Organic cheese-making at Knoydart Farm
From the peak of an escarpment on Highway 245 in northeastern Nova Scotia, halfway between Antigonish and New Glasgow, you see the wide, majestic expanse of the Northumberland Strait, the crescent-shaped edge of the land, and a thin hint (on a clear day) of Prince Edward Island in the distance. From this height, the highway—known locally as the “Shore Road”—descends into a hollow, which rolls down to the ocean like an apron.
Knoydart Farm, the only certified organic dairy farm east of Quebec, rests in this oasis of beauty, where land and water—agriculture and fishing—sit side-by-side.
Frazer and Angela Hunter, who own and operate the farm with their son, Adam, purchased 100 hectares of land, an existing dairy farm, in 1998. In 2009, they turned it into a certified organic farm and added a cheese-making facility. Their initial attraction to the location, though, wasn’t the beauty of the view from the top of the hill—it was the grass.
“How do you convert grass into a product that the consumer wants?” Frazer asks, revealing his meticulous mind as a farmer with the gift of a business sense. “You have to add value,” he says. Grass feeds the Hunters’ cows all year and the cows produce milk, which Frazer converts into cheese.
That’s the value-added product at Knoydart Farm: organic cheddar cheese.
But the “added value” is also in the flavour. While Angela and Adam manage the milking of the cows, Frazer is the cheese-maker. His innovative approach to creating fine tasting cheese has a European flair. He flavours his cheese with cranberries, blueberries, maple syrup, poppy seeds, garlic, peppercorn, caraway, cumin, chili, sage, chives and dill. He makes two cheddars: one based on the double Gloucester recipe, which he calls “Knoydart” and the other, a farmhouse cheddar in the Welsh tradition, and based on the Caerphilly recipe, which he calls “Dunmaglass.”
Old tradition, new potential
Like the milk, the flavoured ingredients must be organic. The organic market in Nova Scotia is growing, Frazer says. “Why shouldn’t a farm be organic in Canada?” he asks. “We’ve got acres and acres of land not being used.”
The Hunters appreciate the abundance of land in Canada, knowing its scarcity in other parts of the world. The couple is from the UK, where 60 million people live in an area twice the size of Nova Scotia. Frazer was born in Glasgow, Scotland. Before coming to Canada, he lectured at an agricultural college in Northumberland, England, near where Angela grew up on her family’s dairy farm. They immigrated to Canada in 1978, first to Cape Breton, with the intent to farm sheep, and then to Knoydart, where dairy farming offered greater potential. Adam, who works on the farm full-time with his parents, was born in Canada.
“There’s tremendous opportunity here,” Frazer says.
Frazer makes cheese three days a week in the cheese house, a small building opposite the farmhouse and barns. Brown and rustic, with a sign in its front window proclaiming, “Local, Organic–Better Together” the Cheese House is a popular landmark along this quiet highway.
Inside is Frazer’s office, the cheese-making facility, and a little cheese shop. Frazer, dressed neatly in clean olive-coloured rubber boots, a pale blue shirt and a white cap, whistles while he works. When he emerges from the “factory,” he explains the process of making cheese.
The cows are milked beginning at 4:30am, and the milk truck comes at 6:30. “We’re the first milk on the truck,” Frazer says, “which maintains our organic status. It’s not mixed with anybody else’s.”
The truck brings 600 litres of milk directly to the Cheese House, where it is pumped into a round vat. A jacket of hot water wraps around the vat, heating the milk to 65-66 degrees Celsius, the temperature required for pasteurization. Then the milk is cooled to 32 degrees and pumped into a second vat, where Frazer adds bacteria. He lets the milk stir for one hour before adding organic rennet (from the cows’ stomachs).
“That’s what makes it coagulate,” he says. “You’ve got to get curds.”
Gradually the curds form a solid block; they give up their whey, which Frazer drains off and feeds back to the cows. The curds are pressed into moulds, air-dried for a day, and sealed. At that point, the cheese is refrigerated at six degrees for at least one year, until it has aged.
Like wine, cheese gets better with age.
“Bacteria works in the cheese all the time,” Frazer explains, “and the taste slowly becomes stronger and stronger. Basically, what we’re doing is taking nutrients from the soil and adding value by producing grass, turning the grass into milk, (because it goes through a cow) turning the milk into cheese, and then holding the cheese for a year. You’re adding value all the way down.”
