Via Reporter News, August 28, 2012
Drought has touched almost every state in the country and has made headlines for its impact on the food industry. Some prices have skyrocketed, farmers have fretted and government officials are looking for ways to keep parched lands producing.
One effect of the drought that many consumers may not have considered, though, has to do with the flavor of artisan cheese.
“We’re a grazing operation,” said Connie Veldhuizen, who runs Veldhuizen Cheese in Dublin with her husband, Stuart, on their farm. “No rain means no grass and no grass means we need hay.”
But cows eating hay produce milk with a different flavor than cows that eat grass, and a different flavor in milk creates a different flavor in cheese.
“It’s probably not noticeable unless you eat it every day like we do,” Connie said of the ever-changing flavors of the cheese. “It’s not a worse or better flavor, just different.”
The green grass that cows nibble on every spring gives cheese a more golden hue, she said, while cows eating hay produce cheese that is lighter in color.
Many farmers and ranchers throughout the Big Country have had to pull out the hay for livestock this summer and the Veldhuizens started feeding their cows hay around the end of July.
However, by the time anyone enjoys the cheeses made on the farm this summer, the drought may be over. Cheeses made on the farm generally age between three months and two years before they’re ready to eat, depending on the variety.
The farm yields more than a dozen varieties of cheese that are sold to individuals through their Dublin cheese shop and online operation and to many wholesalers, as well. The cheese can be found in retail stores statewide, including Whole Foods.
Despite the heat, the cows still produce plenty of milk to make the cheese that has been growing in popularity since Stuart started making it in 2002. Between 40 and 50 cows are milked twice a day for the cheese-making operation. Every other day, about 300 gallons of raw milk (which is milk that is neither pasteurized nor homogenized) gets poured into a large vat that makes a different batch of cheese depending on demand. In the vat, the milk goes through a process that separates it into curds and whey, then the curds are drained and stuffed into molds that sit for about 24 hours. Later, the cheese, now in wheel shapes ranging from 6 pounds to 18 pounds depending on the variety, go through a process to give a protective rind. The rind is different depending on the type of cheese, Connie explained.
The Texas Star cheese the Veldhuizens make, for example, is one type of cheese that gets washed with salt every day for three weeks to create a natural rind. Other varieties get a wax-type coating rolled on for protection.
The aging process begins with each wheel of cheese being labeled with the type of cheese and the production date. These wheels are stocked on floor-to-ceiling shelves in the aging cave on the farm, a 50-degree room carved into the side of a hill that stays at 80 percent to 90 percent humidity at all times while the cheese matures.
To keep its shape, each wheel must be flipped over twice a week, a job the Veldhuizen’s 17-year-old son takes on with a friend.
These wheels stay in the aging cave anywhere between three months and two years, Connie said, depending on the variety.
It’s the time-consuming process of making cheese that makes business growth tricky in the industry.
“It’s always an interesting thing to anticipate growth,” Connie said. “We have to plan way ahead. We’ve had a little bit of growing pains because if people want a lot of something, with the aging process, it’s impossible to just whip it up for them. Every once in a while you get an especially high demand for something. That’s just the way it goes.”
Despite the guessing game they sometimes have to play, Connie and Stuart said they are thrilled with the amount of growth they have experienced since beginning the business 10 years ago.
“You just grow as a business,” Connie said of how the operation has changed since 2002. “We milk more cows, we make more cheese.”
Within the first few years of making cheese, the family had added several things to the business. The aging cave was built early on, Connie said, followed by the building of a storefront connected to a cheesemaking room with a large glass window that allows customers to see how their favorite varieties are concocted.
An aging room specifically for blue cheese has been added in the past three years.
“In this business, it’s really hard to anticipate growth and it makes it difficult to meet needs,” Connie said. “When we built the aging cave, we couldn’t imagine filling it and now it’s more than full. As we grow we look at what we need.”
The only plan the couple has for the future so far is to keep churning out cheeses. Stuart likes to experiment with new types and he said he will continue to add new varieties to the business as he finds winning concoctions.
The Veldhuizen Farm is located in Dublin, about 100 miles east of Abilene. They are open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. They conduct a weekly tour at 10:30 a.m. Saturdays, other tours are available by appointment.
For information, visit veldhuizencheese.com.