The Gouda Life: Missouri Dairy Farmer Finds his Niche in Grass-Fed Raw Milk and Cheese
(From Columbia Daily Tribune - October 21st, 2014 - By Marcia Vanderlip)
Early on a cool Monday morning in October, a small group of home-schooled children from O’Fallon watched Tim Lavy milk his cows at Golden L Creamery, a small dairy farm outside Silex, a village in Lincoln County, northeast of Montgomery City.
“Who wants to be milked first,” he called to a group of cows. The most eager among them ambled toward the milking station.
The dairyman smiled and turned to the young observers touring the farm: “They all have different personalities. Some like to be milked first; others don’t.” After nine cows were parked in their milking stalls, he cleaned their teats with a solution of iodine to kill germs, and aloe and glycerol “to prevent chafing.” He waited 30 seconds after each dousing and then wiped each teat with a clean cloth. The milk is piped directly into a 1,150-gallon stainless steel tank where the milk and cream are agitated and cooled to 36 degrees within minutes.
His crossbred herd of about 50 Jersey, Brown Swiss and Holstein and Tarentaise cows are milked twice each day unless they are nursing their calves. They graze together on pasture, and their diet consists of various grasses, including orchard grass, clover, Sudan grass, teff and wheat grass and hay. They don’t get any grain.
When the outdoor grasses are scarce in the winter or during dry summer bouts, the cattle eat a rich diet of wheat grass, which is grown in a warm fodder barn. Tim’s neighbor, Lindell Rutherford, helps out with the hydroponics, lining long trays with wet seed that grows 7 to 8 inches tall within a week and provides 1,200 pounds of grass.
Tim and other farmers producing grass-finished, unpasteurized milk and raw-milk cheese account for a tiny percentage of the dairy farming business. In fact, raw milk is controversial in this country and illegal in 10 states. It is legal to sell raw milk from the farm directly to the customer in Missouri but not through retail outlets. The Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say raw milk is no more nutritious than pasteurized milk, and both advise against drinking milk that has not been pasteurized because of the risk of contracting salmonella or E. coli. (For all the FDA warnings, go to www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/consumers/ucm079516.htm. For the CDC recommendations, go to www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/rawmilk/raw-milk-questions-and-answers.html#risks.)
On the other side of the argument, Realmilk.com promotes the raw milk and raw-milk cheese farmers and lists raw-milk producers state by state on its website.
Michael Pollan, journalist and author of “In Defense of Food,” stands somewhere in the middle of the raw-milk debate. In a 2011 New York Times Magazine question-and-answer piece, he said raw milk is “delicious and nutritious” but that “producing raw milk takes great care, and in recent years, there have been several cases of people, especially children, getting sick after consuming raw milk.” He also said the “FDA puts resources into shutting down raw-milk producers in a “teeny-tiny, ‘industry’ when there are more serious threats to food safety on factory farms. (In fact the overwhelming majority of illnesses tied to milk and cheese come from pasteurized products.)”
Tim believes the benefits of raw milk and of raw-milk cheese outweigh the risks. He drinks a lot of milk, and he said he has “no qualms” about giving it to his three children. However, he said he would probably not drink raw milk from a large 5,000-cattle farm.
The small farms have more control over the product, he reasoned. In any event, he added, “With raw milk, you have a 1 in 3 million chance of getting salmonella, or E. coli. And we test our milk.”
In addition, he said, food-borne illness can come from many places. “People are getting sick from tomatoes, cantaloupes and peanut butter. You can get E. coli from meat, from chickens and even from dog food. These are the same issues you have with any type of food. Drinking raw milk is a personal choice. When people come out and buy raw milk, I make sure they have done all the research. Most the people that do are seeking it out. They want the probiotics the digestive enzymes, the vitamins -- the good stuff. A lot of my milk customers make kefir,” a nutritious fermented drink like yogurt or buttermilk.
Tim’s grandfather was a conventional dairy farmer in the 1940s and ’50s. Photos of the farm, the family, the milk truck and the cows hang on a wall in a room where folks come to pick up their milk and cheese.
A big picture window looks into a cheese-making room, a sterile 20-foot-by-20-foot room with insulated panels, a cheese press and a big vat. Once the cheese is made, the cheese rounds are aged in a 10-foot-by-20-foot cooler that remains between 48 and 50 degrees. Tim, the main cheesemaker, makes 100 pounds of raw-milk cheese twice a week. He sells it in Lincoln County, the St. Louis area and at Lake St. Louis Farmers & Artists Market at the Meadows. This past summer, it became available in Columbia when a Lavy family friend, Erica Potucek of Jefferson City, began selling it on Sundays at the North Village Arts District Farmers & Artisans Market.
Four months ago, Clovers Natural Market, 2012 E. Broadway, began carrying a few of the Golden L Creamery cheeses. And last week, Hoss’s Market and Rotisserie received its first order of Golden L Creamery cheeses, including habanero gouda, jalapeño gouda, cheddar and Italian herb gouda.
“We tried it, and it was delicious,” Dan Neiswanger, a grocery buyer for Clovers. “We brought in four varieties to start. We don’t get a lot of raw-milk cheese,” he said. “Sometimes you have to go to a lot of work to get a hold of it. But they found us, so we knew it would be an easy relationship,” Neiswanger said.
