Farm History

Celebrity Dairy – an unlikely history

How do you make cheese? "First, you get a goat". We did,and the rest followed.

Why a Goat?

"Nobody intends to get into goats – its always an accident". So I was told by Wesley Thielke in Chino Arizona after buying his dairy processing plant sight unseen, and living with his family for 3 days while loading the equipment into a truck for transport back to North Carolina. He knew. After 30 years of cow dairying, he sold the Wisconsin farm after WWII and moved to LA, but bought a goat when his first child proved allergic to cow’s milk. Thus began 40 years of goat dairying.

Discovering Goats & Cheese

Our discovery started when we moved back to North Carolina in 1987 from Florida to an old farm unworked for the previous 25 years. We bought some goats to eat the brush around the old home-place. One of the goats was in milk, and so before bringing the goats home we spent a couple of weeks helping our neighbor with evening milking. Not too hard – even for a city boy: I even learned the meaning of "she kicked the bucket". Other expressions followed.

Turns out that while intolerant of cow’s milk, Fleming had absolutely no trouble digesting goat’s milk. So the goats were bred and multiplied. More milk than two people could drink resulted to a trip to the library, and a book on cheesemaking. Soon the kitchen was full of gallon glass jars containing marvelous biology experiments. (Hint – if the curd floats like ivory soap – throw it to the chickens.) Some of the cheese tasted OK. Other people tried and liked it.

Building the Dairy

In 1989 we decided to build a dairy and make cheese commercially. Thanks to the foresight of North Carolina’s Department of Agriculture, our state offers practical encouragement to small farmstead producers like ourselves. But where to find "micro-dairy" equipment? (small-scale dairies became obsolete with the completion of the Inter-state highway system, and such equipment hasn’t been manufactured since then). We got lucky – bought a plant in Arizona, and moved it back east. The NCDA inspectors helped us to design a building around this equipment that conformed to sanitation rules which we built.

The Dairy Grows

In 1991 with a herd of 18 goats and a new building, we got licensed. Thus began our ongoing efforts to make consistently good cheese. This included learn to manage the herds nutrition & health, maintenance of dairy equipment operation, develop menu of cheese flavors, and adaptation of cheesemaking techniques to complement seasonal variations in climate and milk characteristics. Brit had an engineering assignment in Paris that year, where he was adopted by a French goat farmer and learned a greata deal about small scale farming and goat cheese. Left with the farm, goats, and recalcitrant equipment, Fleming worked through these startup difficulties alone.

Getting Better all the Time

The following 5 years brought gradual growth to our present herd of 80 does, and increasing expertise in cheesemaking. Fleming gradually developed a basic style of cheese that satisfies her – a fresh Montrachet style log. These are sold plain, or coated with dried herbs. New flavors are added sometimes suggested by customers, sometimes from staff experiences in travel, and sometimes from inspiration from seasonal ingredients. "Serendipity" as the name implies was a happy accident. Our daughter Lea forgot to add rennet to a batch of cheese and it never firmed so we made it into spreads.

Most of our cheese is sold the same week it is made, but some occasionally remain unsold. This we sometimes dry to become a concentrated yummy treat. We also use these cheeses to marinate in olive oil for extra flavor and the advantage of not needing immediate refrigeration – especially good for gifts.

We’ve entered our cheese in some national competitions – the American Cheese Society’s 1994 event at Shelburne Farms (VT), the 1996 conference in Madison (WS), and the 2000 Conference in St. Helena (CA). The first gave silver and bronze awards to our Apricot Serendipity and Garlic/Basil log, but our plain chèvre log fared poorly. The second awarded our plain chèvre log a first in class (still a Silver medal – but just a half-point below the Gold threshhold). Points off were for being "too fresh" – still had that yoghurt tang. Maybe we should have taken a 7-day old cheese instead of a 2-day old one. Still – results we can live with. The most recent gave us a 3rd place for our mold-ripened ash-coated pyramid, but failing grades for the fresh chevre. (it didn’t help that UPS lost our cheese entries in the heat of August in a Napa Valley warehouse for 2 days.

Fleming has little enthusiasm for competitions and puts greater value on the opinions of farm market customers and local area chefs. They tell us we’re still getting better.

On an Even Keel

Celebrity Dairy is now on a plateau: making all the cheese that 2 people can comfortably handle, and approaching building capacity for animals and hay storage. Our efforts now are focused upon making work more efficient: converting from multiple free-standing refrigerators/freezers to walk-ins, putting wheels under all equipment to reduce lifting/carrying, and so forth. Hopefully this will help us continue as we age. Fleming has stepped back from the heavy lifting and outdoors work at the dairy, leaving the animals and cheese making to Brit. She and he have some wonderful interns here to help and have given many young people the opportunity to learn our secrets of cheese making. Brit will continue this tradition.

Over the Horizon

In Spring of 1998 one of our farm market customers asked Fleming how long she was going to keep making cheese, and she replied that she wanted to retire in 5 years (age 65), and turn it over to somebody else who would be interested in taking the business to the next level. I was jolted by this: we’re normally too busy with day to day work to give much thought to the year 2003, although we should have. Our immediate market is far larger than our current production – so the growth potential is real.

But if we actively imagine the future now in 2012, it will happen. Part of this will be a younger partner. How will this play out? Pehaps we’ll find an intern who wants to make a life of this or somebody who’s middle-age crisis turns towards dairy farming instead of sportcars. Brit got tired of going to committee meetings, and built a B&B Inn. Now he has turned this over to Fleming and is milking goats and making cheese.