While there are dairies in Alaska, conditions make it difficult and expensive to sustain an operation on a long term basis. That’s why you don’t see much of a cheesemaking community in Alaska. Nevertheless, Windsong Farm has already forged a path in the wilderness (literally and figuratively), and is currently Alaska’s only certified Grade A dairy (see my past discussion about Gary and Carla Beu of Windsong Farm here). Sometime this year, however, Rhonda and Matt Shaul of Cranberry Ridge Farm hope to become the second certified Alaskan cheesemaking operation, this one focused exclusively on goat’s milk and goat cheeses. They’ve been raising goats since 1998, making cheese and yogurt for themselves and family, and selling goat’s milk soap commercially. The Shauls also sell goat shares. Rhonda says she started experimenting with goat cheese because her husband can’t digest cow’s milk. One thing led to another and “we figured - we’re already doing the milking and home cheesemaking, why don’t we get paid for it?”
Still, it’s easy to forget how much is involved in starting and running a cheesemaking operation – and being in Alaska only adds another layer of complexity. How’s this for a story about starting out in the cheesemaking business:
We started with raw virgin Alaskan bush in 2000. Little by little as we had extra money we made improvements. First came a short driveway, then a tiny tin cabin, then a larger cabin we placed in the middle of our 10 acre property because it was the driest spot. We had to carry everything that the cabin was made of halfway up the very slick muddy drive and through a tiny trail to the cabin site!
As for the Grade A dairy, we had to take out a loan to finance the requirements, which required a business plan and piles of research on our part. This part alone has taken over a year. One of the things we needed to be a licensed cheesemaker is an approved septic system. This is more complicated than your regular house septic system because you have to accommodate what the cheesemaking facility waste will produce. We also are working with the electric company to get power to the place. Then comes the approved water source. We will have a well driller in later this spring to take care of that.
Our goal was to build the least expensive dairy building that would suit our needs. Our design gives us a building with a milk storage room, cheesmaking room, lab, aging room and utility room. We are milking in a milking barn just next to the barn where the does are housed. Yet another hurdle that we found out about was the antibiotic testing. This is very complicated and we do not even use antibiotics! (We are not certified organic, but use organic practices.) We will also have to have our herd tested for TB and Brucellosis, even though Alaska is free from those diseases. Once we get all of the above taken care of we will be able to make cheese and sell it!
This summer, Shaul expects the facilities, the permits and other details to fall into place – and the Cranberry Ridge Farm dairy operation will be officially up and running. Cranberry Ridge Farm cheese offerings will be all raw milk cheeses of several varieties including aged soft goat cheeses and a feta. The Shauls are also experimenting with types of havarti and gouda goat cheese. Folks in and around Wasilla, Alaska (near Palmer and about 45 miles from Anchorage) will be able to find Cranberry Ridge cheeses through the farm itself, or at local markets.
Matt & Rhonda Shaul Cranberry Ridge Farm Wasilla, Alaska (907) 357-1145