Have it Your Whey

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STORY BY CAROLINE FERGUSON
PHOTOS BY HILARY MCMULLEN

Cherry Valley Dairy churns natural, sustainable, healthy practices into every product it makes.

cowThe 4 a.m. drive from Seattle to the tiny town of Duvall is darker than seems possible. Once I hit those country back-roads, there wasn’t a streetlight for miles. The moon is hidden in the towering trees, and the darkness drapes itself over the car like a wool blanket. Even headlights seem dimmer as I navigate the winding road into the valley, praying I won’t turn a corner and end up face to face with a deer.

But eventually I find what I’m looking for: Cherry Valley Dairy, a lush acreage nestled between the local elementary school and a Catholic church. It’s undeniably bucolic, even at this punishing hour and even though the air smells — well, like 50 cows live here.

Emily Deans and Blain Hages make the drive every morning, rain or shine. Cows don’t have holidays, as Hages likes to say, and there’s only 48 hours after each twice-daily milking to either use or lose 200 pounds of superlative Jersey milk.

Hages, the head of creamery operations, has grown accustomed to the taxing life of a cheesemaker since starting from the bottom at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese 13 years ago.

“I did all the work that nobody wanted to do,” he says. “The heavy lifting, the sweaty, early-morning labor, the cleanup.” But he fell in love with cheesemaking all the same. “I just think it’s the best job in the world.”

It’s exactly this kind of devoted attitude that also drew Deans to cheese-making, after three years working at an environmental nonprofit in up-state New York. She would often interact with dairy farmers as she helped them expand their value-added product lines, and she was quickly intrigued.

“They were the quirkiest, most passionate group of people,” Dean says. “I just became obsessed with cheesemaking.”

So when she moved out to Seattle two years ago, she knew she wanted to pursue a career in the dairy industry. She started out running the farmers market booth for Cherry Valley Dairy, and before long, she was working full time in production, marketing, and sales.

As Hages and Deans have grown their cheesemaking careers, Cherry Valley Dairy has been in constant flux. The property itself is 87 years old, one of the oldest dairies in the valley. The Coy family ran Cherry Valley as a small family farm for decades, but in 2002, it took on new life when it became a major source of bulk milk for Beecher’s. Gretchen Garth purchased the dairy three years later, and Cherry Valley operated as a milk supplier for 10 years.

productIn 2012 Hages — then a dairy consultant to Cherry Valley — decided that Cherry Valley could support a cheesemaking operation of its own. By 2015, the dairy had ceased supplying Beecher’s and was using every drop of its milk for its own product line.

“It was time to grow up,” Hages says.

As it turned out, growing up meant scaling down. Cherry Valley reduced its herd of cows from hundreds to less than 50, a number that could be raised sustainably and humanely to produce only the amount of milk needed. (The bulls are either sold to other farmers or donated to 4-H.)

Unlike most American dairy cows, Cherry Valley’s herd all lack the A1 gene mutation, which alters milk’s beta-casein proteins, Some research shows that A1 milk can be harder to digest than the less common A2 milk.

“A lot of people who can’t tolerate A1 milk are fine with A2,” Dean says. “We do special bulk orders for some people because they don’t have any issues with our milk.”

Though some of the milk is set aside for sale, the vast majority is made into cheese and butter — 16,000 pounds and 9,000 pounds a year, respectively.

The flagship Dairy Reserve cheese, a 2014 American Cheese Society blue medalist, is coated in cocoa powder, black pepper, and cinnamon before being aged for 6 or 12 months. They also produce a cultured butter in both gray salt and unsalted varieties, and a light-as-air ricotta that uses up the bulk of the leftover whey that would otherwise go to waste. Cultured ghee, buttermilk, cream, and whey are also produced in more limited supply, and the dairy is currently doing research and development for a skim milk yogurt.

Of course, getting all these highly perishable products out to the public can present a challenge. Cherry Valley uses no plastic in its packaging, and distributing the wares before they expire is, of course, a top priority. They work with a few different food hubs, such as Farmigo, New Roots, and the Puget Sound Food Hub, but standing out among the increasingly crowded field of local artisan cheese-makers is sometimes difficult.

feeding baby cow“I wonder when the industry is going to level off,” Hages says. “I think about that every day I come into work. But I think we beat people to the plate with quality.”

At Cherry Valley Dairy, culinary quality and environmental stewardship go hand in hand. Sourcing all the milk from a single origin gives their cheese a remarkable terroir and, accordingly, taking care of the land is a top priority.

“This is a lush environment,” Hages says. “For decades, if you want to raise an animal, you raise it in Duvall.”

For the past several years, that lush environment has required a concerted effort to protect the local watershed. Cherry Valley Dairy is Salmon-Safe certified, meaning it has improved water quality and fish habitats. This includes a significant bed restoration along Rasmussen Creek, which runs through the property. Local sustainability groups have been known to show up at the farm to lend a hand with the restoration process, planting native shrubs and building bridges to help cows cross the creek without contaminating it.

The hard work paid off: A few years ago, salmon reappeared in the creek for the first time in decades.

If that’s not worth waking up at 4 a.m., what is?

Caroline Ferguson is a freelance food and culture journalist. Her writing has appeared in Seattle Metropolitan Magazine, Visit Seattle, and RENDER Feminist Food and Culture Quarterly. When she’s not writing about food, she’s creating it as a full-time baker at a Seattle patisserie.

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