“That’s all farming is,” he says. “We’re going back 50 years but adding a little bit more science to it.”
As Frazer talks, he holds a wheel of cheese he has carried (like a calf) from the refrigerated rooms at the back of the Cheese House. This wheel hasn’t been sliced, packaged and labelled. I see the cheese in its virgin form—thick and creamy and round. Each wheel weighs 7.5 kilograms. Frazer points to the date: it’s exactly one year old, now ready to sell.
Frazer sells his aged cheddar cheeses—and fresh curds—across Nova Scotia, at farmers markets, health and specialty food stores and 85 Sobeys stores. At farmers markets, especially, he likes to talk to his customers, the warmth of his conversation mingling with his sales as he sets out samples of cheese on his table. [See footer “Cheese House.”]
Loose and happy
It’s 4pm in the large barn and the cows are in their stalls for the second round of feeding and milking. This is the rhythm of the Hunters’ lives. As a small farming family, with no hired help, they manage the work on their own. Their meals and patterns of sleep occur in and around the needs of the cows.
“They’re all loose,” Frazer says. “It’s a loose house. They’re untied. They get up, they lie down, they wander around. They’re happy and content.”
“We get them out as fast as we can in the spring,” he adds, “and we leave them out as long as we can in the fall.”
The Hunters have 130 cows in several breeds; Holstein, Brown Swiss and Jersey cross. That combination produces high butterfat, which they need to make the cheese.
Angela has arrived in the barn to round up the cows for milking.
“Go on. No!” she calls, chasing a cow that heads the wrong way. As they go, she shovels behind them, clearing the manure from the stalls.
“This is the parlour in here,” she calls, “if you want to see it.”
The parlour is a smaller, more intimate “house” within the barn.
The air is warm and humid and moist, deliciously scented with milk.
“This is a five-sided herringbone parlour,” Angela explains, the name referring to the way the cows stand, head to tail but angled, with their udders close to the centre. The “spine” of the parlour is a pit, where Angela works at the level of the udders, moving from cow to cow as each is milked individually: ten cows at a time, five to a side.
“We’re organic,” she says, “so we don’t push the cows to produce excessively. We’re happy with them averaging 18–20 kilograms a day.”
Angela moves quickly and efficiently, cleaning the udders with a damp cloth before she attaches “the claw,” which releases the milk. The machine pumps like a heartbeat as the pressurized valve releases moisture into the air. “My father had a dairy farm,” she says. “I milked cows when I was 11.” After finishing school at 18, Angela began her work full-time on a farm—and she’s never left. “You have to like what you’re doing.”
Angela’s relationship to the cows is unique. “We’ve known them since they were babies,” she explains. “They’re all individuals. You know them by their colour or their markings, their udders, and even by their faces...”
“And their personalities,” her son Adam chimes in.
Adam stands at Angela’s side. Like his mother, he began milking at age 11. He has inherited her love of the animals. This round of milking finished, the parlour gates open. “Go on. Get out,” Angela calls to the cows. Once milked, the cows lie down in their stalls to feed and chew their cud. “They’re happy and content,” Frazer says.
The Hunters are, too. “It’s tiring, but not hard work,” Frazer says, “and there’s no other business where you can have your family around you breakfast, lunch and supper. You can’t put a value on that.”
Not hinting at retirement, Frazer fixes his mind on agricultural responsibility: the imperative to supply the customer year-round. Farmers work for “six months” of the year, or less. Canada is not as productive as it could be, he thinks, and he’d like to see more year-round farmers’ markets.
Frazer sees the world broadly, in economic terms, but Angela stays close to the animals, with her feet on the land. She is content in the intimacy of the barn and the milking parlour. Adam, perhaps, has inherited a bit of both.
“Take some fresh curds,” Frazer says, as I prepare to leave. “I’m just going to give them to you, and this is cranberry cheddar. See what you think. You can let me know next time at the market. I’m there in two weeks.”
The silage is gold and speckled with green, still fresh-smelling and moist-looking. “It’s clover, grass, dry hay, a little bit of barley, a little bit of oats, and a little bit of corn,” Frazer says, “and seaweed goes into it as well.” Walking along the stalls, Frazer bends down, scoops up clumps of it, and redistributes the feed with his hands to ensure the nutrients are mixed.