Before making a world-renowned goat cheese, one often has to have goats. Cypress Grove Chevre founder Mary Keehn acquired her first goat the hard way: she had to catch it in the wild.
Back then, in the late 1960s, Keehn was living on a cow dairy in Sonoma County. The dairy owner kept goats for brush control, and when Keehn asked if she could buy one, the owner said, ‘Honey, if you can catch one, you can have it.’ So Keehn did just that. “I spent quite a bit of time trying to catch this wild goat, and was successful,” she says. “I caught Hazel and her herd mate Esmerelda. They were my very first two goats.”
Keehn soon had an overabundance of goat milk—and the idea of making cheese was born.
Fast forward 26 years and things have clearly changed. The company has grown significantly, recently winning three gold and two silver medals at the World Cheese Awards, and Best Cheese at the International Fancy Food Show in New York. And still, the handcrafted quality remains.
Cypress Grove, with 45 employees, is now a recognized leader in artisanal cheese in the U.S. The care that goes into creating the cheeses is clear. Their flagship cheese is Humboldt Fog, a soft cheese with a distinctive layer of vegetable ash in the middle. “When you cut it, the layer of ash creates the look of the fog,” says Keehn. “And really, in homage to Humboldt County, we named the cheese after it.”
Some techniques that set Cypress Grove cheeses apart from the rest? The goat milk is gently heat-pasteurized, never overheated, to keep intact its delicate flavor. After it is cooled, the all-important cultures are added. Cultures are carefully guarded, since they give each cheese its unique taste and are responsible for that “special something” evident in each bite. Later, additional flavorings are mixed in, whether it’s the lavender and wild harvested fennel pollen that give Purple Haze its name or the earthy addition of truffles to the award-winning Truffle Tremor chevre.
Over time, Cypress Grove’s cheesemaking success has helped sustain many small goat dairies. The company has even started to encourage small cow dairies in Humboldt to switch to goats, allowing more rural families to stay on their land. It’s the kind of winning proposition that originally drew Keehn to the business: helping dairy farmers continue doing what they love, producing high quality milk for cheese, and preserving open space.
“We’re passionate about preserving the small farms and healthy land that produce top-quality milk” says Keehn. “I guess you could say that we’ve been a green business since the beginning, 25 years ago.”
But dairy in Humboldt means much more than goat cheese. Our region’s prime pastureland makes it the perfect place for raising grass-fed beef and dairy cattle—and local cheesemakers make the most of that abundance.
Loleta Cheese Co. is a family-run business that offers 34 varieties of cheese, all made in the quaint dairy town of Loleta. In 1995, it became the first cheese factory in California to offer organic cheese. Their naturally healthy cows graze on pastures free of synthetic chemicals and are not injected with rBST hormones. They also offer a line of GMO-free cheeses.
“Our pastures are what give us an advantage,” says Bob Laffranchi, the owner of Loleta Cheese. “They allow us to separate ourselves from the factory farms.”
Similarly, Rumiano Cheese Company has deep ties to dairy farmers in the region, having made cheese since the 1930s. Based in Crescent City, Calif., it’s the largest cheese producer in our area, with about 150 employees. The cheesemaker still gets its milk from dairy farmers who have been working the land for generations. And Rumiano knows sustainability matters, too: its newest wastewater treatment facility turns cheese wash water into fertilizer that farmers then use to nourish their fields.
Another major force in Humboldt’s dairy industry is Humboldt Creamery. Founded more than 80 years ago, Humboldt Creamery makes ice cream, milk, butter and cheese, and they have a full line of organic dairy products. They are also one of the nation's largest producers of natural rBST-free dairy products, made without synthetic growth hormones.
The care and attention that Humboldt dairy farmers bring to their milk production show their deep connection to the land—and their cows. All of the Creamery’s milk producers practice sustainable agriculture, whether organic or conventional, and the organic dairies have been certified 'Free-Farmed' by the American Humane Association. Says Ralph Giannini, the Creamery’s sales manager, "Organic milk not only gives peace of mind for our consumers, it also means ideal conditions for our dairy cows."