Mary Falk is cradling something in her hand that she says is cheese. But to this cheese novice, it looks more like something you’d find on a forest floor than on a plate surrounded by crackers and fruit. Misshapen and covered in a thick, green fuzz, its appearance is strange only if you, like me and many Americans, have been raised on bright orange blocks of pasteurized, factory-made Cheddar or, worse yet, shrink-wrapped slices of a flavorless substance engineered to melt nicely on a piece of soft white bread. To those in the know, however, this humble lump of mold and herbs inspires mouth-watering anticipation and the urge to pop open a bottle of wine (or, for the regionalist, white winter mead).
Mary and Dave Falk own LoveTree Farmstead, a 200-acre organic farm in the Trade Lake region of northern Wisconsin. The farm’s primary product is sheep’s cheese, and in a state that prides itself on the volume of cheese it produces — almost 2 billion pounds each year — the Falks are anomalies, measuring their success by quality rather than quantity of cheese produced.
Mary slices into the round and hands me a wedge. Winner of the Best Young Sheep Milk Cheese category at the 1998 American Cheese Society conference and named for a nearby lake, the ‘Big Holmes’ is coated in rosemary, mint and cedar and left to age for about four to six weeks — long enough for the herbs’ flavors to pervade the entire round. It is soft and creamy and melts on your tongue. It is rich, earthy and sweet — no less than a divine culinary epiphany for my cheese-ignorant tastebuds.
A strong and tireless woman in her mid-forties, Mary embodies the sturdy practicality of a farmer, the delicate sensibility it takes to make award-winning cheese, and the intelligence and perseverance to convince you she could do just about anything. One year into Mary’s career as a cheesemaker, she won the American Cheese Society’s prestigious best-of-show prize, beating 430 cheeses with her Trade Lake Cedar, a robust natural rind sheep’s cheese aged on cedar boughs.
As we sit with her in the farmyard sampling cheese, birds chatter and sing, crossing from the yard to the fields and back again. In this bucolic setting on this bright July morning, it is difficult to imagine the economic stress spreading across rural Wisconsin. It isn’t easy being a Wisconsin dairy farmer these days. With low milk prices brought on by production increases, consolidation, and a federal pricing system unfavorable to Upper Midwest producers, small dairy farmers are struggling. ‘How a farmer responds to these factors,’ says Mary, ‘can mean the difference between profitability and decay of your operation and, along with it, rural Wisconsin.’
Low milk prices are, in fact, what brought the Falks to cheesemaking. The couple began breeding sheep in 1989 and milking them in 1995 with a plan to make cheese after Mary completed her Wisconsin cheesemaker’s license and had plenty of time to perfect her craft. A drop in sheep milk prices the year she earned the license forced the Falks to jump into the cheesemaking businesses or face a real possibility of losing LoveTree Farmstead. They decided to make the leap. They also decided to do things differently.
Surrounded by eight spring-fed lakes and crisscrossed by streams, LoveTree Farmstead is home to abundant biodiversity: bald eagles and osprey fly overhead while black bear, timber wolf, coyote and the occasional cougar pass through the farm’s fields. To protect the farm’s ecological diversity, the Falks utilize a grazing system they fashioned over years of trial and error. This includes using portable fencing and long grass to protect waterways and running the flock through the farm’s forested areas where they help to create understory by trodding the soil with their hooves. Moreover, the Falks haven’t wormed their sheep in ten years — an impressive fact when you consider that the average U.S. sheep is wormed every three weeks in the summertime.
‘Sheep are small,’ says Dave, ‘they can’t take a big parasite load and it’s more convenient to worm them than to graze them properly. But wormers decrease the immune system and you end up with weaker sheep that are more prone to disease.’
‘We’ve culled heavily for parasite-resistant sheep,’ adds Mary. ‘The fifth year into it we had a really bad year and we thought, maybe we should just give this up. We asked ourselves, ‘are we doing this for our ego, or are we doing it because we really believe in it?’ Dave and I looked at each other and said, ‘no, damn it, we know we can do this without chemicals.’ So we just held tight and that was the last bad year we had. That was our crossroads.’
Watching Mary work in the white linoleum and stainless steel cheese room built into the corner of the milking barn, it is evident that cheesemaking is, for her, as much an avocation as a vocation, and that her avocation is as much art as it is craft. Stirring a steaming 100-gallon vat of sheep’s milk, she laughs as she explains how she experiments with the process. ‘One night I had a dream that I wrapped a round of cheese in vodka-soaked stinging nettles that grow wild here on the farm. The next day I tried it. Today it’s one of our most successful cheeses. It’s really lovely; the nettles impart the flavor of the forest.’
Then she shrugs, shifting the credit for LoveTree cheeses’ successes to her husband, the flock and the farm. ‘It has everything to do with Dave, the sheep and the land — the rich grasses and herbs that are unique to LoveTree Farmstead,’ she says. Indeed, through their ‘Trade Lake Sheep’ breeding project, the Falks have created a flock that will survive the harsh climate of northern Wisconsin, thrive on a diet of native grasses and herbs rather than grain, and produce the high butterfat milk that gives LoveTree cheeses their depth and complexity of flavor.
Mary uses a variety of dustings and wrappings for her cheeses. Sumac, rosemary, and ash among them. After coating or wrapping the cheeses, she leaves them to age in the ‘caves’ built by Dave overlooking a five acre pond. Every morning a heavy fog seeps into the caves bringing with it all the wet and spicy, sweet flavors of the north woods: wild lilacs, evergreens, mustard grass, violets, clovers, and sweet milkweed.
The Falks direct-market their cheeses to restaurants and stores across the United States; their customers include New York’s Fairway Market, Murray’s Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village, the Artisanal and the Picholine in Manhattan, and Chicago’s Ritz-Carlton. Between the success of their cheeses and the hardiness of their sheep, the couple is beating the odds faced by many Wisconsin dairy farmers these days. They have yet to make a profit, but they don’t owe much either. They believe in biding their time, in hard work, and patience. And slowly, it’s paying off.
You can visit LoveTree Farmstead virtually at http://www.lovetreefarmstead.com.
Alexis Adams lives in Montana where she teaches writing and works as a freelance journalist. She is currently researching sustainable food issues in the United States.