Many cheesemakers I’ve written about produce hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds of cheese every day and distribute their product in several states or even nationally. Here’s a story about a couple of girls in northern Idaho who approach cheesemaking a little differently.
Valerie and Liz Gunner-Pickens moved with their parents Carol and Mike to Porthill, Idaho about 6 years ago from Wisconsin, where the family had been in the dairy business . In Idaho, the family has carved a sustainable farm and goat dairy just south of the Canadian border at the foot of Goat Mountain. Cheesemaking began as a home school science project and money making venture for the girls (Valerie, 15, is now in high school while Liz, 13, is still home schooled). Five LaMancha goats formed the original herd and the whole family put a lot of work into developing the dairy facility and securing the proper permits. Cheesemaking was a natural evolution for the farm, since cheesemaking has been in the family for several generations. Now, Goat Mountain Cheese Co. thrives as the smallest inspected dairy in Idaho.
Cheesemaking looks a little different on this farm than on others because the farm is off the grid and runs exclusively on solar-hydro power and biodiesel fuel. The family grazes their herd only while someone is watching, because of the danger of mountain lions or grizzly bears. Once the goats are milked, the milk is chilled with cold water from a nearby spring and the cheese is made in a wood fired cheese vat. Valerie and Liz concentrate primarily on making two types of cheese, a hard feta style cheese and a softer chevre, and some variations including garlic feta, hot feta and flavored chevres. All Goat Mountain cheese is raw milk cheese made with vegetable based rennet. Once the cheese is made, it’s marinated and placed in jars, which makes for easier storage. Valerie and Liz recently scaled back to making around 100 lbs of cheese a week (now that Valerie is in high school and spends more time off of the farm) but they’ve made as much as 500 lbs per week with a herd of over 100 goats.
As for the division of labor, Liz does most of the livestock rearing and management, while Valerie is the cheesemaker (with mother Carol’s oversight) and oversees the business side, interfacing with inspectors and such. Soon, when Valerie gets her driver’s license, she’ll be able to do most of the work transporting the cheese to the farmer’s market and parents Carol and Mike will be able to take a little bit of a break. Goat Mountain Cheese Co. sells cheese at local farmers markets and stores in Sandpoint, Idaho, Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho, Spokane, Washington and Moscow, Idaho, as well as to people who stop by the farm during the summer. They have many loyal customers – so much so that Valerie says that they can’t make enough cheese to keep up with demand and often turn people and stores away. While for some cheesemakers, expanding this business might look like a sure thing, Valerie says that their family’s philosophy is more about producing and consuming local, sustainable products rather than seeking fame and fortune expanding their market in bigger cities or in cheese competitions. Small-scale, sustainable success suits this family just fine.
Goat Mountain Cheese Co.
PO Box 800
Porthill, Idaho 83853
Update December 2005: Goat Mountain Cheese Co. is closing down their operation. For more information, see my post on the closing here.