Tieton Farm and Creamery
BY REBEKAH DENN
PHOTOS BY CAROLE TOPALIAN
It sounds like a cautionary tale: So, did you hear about the women who left their tech jobs and sunk their nest egg into a goat farm near Yakima?
Visit Ruth and Lori Babcock at the Tieton Farm and Creamery, though, and the cautions are few: The main concerns are following sanitation rules in the pristine cheesemaking building, or helping wrangle a few turkeys that snuck through the fence, or watching new piglets stampede to the trough. (“Eating like a pig,” Ruth says with a grin.) There’s time to admire the goats and sheep on the pasture, and to take in the scope of a beautifully unlikely farm in an unlikely place.
“These are pampered, pampered animals. That’s OK. We all need a little pampering,” said Lori Babcock, who handles the cheesemaking end of the business, while partner Ruth does the milking and animal care.
In the year since founding the farm, the creamery’s soft cheeses have already won fans from the Central Washington farmers markets to farm-to-table restaurants like Lark. The Babcocks are gaining a reputation for mild, pure cheeses that let their blend of goat and sheep milk speak for itself: It’s pasteurized at low temperatures and they use a light hand on the salt.
The creamery is “sort of the poster boy for the sort of small dairy we want to do business with,” said Leon Bloom, deli merchandiser of PCC Natural Markets, which carries the cheeses. “The goats live on the farm, they graze right on the farm. (Ruth) rotates the fences so they always have good grass to graze on, they do all the work themselves, they drop it off….
“The single best thing about them is how fresh the cheese is. It’s going from grass to milk to cheese to the store very, very, fast, much more so than anything else in the store—and it has to, because of the kind of farmstand chevre it is. It doesn’t last that long and there are no preservatives or anything like that in there.”
The Babcocks are charter members of “Mighty Tieton,” the deliberate revitalization of what was a failing orchard town. Seattle fine arts publisher Ed Marquand and his partner sparked the rebirth, renovating buildings around the classic grassy downtown square and nurturing a tiny but energetic arts community. Tieton now boasts the likes of a shop for hand-made prints and letterpress books, the stellar Harmony Orchards and Tieton Cider Works cidery, and a sound studio for composer Trimpin.
The Babcocks came to Tieton when their passion for gardening and animal-tending began to grow to a business, quickly outgrowing the land in Bellevue where Lori said they were “testing whether or not we really wanted to farm”. In Tieton, they found 21 acres, a welcoming community, and a new way of life.
Long-term plans are to build a bed-and-breakfast on the property, for what they hope will be the growing Tieton trade and for existing Yakima Valley wine tours. But their hopes for a bank loan for that project crashed along with the economy.
For now, they’re self-funded, but staying happily afloat, fueled by business classes and cheesemaking courses. (One nice boost was winning the $10,000 first prize in a recent Yakima County entrepreneurial contest). They sought out breeds of animals for the farm that filled a niche in taste, rather than aiming for high production. They raise Nubian goats, whose high-butterfat milk “simply rocks,” and Katahdin and East Friesian sheep. Ruth set up a mobile milking station that can be driven to the animals at milking time, rather than the other way round.
Sheep are naturally more reticent than goats, and “it’s easier to have a breed that has been domesticated a little bit further,” Lori said. Sheep are generally shyer and harder to milk, but “(the milk) is so much higher in butterfat, and it gives that mouthfeel you don’t get, I think, from goat milk itself. It also builds up the mineral content.”
Milk is a little like wine to Lori, an expression of terroir—albeit a sweet, herbaceous one. “It should reflect the animals, the breed of animal you’re using, and will also reflect what the animal is eating.”
In spring, the Tieton cheeses are probably 80 percent goat milk, but the sheep wind down their production faster than the goats. “By the end of the summer I’m more at a 90 percent goat, 10 percent sheep. It might get to 95, 99, and then all goat at the very very end. I try to keep the sheep milk in there as long as I can.”
The small nature of the farm—the creamery produced 15 to 20 pounds of cheese per week last year; the Babcocks hope to double that this season – also gives them room to experiment and play with more labor-intensive cheeses. They produce a mild, gentle-tasting feta. One Thanksgiving batch of their chevre was dusted with pumpkin spices, another had grape ash, and Lori is also experimenting with goat-milk Camembert. A sweet-faced, black Dexter cow and her calf graze on the property too, but for now the cow milk is just for testing out new varieties on the farm.
A specialty is Lori’s Greek-style halloumi, “a labor of love” which has a higher melting point than most cheeses and can be seared in firm slices on the grill. It requires an additional step beyond most cheesemaking, re-cooking it in its own whey until it acquires an elastic texture and “actually becomes lighter in weight”. Then it’s lightly brined.
Farm life is a major step from the couple’s former desk jobs. But the precision and mindset of working on computers, in an odd way, may have prepared them for their new lives. Ruth takes on the animal tasks with an engineer’s zeal. Lori follows super-strict protocols for keeping the cheesemaking area clean: Plunging the milk into a cooling bath the minute Ruth delivers it to the door, strictly separating animals and visitors and milk, keeping the floor and tiled walls cleaned to a literal gleam.
“I think you need a little bit of—and I don’t mean this in a bad way—you kind of need a little OCD. You need to be a little germaphobe. You need to kind of enjoy cleaning…” Lori said. All their cheeses are minimally processed, pasteurized at 145 degrees for 30 minutes.
Some entrepreneurs might have found their experiment a failure, heading back to the city. But the Babcocks are in the opposite column. Instead of regrets, they have dreams of welcoming guests to the property some day, cooking breakfasts, and showing them around a small working farm. They’re planning a pastured meat program in the fall for heritage turkeys and lambs and the male goats. They also sell eggs.
And, of course, they’re making more cheese.
“The grass is different as the year goes on,” Lori said. “The cheeses just develop and change all the time. It’s so fun.”[/twocolumns]
Seattle-based reporter Rebekah Denn has won two James Beard awards for food writing.