A couple of young college students studying to be artists who go on to run a small goat dairy farm as a husband and wife team sounds quintessentially Vermont. Like a number of other businesses in the Green Mountain State, Greg Bernhardt and Hannah Sessions have made it work and found great success with Blue Ledge Farm in Leicester.
Greg and Hannah are still artists, he just published a book and is working on a collection of poetry and she paints the animals and landscape around the farm, but their days are filled with wearing many hats for their small business. Greg makes hay and manages the fields, the manufacturing of cheese and the business accounting, while Hannah manages the dairy herd and all of the sales and distribution. “We operate as a tag team to see our product develop from start to finish,” Hannah says. “This is how we run our farm and stay happily married, we each have our areas of expertise and pass the baton back and forth, with critical help along the way from our employees.”
The Blue Ledge story began in 2000 with the purchase and renovation of an old cow dairy farm and a herd of 35 goats. After conserving their land through the Vermont Land Trust, they built a cheese plant, the smallest in the state at the time, and started making cheese, using a freezer-less refrigerator as their aging room. Since that first year in 2002, when they produced 8,000 lbs. of cheese, they have grown to now produce around 50,000 lbs. annually. We spoke with Hannah about their choice of animal and the values that underlie how they treat their goats and everything Blue Ledge does.
Why goats? Why goat cheese?
As a first generation farm there are so many hurdles, financial and otherwise, that one faces. Goats were much more feasible to start with because they require very little equipment and can be handled safely by one person. This was important as one or both of us worked off the farm for several years as we built our business. Plus, goats have great personalities!
We were drawn to the great variety of goat cheeses that can be made, from fresh cheeses that are a few days old, to cheeses that are semi-aged for just a few weeks, to hard cheeses aged several months. We also felt there was more room in the market for goat cheese.
Are there unique challenges to goats and goat cheeses, as opposed to cow or sheep?
One unique challenge with goats is their seasonal breeding nature. Unlike cows, they don’t naturally have the potential of getting bred every month. More like deer, they go into heat seasonally, August to December, so unless you go to great lengths to trick them into thinking its fall, you have to work within that window to get year round milk. At Blue Ledge, we catch early heat, then remove the buck, and then re-introduce the bucks to catch late heat to extend our milk production year round. Goat gestation is five months, so we kid in early February and into late April.
Goats are also very picky about food and weather. Contrary to folklore, they do not eat garbage or tin cans. They will eat a great diversity of browse, burdock and poison parsnip are favorites, but will turn their nose at hay that has touched the ground. They don’t care for rain, snow, or excessive heat. While other animals graze through a light rain, our goats will come running to the barn like they’re going to melt!
Your goats enjoy a certain lifestyle, how do you think that impacts them and the cheese they produce?
We think that a diverse diet makes delicious and flavorful milk and therefore cheese. For example, May cheese is sweet and mild, we think due to tender shoots of new grass, while November cheese has more of a flora of dried leaves and concentrated browse. Also, fresh air and exercise keeps our animals healthy and our milk clean.
Do you have a personal favorite among your cheeses?
We love all of our cheeses but if Greg and I had to choose a favorite cheese, it would be the Crottina. Not our biggest seller, but a true beauty in our minds and always our “go to” cheese. It’s also the cheese that put us on the map with national recognition in 2008. We also are crazy about our Middlebury Blue, as it is mild, approachable, and just so delicious. Here’s a fun fact, we have a New Year’s Eve party every year and if we are developing a new cheese we will serve it up and take name suggestions from our party-goers. That is how Riley’s 2X4 got its name.
What do you see as the mission or philosophy behind what you do?
Our mission is to run the business first and foremost as a partnership and never in an exploitive way. Business and community should be in a symbiotic relationship; existing to benefit the other. We built our business on a cornerstone of respect for our animals, the land and the consumer. It is important to us that our animals live a good life, we became certified Animal Welfare Approved in 2015, that we replenish the land that feeds us, and that the consumer has the opportunity to purchase unique, high-quality and tasty cheese which is produced responsibly and affordably.
How does land conservation factor into your mission and operations?
Our business exists because of land conservation! In 2001 we sold our development rights to the Vermont Land Trust and this is how we invested in our initial cheese plant and got our business off the ground. We are so grateful for this investment and we love knowing that 110 acres of our farm will always remain open. In 2010, we sold the agricultural rights to our wetland piece and invested in hay making equipment to expand our land base and harvest our own hay. We were proud that ours was part of a block of wetlands critical to lessening the impact of Hurricane Irene on towns north of us.
How do you maintain your commitment to environmental sustainability?
One-third of our electricity comes from our roof-mounted solar array, and we age our cheese underground in a cave, thereby saving electricity. We utilize existing distribution methods to get our cheese around the state instead of putting another vehicle on the road. We manage our land organically, and harvest our own hay.
What would you most like consumers to know about Blue Ledge and your products?
The cheese that sits in the case at Hunger Mountain is the culmination of many hands and a tremendous year-round effort. There are so many factors involved in producing a product from absolute start to finish, and the ultimate consumer experience is top-of-the-list important.