I love hearing stories about how artisan cheesemakers started out making cheese; many times becoming a cheesemaker is the realization of a lifelong dream. In the case of Janice and Larry Neilson, proprietors of Fraga Farm cheeses, that’s exactly the case. As newlyweds, Janice and Larry lived on Janice’s grandmother Agnes Fraga’s farm (the original Fraga Farm), where they forged their love of the farming life. After living the urban life for 20 years, Janice and Larry made a radical transition - Janice left her massage therapy practice and Larry retired early from the Navy - and they moved to Sweet Home, Oregon (in the Willamette Valley near Eugene), starting the new Fraga Farm.
Becoming cheesemakers was a gradual process for the Neilsons. They started out raising goats, learning the ropes and experimenting with making ice cream, yogurt and the like. Crafting cheese that was consistently edible took time and experimentation with cultures and techniques – “a lot of the cheese went to the chickens at first,” Janice says, “but once we learned about different cultures and techniques, it became cheese we could eat!” One early success came when their neighbor Jim gave them the recipe for farmhouse jalapeno – it tasted good and their friends loved it, too. Five years later, Janice and Larry are still making this and many other types of cheese and continue to love every minute of it.
One thing that distinguishes Fraga Farm from other northwest cheesemakers is that they are a certified organic goat dairy (and are Oregon’s only such goat dairy). This means the farm had to go through a rigorous evaluation process performed by Oregon Tilth. In the context of dairies, organic means that a farm must comply with organic standards on multiple levels; not only must the land itself be maintained in accordance with strict standards, but the animals must be cared for, fed and handled according to USDA guidelines. Regulations also govern handling of the milk and cheese products. Although it's a complicated set of rules to navigate, organic certification signifies that the farm is committed to organic and sustainable farming practices.
Fraga Farm specializes in fresh chevres in a variety of flavors, including plain, chef’s blend (an herb blend), and greek olive; they also make a feta cheese and the wonderful, addictive goatzzarella (a goat's milk version of traditional mozzarella). Fraga Farm also makes a raw milk goat cheddar exclusively in the winter. Janice says she’d love to do more raw milk aged goat cheeses and is currently experimenting with an aged goatzzarella, so look for those products in the future.
You can find all types of Fraga Farm cheeses at Portland co-op locations (including the Alberta co-op, Food Front, and People’s), as well as at Lifesource in Salem, and Market of Choice and Sundance in Eugene. Fraga Farm also visits most of the northwestern Oregon farmer’s markets during the season. In addition, the Neilsons welcome farm visits and often have groups come to watch the cheesemaking process.
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Fraga Farm Janice & Larry Neilson 28580 Pleasant Valley Rd. Sweet Home, OR 97386 (541) 367-3891