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Friday, 06 May 2016 12:34

For local couple, cheese is years in the making

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Terry and Denise Woods tend a herd of 19 cows at their Highfield Farm Creamery in the town of Linn. The couple have farmed for many years but only recently began selling their cheese locally. Terry and Denise Woods tend a herd of 19 cows at their Highfield Farm Creamery in the town of Linn. The couple have farmed for many years but only recently began selling their cheese locally. Terry Mayer

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- Take a city girl from Ohio and a guy with 35 years of experience as a computer engineer and you get ... two dedicated local cheesemakers. Terry and Denise Woods started selling their cheese only last year, but the two have been part of the agricultural landscape in the town of Linn since 1984. Over the years, they’ve raised sheep and Highland cattle, even chickens -- although “they’re not warm and cuddly,” Denise says -- on their farm, complete with a barn built in 1911 and a 1914 Sears and Roebuck house.

Now, in what Terry calls the smallest milking parlor in Wisconsin at their Highfield Farm Creamery, a herd of 19 cows provides the milk the couple turn into the cheese they sell seasonally at their farm to individual consumers, small retailers like the Green Grocer in Williams Bay and area restaurants such as Pier 290, also in Williams Bay.

The Woodses believe in the personal touch, whether that means nuzzling with a friendly 1,000-pound cow, crafting their cheese with the gentlest of methods, or delivering the finished products to regular customers in a vintage 1934 panel truck. Sample a flavorful slice of life with Denise and Terry Woods:

Urban meets country

Denise: I grew up in the city of Cleveland. I didn’t even have a pet growing up, so I am not a country girl. Terry bought this farm and before I knew it, we moved here. Then he had this dream of making cheese, and it’s been a 10-year project in the making.

I was in Cleveland visiting family, and he tells me he’s found a cow on the internet. And I said, “A lot of husbands aren’t looking at cows on the internet when their wives are gone.” But he was very excited. She was a half hour away and that was our first cow, Sephora. She was coming from a big regular dairy herd, so she was all by herself. I would go into the barn and read to her so that she would get used to my voice and not being handled with 150 other cows.

Why not cheese?

Terry: I was going to school in California to get a license to teach scuba diving. We taught scuba diving, but that didn’t work very well, so I went back to the computer business in California and we opened a computer company out there. But when our daughter was born, we didn’t want her to grow up in Southern California. She was actually born in the Valley, so I knew her first word was going to be “totally.” We wanted to move back to the Midwest, so I sold that company and started another one here. Then I got tired of that. I already had an airplane in California, so I did the flying thing. I bought a helicopter here and did the flying thing here. So cheese just goes along with that. Scuba diving, airplane, helicopter, cheese.

I looked on the internet and the only place I could find that would teach you to make cheese on a small scale commercially was in the Highlands of Scotland. So I moved to the Highlands of Scotland to learn to make cheese.

A license to curd

Terry: Wisconsin is the only place in the world that requires cheesemakers to get a license. You have to apprentice in a cheese plant for 240 hours. We sent a postcard to every cheese plant in the state, asking if we could get hours. One guy wrote back, “It shouldn’t be six months’ apprenticeship, it should be six years.”

Then for one of the classes I was in -- you have to take a bunch of classes, which is a really great idea -- I was at Babcock Hall in Madison, looking through the observation window down into the dairy plant. And there’s a guy in one corner making cheese. Being clever, I think, why don’t I make cheese with him and get my license? Dr. Bob Bradley was the head of everything there at the time so I made an appointment with him. He says, “So, you want to know why you can’t get your hours for your cheesemaker’s license working with our cheesemaker? There’s only one reason: No one’s ever asked.” He slid a piece of paper over and said, “Here is the name of the class. You have to register at the college. That will cost you $25. Bring up this class, register with your student number. Then call us up and we’ll close the class because you’re the only one in it.” I got to make cheese with Gary Grossen, who is a master cheesemaker and makes every kind of cheese there is for the university. If I’d worked in a cheese plant, I’d get to make only one kind of cheese.

Now it’s become a standard. Every semester, two students sign up for the class, and they do that in (the University of Wisconsin) River Falls, too. When I mentioned that to a Milwaukee cheesemaker who stopped in at our farm, he said, “I’m one of the people who benefited by this because I got my license at the university.”

Learning curve

Denise: Terry would be gone about four days a week from the farm then. I think we had two cows at that time. I learned to milk them.

Then we experimented. We made cheese for a whole year in a clarifier for honey. We would just take it on Sundays to our friends with coffee. We would give it away. We’d give them a taste and get critiques. Then we bought that vat. It was made in Amsterdam by a company that has been making them for small cheesemakers for 100 years. There are already two of those vats in Wisconsin.

Keeping it fresh

Denise: People are surprised because they want to buy a bunch of our cheese curds and they want to freeze them. You can, but they’re not going to be what they are today. These are meant to be eaten in two, three days, not stuck in your fridge for a year.

Green farmers

Denise: You know when the kid draws the picture of the farm in kindergarten and has the cows in the little barn? Or when people look at a carton of milk and see the cows out in the grass? Here you can see that’s what we’re doing, but the perception is everybody is doing it that way. It’s hard not to keep saying, “They’re not doing it that way. We are.”

We keep the calves with the cows exclusively for the first two weeks for them to bond and make sure the calves get all the colostrum from their mom. After that, the mom still has the calf, but we also milk her. We went to a demonstration at a big farm for the Jersey association and they were very proud of their system, how fast they got the calf away from the mother before she licked it and bonded. The calf got swooped into this pen with other newborn calves and they started feeding it. (Consumers) don’t think it’s done that way. They don’t realize the changes in agriculture, especially since the ’60s.

Big vs. little

Terry: The state doesn’t really want little guys like us. We’re probably the smallest cow creamery in the state and easily the smallest milking parlor. They’re not very encouraging to this type of thing. They’re encouraging to big operations. Because they’re always talking about numbers: How many thousands of gallons of milk did we milk today? There are places that talk about quantity, as in, we put out 100,000 of those. But were they any good?

Cultivating a customer base

Denise: We had customers that would come every single Saturday to the farm last year. I think it was people that just enjoy -- I hate to say “story” because that sounds like we made something up -- but they enjoy what we’re doing. They would stand there and look at the cows. They wanted to see the milking parlor, so if one of us wasn’t busy, we’d take them in there. Some Saturdays we make cheese and they could watch through the window. I guess we just have to keep finding people like that who are interested in it and see the value in it. They bring their kids to see how cheese is made.

Terry: Last year was our first year, so we often didn’t know how many people were going to be here. But if we get those same people back, and add more people to it, that will work. We just want to stay local. If we get 300 or 400 people to buy cheese on a regular basis, we’re set. That’s all you need, but it’s hard to get to that point. I think there are a lot of people interested in what they eat, but they’re used to buying cheese for about $3 a pound.

This year, starting in May, the first weekend of the month, both Saturday and Sunday, we’re going to do tours. We’ll go through the barn and go out in the fields.

Cows on social media

Denise: Everything is on our Facebook page right now. During the season, I add something about twice a week. I was taking a video of our barn cats and there was Terry, shoveling straw, and one of the cows, Princess, kept bugging him, nudging and nudging him until he put down the shovel and hugged her. It’s so heartwarming to see.

Terry: That video of Princess butting me had over 4,000 hits, including people from Sweden. We don’t know what they were saying in Swedish, though. It might have been, “That makes good barbecue, yah?”

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