Cows in the Field, Cheese in the Cave

In last week’s episode, we took you to a dairy farm in Columbus, North Carolina. Jennifer Perkins from Looking Glass Creamery was standing on top of a grassy hill and imagining its transformation into an underground aging cave for their cheese.  

It was 2017 and Looking Glass Creamery had taken on a tremendous challenge. Jennifer and Andy Perkins bought a 226-acre dairy farm from the Harmon family and for the past four years, the dairy farmers have been teaching the cheesemakers how to milk and take care of the herd. 

Now the transition is complete and Looking Glass Creamery is fully operational at the new farm, so we checked in with Jennifer to hear how it’s going. 

“The cows are doing well. We’re down to about 30 milkers, which is where we want to be,” she says. “We go out and feed them, check on them every day, give them hay. Now we’re just waiting until the first calves are born in February.”

While they wait for the calves, there’s cheese to be made. The 1,000 square foot underground aging cave was completed in 2018 and cheddar was the first cheese they aged there. 

“There were a lot of questions when we built it, if it would work, because there’s really nothing like it around here. From managing your humidity to airflow, there’s a lot of details that go into making a successful aging environment,” she says.

Now the cave is full of cheeses that taste more complex as the months go by. Jennifer is especially excited about an Alpine cheese that’s finally ready after a year and a half of aging. The cave is big enough that there’s still room for more experimentation and longer aging times as Looking Glass Creamery refines the genetics of their herd. 

“We had the opportunity to really start having an impact on the genetics of the farm by bringing in some high cheese-merit bloodlines. So we’ll start to see some of those cows coming in that are more geared towards making cheese milk versus milk for liquid consumption,” she says.

Most dairies milk their cows year-round, but Looking Glass recently switched over to a seasonal milking schedule last year. Now they milk nine and a half months of the year and then they let the cows rest.

“That gives everybody a break. That’s an opportunity to do a lot of the things on the farm that you just can’t do when you’re milking and making cheese all the time,” she says.

The cheese is available year-round, providing income as they work on other farm projects. Jennifer says this model wouldn’t work for a dairy that sells fluid milk to a processor instead of making cheese on the farm.

“We’re our only customer, meaning we don’t need to succumb to that pressure of milking year-round. It makes more sense with the natural cycle of babies being born in the spring, you milk throughout that grass flush and through the summer and into the fall, and then when it gets really cold and the grass is gone, the cows dry and it’s the rest period for everybody,” she says. 

“It is an atypical situation, I think, for cow dairies to be seasonal and you really can only do it if you’re making cheese or using all your own milk,” she adds.

The seasonal cycle works well for the creamery, especially in early spring when the calves are born. 

“If you’re calving year-round, you have a baby here and a baby there and there’s time in between, but we’ve consolidated our breeding schedule within two months. So we’ll have 30 or so babies in that span, which isn’t a crazy amount, but it definitely keeps you hopping,” she says.

It’s all hands on deck at this family farm, including Jennifer and Andy’s son Max who’s now a senior in high school. 

“When we started he was a sophomore and I think he thought it was very exciting and fun and a great idea. But I think when the reality of what that all meant set in, it was a little overwhelming for him in terms of having to move away from friends and this a totally different lifestyle,” she says.

Max had to decide whether he wanted to go all in with the farm or pursue other paths, especially when the pandemic started. 

“It was kind of a do or die moment for him. He needed to make a choice. Am I going to participate in this and be a part of it? Or he could have made another choice. But he definitely took that tact,” she says. 

“We had to lay off our employees, but he stepped up and was helping with milking and deliveries and cheesemaking because when COVID-19 hit, it was maybe good and bad for us because you can’t stop milking the cows and you can’t stop making cheese. Even though your customer base has evaporated, the work is still there, so we needed his help to make the farm run, and he stepped up and helped,” she adds.

Looking Glass Creamery is back on track and poised for growth, especially in agritourism. Last summer, they planted a huge crop of sunflowers and people came to pick flowers with their families. They had a socially-distanced, outdoor open house with agility dog demonstrations and a graffiti artist. The farm store is open and they are working on a line of pickles and jams for their cheese plates.  

“That’s been a lesson of the past year—not having all your eggs in one basket and being able to look in different directions. The farm has given us so many opportunities to do that. We just want to add to what we can provide here on the farm, both on an experience level and as a product. To go beyond the dairy and have different options here that we can sell. So that’s where we’re headed, diversifying what we’re making and bringing people to the farm,” she says.

Learn more about Looking Glass Creamery and other family farms in ASAP’s Local Food Guide

Aired: January 25, 2021

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