Trish Koetting, co-owner of Hoss’s market, is a fan of the cheese and the fact that it comes from a Missouri farmer. Last week, she took home some of the habanero gouda to melt on burgers. Potucek also has contacted Lucky’s Market and plans to take samples to other retailers in Columbia.
Leigh Lockhart at Main Squeeze is interested. “I’m always looking for local raw cheese.” She thinks some people are uninformed about it. “Once I made a special with raw-milk cheddar and posted it on our Facebook page.” Someone called the health department. But “the health inspector was cool about it. I sent her a link to the dairy, which explained how the cheese is aged,” and that conforms to government regulations.
Raw-milk cheese, unlike raw milk, is legally sold throughout the United States, as long as it has been aged for 60 days.
The Lavy dairy and cheese-making operation is a small family business. Tim’s dad, Hubert, and mom, Sharon, live next door to Tim and his wife, Becky, on the farm. Hubert helps Tim, but Tim does all the milking because the cows prefer him, Becky said. Sharon sets up farm tours and handles phone orders. Becky keeps the books and helps with marketing and tours. She also sometimes helps make cheese, when she is not at her day job as a counselor for Montgomery City schools. The children, Claire, 14, Hunter, 13, and Max, 9, all help bringing the cows up from the pasture for milking.
“It’s a great life, but it is 24-7,” Hurbert said. “Since 1993, my son and I have been to three funerals, a wedding, a ball game in St. Louis and one trip to the University of Missouri” for research. “Those are the only times we have left the farm together.”
“I always thought I’d be a farmer,” Tim said. “If you are a dairy farmer, you better like cows and be a little bit nuts because it is twice-a-day, every day kind of thing.”
Tim has been a dairy farmer for 23 years, but for the past 15 years, his cows have been raised on grasses alone. For years, he sold his milk to large milk producers in the state. Then, in 2011, after three years of drought, “the market dried up,” he said. He couldn’t produce enough milk to make a profit by selling to big dairy operations. So he decided to “do something different.” He saw an opportunity in the increasing local demand for raw milk from pasture-raised cows, so he pared down, sold 160 cows and began selling unpasteurized milk to consumers who came to the farm. He also delivers milk to individual customers in his area. Last Tuesday, he delivered cheese and 135 gallons of cold milk to his customers. His clientele is varied, he said. Some say they want milk for allergies or other health concerns, some make kefir and some simply like the taste of fresh, full-fat raw milk.
“I do 100 percent grass-fed and the raw milk because people are looking for milk that contains natural probiotics and enzymes that are killed or broken down in the pasteurization process,” he said. “Grass-fed milk is also higher in the Omega-3s. People are looking for those benefits.”
Two years ago, he started making farmstead raw-milk cheese, which now makes up half of his business. Raw-milk cheese can be sold nationally and to retail outlets. His dairy and cheese-making facility is licensed for cheese-making and inspected by the Missouri Milk Board. By law, raw-milk cheese must be aged for 60 days. The aging “kills off any pathogens in it,” Tim said.
“We can’t make fresh, creamy cheeses like brie and Camembert” because of the U.S. government concerns about possible food-borne illness. “The biggest health risk in eating raw cheese is listeria, and we test for that,” he said. Cheese is eaten fresh or “raw in many countries,” he said. In the U.S., “we aren’t allowed to make a 45-day-aged cheese out of raw milk. But if you go to a foreign country, that’s what you are going to eat.” In France, for example, cheesemakers use raw milk in much of their cheese production. In Italy, Parmigiano Reggiano is made from raw milk.
The convention in American cheesemaking is to “pasteurize the milk and take a lot of the cream out before they make the cheese. What I do is keep all the cream in the cheese. Raw-milk cheese, as long as it has aged for 60 days, is good to go.”
The result of all this attention to detail is that artisan and farmstead cheesemakers in America are bucking conventions and winning national awards for their buttery full-fat cheeses that draw intriguing flavors from pasture-fed cattle.
The first cheese Tim made was a creamy gouda, which melts easily because it is made with a washed curd. “We use it on spaghetti, in burritos and enchiladas and salads.” He makes an Italian herb gouda cheese that the family puts on pizzas. Among the cheeses he is selling now are a plain gouda, a jalapeño gouda, habanero gouda, an Italian herb gouda, a Greek herb gouda, a cheddar and a farmer-style cheese. Recently, he experimented with a Cedar Lake Winery Norton wine brined cheese. Becky cut into it a couple of weeks ago, and they tried it. He thinks it’s a good one. “We are calling it Loupy Lu.”
Tim has no plans to expand his operation. He will keep it small and “continue to make different kinds of cheese. The flavors in the cheese change with the seasons,” depending on what forage the cows are eating. It can take on grassy, tangy or herbal notes. Spring clover makes the cheese sweeter; the winter cheese takes on a whiter hue. “I love the flavor of the winter milk and cheese,” he said.
The variation or inconsistency is what makes the cheesemaking -- and eating -- “fun, if sometimes aggravating.” He tastes every wheel before he sells it, to make sure it is good. “I eat a lot of cheese.” The rejects -- along with the whey -- go to the family’s few pigs. “Nothing goes to waste.”