The Love of Cheesemaking
By Clifford Hart
Winding your way down the roads that lead from the Taconic Parkway to Sprout Creek Farm, you will see sights not unfamiliar in southern Dutchess County: paved driveways and mailboxes, swing sets, a tidy mix of ranch houses and colonials amid clipped lawns and shade trees. What you won’t see a lot of is great swaths of open farmland, and when you suddenly spot a collection of gray barns rising above the fields, you do a double take—thinking you might have been suddenly transported to another place and time.
In a way you have, for the miracle that is Sprout Creek Farm rose from a vision held stalwartly by a few foresighted patrons over the decades—people who have now left their legacy in the form of not only open space, but more importantly a center for the practice and teaching of good-old-fashioned farming.
Today, in the midst of the locavore revolution that is sweeping much of the country, preserving a farm might not seem so far-fetched. But several years back, when farmland in the lower Hudson Valley was being swept away like so much dust under a carpet to make way for residential development, it was truly revolutionary.
What a simple idea, really. Just keep doing with your land what’s been done for centuries. The fields are fertile and perfect for grazing; the barns are ready and waiting to be put to good use. But perhaps the simpler idea was to take the money and run, and that’s what most people did, and why farms like Sprout Creek are now rare and valuable treasures in the outskirts of the New York metropolitan area.
And certainly one the crown jewels within Sprout Creek’s treasure chest has to be its creamery. Back in the day, dairies like this were a dime a dozen in Dutchess County, but that was before the expansion of agribusiness and large-scale farming that, along with soaring land values, helped to put small farmers out of work in the Hudson Valley. Indeed, holding on to a successful dairy operation like Sprout Creek’s can only happen with fervent management and extreme attention to detail, and those qualities exist in spades in the farm’s head cheesemaker, Colin McGrath.
Colin, whose Hudson Valley roots began when he was a student at the Culinary Institute, has perhaps the perfect combination of skills required for his job—smarts, attention to detail, a strict adherence to the most stringent regulations and, perhaps most importantly, a love of his job.
“I’ve never taken the logical, well-beaten path in life,” Colin told me on a recent sunny October afternoon at Sprout Creek. “The nine-to-five desk job was never going to be my thing. I knew I needed to work with my hands.”
And his hands’ fine touches are indeed everywhere in evidence at Sprout Creek Creamery. From the moment you enter its cheesemaking facilities—very carefully, I might add, wearing special boots and a hair net—it is clear that this is a business run with an exceedingly high level of care and professionalism.
It’s hard to imagine a line of work where hands-on engagement is more essential to success. There are a myriad of things you need to know to create a beautiful piece of cheese—from which enzymes and bacteria to introduce, and when to do it, to fine-tuning the temperature and humidity of the aging rooms to generate the best product.
And then, of course, there is the milk itself. Sprout Creek is fortunate to have a healthy herd of 23 grass-fed Jersey cows, generating up to 100 gallons of milk a day. They also have upwards of 70 goats of various breeds to support their growing goat-cheese business.
“And even then our demand is so high I often have to look elsewhere in the Hudson Valley for the best milk in order to fill all of our cheese orders,” Colin added.
It’s no surprise. Walking into the pristine aging rooms was like walking into an English April—cool and damp—and the faint scent of ripening cheese was a sure sign that things are definitely being done right here. Shelf upon shelf displayed milky, golden wheels (or in some cases gray depending on the type of cheese) in various stages of aging. I had to fight the urge to sit down with a cutting board and knife and have my way with it all.
For more information on Sprout Creek Creamery and all the happenings at Sprout Creek Farm—from
its farm store to its many educational programs—check out www.sproutcreekfarm.org.