had that in Italy and hope to recreate it here.”
One way Zimmerman hopes to create a feeling of community is through workshops in cheesemaking and regular tours of the newly constructed cheesemaking facility and farm store.
A day in the life of a cheese-maker and farmer is busy, but thankfully, Zimmerman has a very dedicated “right hand man.” Claire Thomson joined Lime Kiln Farm in March as a volunteer, but her dedication to the project was evident from the start.
“I hired her within the week,” said Zimmerman.
Together, Thomson and Zimmerman are building a regular schedule as the business prepares to open. “We’re still finding our rhythm here. If it’s anything like Italy, we’ll start early with a 5 a.m. milking and prepping of the cheese room for cheese making. After milking, we clean up for our day in the cheese room. The actual cheese-making takes between four and six hours, including clean up. Then there’s cheese flipping, market prepping, and documentation.” Zimmerman said there is some respite in shepherding during the day, “I do spend a lot of time in the hills with the goats and sheep, taking them to fresh pasture, so that does give us a break. Some forced relaxation while the sheep graze,” he said.
Zimmerman said his experience navigating the permit process and inspections in Italy was “intimidating,” and he has no plans this time around to reinvent the wheel. “I just wanted to be a goat farmer; the bureaucracy was just not something I wanted to be doing. With the new project at Lime Kiln, we knew what direction we wanted to head in and asked for specific guidance along the way.”
Lime Kiln Farm is near the end of the permit process and Zimmerman plans on opening for business by Aug. 1. The store will showcase a taste of Italy on American soil with a diversified product line, including chevre’, primo sale and farmer’s cheese, hard cheeses from both cow and goat milk, Brie type cheese and limited mozzarella and ricotta, and “hopefully some yogurt in the not so distant future.”
Cheeses are made with both goat and cow milk. “My hope was to make goat cheese from Easter until October, and cows cheese from September to May, so we don’t have so much work to do every day,” explained Zimmerman. “But nobody told the cows my plans.” The cows will be calving now from September to January.
Zimmerman’s long-standing career as a shepherd lends well to his work selecting good breeding stock for improved milk production. When it comes to goats, he wrote the book on them. Literally. The accomplished cheesemaker is also the author of Get Your Goat, a backyard guide to raising goats.
In addition to cows and goats, Lime Kiln Farm will offer quality meats. “We have Berkshire pigs, pasture-raised and whey-fed. To round us out we have White Dorper sheep. They are easy and productive and help improve our pastures. It’s a busy diversified farm.”
Apart from opening the new creamery, Zimmerman is currently writing a follow-up about his experiences making cheese in Italy.
When asked where he hopes to see the business in a decade’s time, Zimmerman responded, “Well, we are in our 50s now, so hopefully this will be our forever farm and our cheese production will be going smoothly and the animals happy. We continue to be more involved in the community and enjoy participating in local events. We hope to have found our place much like we did on the mountain in Italy.”