On a farm situated on a high ridge between Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake, a twelfth generation farmer is pursuing her dream. Sarah Van Orden grew up on her family’s dairy farm in the Catskills area, and after completing her formal education at Cornell, she and her partner Charlie Morrow are successfully raising Brown Swiss and operating Crosswinds Farm and Creamery in Ovid, NY.
“My grandfather had Brown Swiss in the 50s and 60s, and that’s how I got hooked on them,” said Sarah, explaining her passion for the breed. “They make the most sense as a breed — they produce the volume of a Holstein and closer to the same components as Jerseys. They’re very rugged and don’t have a lot of health problems, and have a low somatic cell count.”
Sarah started farming on her own in 2003, first on a rented property. As she searched for a farm to purchase, she found that the available dairy farms didn’t have the facilities that would maximize cow comfort. She settled on a property that would allow her to design the facility from the ground up. A Coverall building, which was erected in less than a week, turned out to be a good choice for a barn. “I like the natural lighting,” she said, “and since most wind comes from the west or south, curtains can help provide wind protection. We have a few fans on the cows in summer, but overall, ventilation is good.”
Sarah explains that she started a small Brown Swiss herd at her parents’ farm, and has been adding to that herd since. “When we were renting a farm, we purchased Holsteins to fill the barn then we started cross-breeding,” she said. “Now the majority of the herd is Swiss.”
Today, the herd includes about 125 animals; 50 to 60 of which comprise the milking string. Cows are milked twice a day in a double six parlor that’s patterned after a New Zealand swing-style parlor. Sarah is there for the majority of milkings, which keeps her closely in tune with the herd. The cow ration includes dry hay, baleage, corn silage and custom-blended grain.
Sarah does the A.I. for the herd, with sire selection criteria based on several factors. “I breed for a complete cow,” said Sarah. “I look for positive production traits, type and components. I use a lot of genomically tested young bulls. I also try to select from reliable cow families, which makes a difference in getting bulls that prove to be as good as their genomics.”
A grant-funded solar project resulted in an essentially free hot water system for the milking parlor. Sarah is currently working with New York State Soil and Water Conservation District on a drainage project. “We’re going to put in a pad for the calf hutches,” she said, “and that will be part of a covered barnyard area.”
Calves are raised on self-feeders in small groups of three to five calves. They’re fed free-choice whole milk ad lib, at about 60 to 70 degrees. “Our feeders are old freezers with nipples mounted on the outside,” said Sarah. “The milk is in a barrel inside the freezer, and we keep a small electric heater in there in winter. That helps keep the temperature moderate.” Sarah says the nipple system is perfect because calves can have smaller meals more frequently throughout the day rather than two big meals.
Although Sarah didn’t start her herd with the intention of making cheese, she knew she preferred offering a value-added product rather than building a larger herd. She says that learning how to make cheese was partly trial-and-error along with help from other cheesemakers. “Right now I make all of my cheese at Cornell University,” she said. “I rent processing space in a pilot program that’s part of Wegman’s artisan cheese partnership.” Wegman’s provided Cornell with grant money to support development of the three-year pilot program aimed at helping New York cheesemakers develop and market farmstand artisan cheese products.
Making and aging cheese at the facility requires spending several days each week at the Cornell facility. “We started with a soft, fresh cheese that we call ‘Morning Glory’, named after one of the cows,” Sarah explained. “It’s a cross between a cream cheese and a ricotta. We also make two versions of a Swiss alpine style cheese — a baby Swiss and a reserve Swiss that that’s aged about six months.”
Crosswinds Creamery’s location is an advantage when it comes to marketing cheese. They’re on the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail, which includes a variety of cheesemakers who coordinate their marketing efforts.
“What’s nice about the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail is that all of us who are part of it try to do something a little bit different and find our own niche,” said Sarah. “Because I have the Swiss cows and alpine cheese is the style that their milk has been made into for centuries, I thought it was fitting for us to work on that.” Sarah says the tricky part of making Swiss cheese is that it has to age at about 70 degrees for three weeks, which requires aging space to accommodate that temperature in addition to colder aging space for the remainder of the aging period.
The Finger Lakes Cheese Trail holds events throughout the year including an open house in spring and fall and a cheese festival in summer that’s held on one farm. “We do a whole day of cheese tasting, cheese-making classes and tours of that farm,” said Sarah. “2014 was the third year of the event and it drew more than 2,500 people.” Cheese trail members also work with the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, and will hold a series of events this spring called ‘Preferred Pairings’ in which cheesemakers partner with wineries to highlight the region’s exceptional wines and artisan cheeses.
Right now, the amount of milk used for cheese production is minimal, but Sarah is working on how she might change that. “We want to increase the amount of milk that’s processed into value-added product,” she said. “We’re looking at making yogurt and bottling milk.”
In addition to cheese, Crosswinds Creamery also sells pork, beef and eggs; all produced on the farm. Customers can pick up cheese at the farm, but most sales are through the year-round Ithaca Farmer’s Market. Crosswinds Creamery was awarded a gold medal in the artisan cheese class at the 2014 New York State Fair.
Visit Crosswinds Farm and Creamery online at www.crosswindsfarmcreamery.com .