Words like "hardworking" and "industrious" don't adequately describe Rob and Julie Steil of River Valley Ranch in Fall City, Washington (about 40 miles east of Seattle). In just a little over a year they've opened a licensed cheesemaking facility, acquired a menagerie that currently includes 120 goats, 4 Brown Swiss cows, 6 sheep, 9 yak and 2 water buffalo, sold a great deal of cheese at retailers and local farmer's markets, and are in the midst of planning to build two cheese caves into a hillside behind their house. Did I mention that they also have five kids?
Like many cheesemakers, Julie Steil didn't plan on making cheese for a living. A native of the South, this former model and Seattle commercial real estate developer initially took up cheesemaking as a hobby a few years ago. Experimentation turned more serious when she realized that the cheese she was making was pretty good...and from there, things have really taken off. What was originally an early retirement project has instead turned into a successful and rapidly growing business.
The farm's first project was selling raw milk (legal in Washington if sold by licensed facilities) while the first cheeses were aging. Next, the Steils started selling at local farmer's markets, drawing raves particularly for their variety of fresh chevres with flavorings including herbs, figs and jalapenos."We've really hit home runs with the fresh chevre line," says Julie. River Valley also makes four raw milk aged cheeses: two made with cow's milk (a pepper Jack and Valley Girl, an aged cheddar-style cheese) and two from goat's milk (Silly Billy, a version of the Spanish Drunken Goat and Valley Doe, a nutty aged cheese).
Though they've accomplished a lot over the past year, the Steils plan to keep growing. "I want to be milking 200 goats, which means I'm going to have to have a herd of about 450," says Julie. Expanded storage in the form of the two large caves and an adjoining packaging facility will ensure that there will be plenty of room to make and store the cheese made from all of that milk.
Growth seems a foregone conclusion given the attention River Valley Ranch has received. Recently a crew from the History Channel filmed a segment of its show "Modern Marvels" at the farm (the episode is due to be broadcast on January 7, 2008). The episode will contrast modern high tech dairies where cows are milked by robot with the down-on-the-farm approach at River Valley Ranch, where everything is done by hand. In August of this year, the farm was also featured in Seattle Metropolitan magazine.
Next: Clarence the Water Buffalo
The yaks (they have 9) and water buffalo (2) have also turned heads. What started out as fun ("Rob wanted to have exotic animals in the pasture, not cows like everyone else") turned into a business idea when Julie realized yaks could be milked. "The butterfat content of yak milk is very comparable to water buffalo milk, which is traditionally used to make mozzarella." Julie periodically makes Wild West Mozzarella with yak and water buffalo milk - having spent a lot of time on the phone with the folks at Woodstock Farm in Vermont (makers of water buffalo cheese and yogurt) learning how. Turns out both the yaks and water buffalo are also very efficient in clearing land of brush and blackberries, so the animals have become partners in helping the Steils clear some of their farmland.
Rob and Julie Steil have worked hard in their first year in the cheesemaking business, but it's their marketing savvy and business acumen (honed over their years in the real estate business) that set them apart from the crowd. Talk of such exotica as cash flow, marketing strategies and business plans is not what you often hear from the mouths of cheesemakers, but to the Steils it's integral to understanding what they're doing and how they're doing it. It's certainly driven their success with retailers; River Valley Ranch will be working with Whole Foods on an exclusive Holiday line this year. River Valley Ranch looks poised to become a big player in the world of Northwest artisan cheese....these folks are ones to watch.
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River Valley Ranch 34920 SE Fall City-Snoqualmie Rd. Fall City, WA 98024 425-222-5277
Where to find River Valley Ranch Cheese:
New Seasons in the Portland area
Whole Foods, PCC, Madison Market, Town & Country Markets, The Cheese Cellar, other smaller markets and farmer's markets during the season.