Blazing the way: Monkton farm couple pioneers cheesemaking niche
In the cold Vermont darkness, Marjorie Susman and Marian Pollack slide into endlessly pocketed Carhartt pants and tall muck boots. It is February, and though the snow is gone, the earth is hard when they step out of their small farmhouse. Their breath hangs in faint wisps before disappearing in the early morning air. It is 5:30 a.m.
Pollack, 68, heads to the barn to milk their six Jersey cows, Clover, Hershey, Kudo, Pookah, Slinky and Bounty. Her boxy body moves briskly, gray shorn hair standing on end.
The barn is cool inside; the only heat comes from the cows’ 1,000-pound bodies.
Peering from their stands, the cows seem happy to see Pollack; they want to be fed. They lick each other and bob their heads in anticipation of fresh hay.
Pollack tosses hay into the feed aisle before retrieving the milking machine from the milk room upstairs. One by one, she wipes the fleshy teats of each cow and then hooks the milking machine onto their udders. The machine harumphs in a constant rhythm, pulsating to draw out the warm milk.
Soon, the sun begins to creep over the mountains with its milky light. Pollack can see the sunrise out of the eastern windows of the barn. She watches its climb every morning.
As the milking machine chatters below, Pollack leans her head against Hershey’s brown hide. Her skinny gray braid falls over her shoulder with the motion. Her eyes droop a bit; she was up late last night watching Rachel Maddow. The news is on faintly now, some talk about Bernie Sanders’s prospects in the upcoming primary.
Pollack breathes deeply, the smell of the cow flooding her nose. Her face is serene, its weathered lines relaxed. Her body, for a moment, is still and quiet.
She loves this smell. She loves their cows. This is Pollack’s favorite part of her day.
A WOMEN’S BUSINESS
When Susman and Pollack started their artisan cheese business in the early 1980s, they were one of the few small cheese operations in the nation. Starting with barely any practical farming experience, they built their business from scratch, teaching themselves the ways of the land, crafting their cheese recipe by experimentation.
Money was tight. The work tough. The neighbors laughed when the city girls said they were farmers. Susman and Pollack squared their shoulders and plowed on.
Today, these pioneering women are the owners and operators of Orb Weaver Farm in Monkton. On their 100 acres, these women grow organic vegetables in the summer and raise Jersey cows for their winter cheese operation. A 2-1/2-pound wheel of their cheese sells wholesale for $30.
Their ranks have been joined by a growing number of female farmers across the state and the nation.
USDA data on farming shows that Vermont has one of the highest percentages of women farmers in the country. Thirty-nine percent of Vermont farmers are women — or nearly 5,000 female farmers.
More than 22 percent of Vermont’s female famers are the principal operators of their farm, meaning that they are the person in charge of the farm’s day-to-day operations.
But while women are making significant strides into the previously male-dominated industry of farming, few women own their own farms like Susman and Pollack.
Though data on female farm ownership is difficult to find — there are several factors that can complicate identifying a farm’s owner, including the business organization of the farm — anecdotal evidence from sources at the USDA, Vermont Agriculture Association and the Women’s Agricultural Network of Vermont suggests that the number of female famers in the U.S. and Vermont is very small.
Thus, while Susman and Pollack are part of this growing trend of female farmers, they are also an anomaly: Few women work on farms owned and exclusively operated by females like the Orb Weaver women.
Even fewer women have built a brand as successful as Orb Weaver. On the tide of the locavore and organic food movements, Susman and Pollack’s business has exploded, demand for their cheese spreading, national awards celebrating their name.
But despite these accolades, Susman and Pollack stuck to their principles, selling their cheese only within a 25-mile radius of their farm.
In Vermont, Orb Weaver has a reputation for quality. Their cheese, still the same recipe from way back, is respected. It is the product of 30 years of backbreaking work by two devoted women.
CURD KNIVES AND POLITICS
In the cheese room, the liquid cheese has congealed like a pale yellow Jell-O in the vat.
Susman, 61, has been here for hours already, sanitizing everything that will come into contact with their cheese and heating the milk to nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Bob Dylan croons from her iPod.
“Yes, and how many time must a man look up, before he can see the sky?” he sings.
Brandishing a curd knife now, Susman bends over the vat, a soft look on her round face. Her curvy body moves slowly, gracefully.
Her forearms tense as she reaches across the vat and drags the curd knife through its gelatinous contents. The cheese is striped with even slices by the five horizontal blades of the curd knife. Susman repeats the motion until the entire vat is sliced and then switches to a curd knife with vertical blades.
The result? Tiny cubes of coagulated cheese — the curd.
Pollack arrives from the farmhouse just after the cutting of the curd. She rinses the mud off her boots, washes her leathery hands and pops on a hairnet like Susman.
Together, they mix the curd by hand, as the whey — the liquid that separates from the curd in the cheese-making process — drains from a spigot in the bottom of the vat. The curds look like cauliflower heads floating in a yellow broth of whey. The women’s hands stir them until they collect in mounds at the bottom of the vat, the whey gone.
They talk politics while they work, Pollack sharing with Susman tidbits from her show last night.
“They just said (Sanders) had one economist on his staff and a lot of the stuff he’s saying, he’s just making it up,” said Pollack. “He wants a 70 percent capital gains tax, which apparently is like a disaster.”
“Who doesn’t want free education and free health care and free this and that, but how the heck are you gonna pay for that?” asked Susman, referring to Sanders’ platform. “Obama couldn’t get anything done.”
Pollack quietly reaches for a jumbo-sized measuring cup of salt, and the conversation slithers back to cheese. Pollack pours in six cups of salt, as Susman kneads it into the whey, her body folded into a V as she reaches for the bottom of the vat.
Susman’s responses are more muffled now, sounding like they’re coming from down a long pipe as her voice bounces around the vat. Soon, she straightens, grabs a small clump of curd and extends it.
“Try this,” she says. It tastes like salted popcorn.
FROM CITY KIDS TO DAIRY FARMERS
Susman and Pollack both describe themselves as former “city kids.” Born in central Connecticut and northern New Jersey, respectively, neither woman was raised around farming or livestock but the zeitgeist of the 1950s meant that farming was not so far removed from their childhood consciousness.
“We sort of came of age in the back-to-the-land movement,” said Pollack. “People were starting to think about farming.”
The pair met at an Equal Rights Amendment meeting in 1976, and it was love at first sight. At the time, Pollack was working as a family therapist in western Massachusetts. Susman, seven years younger, was attending community college in Greenfield, MA and working at a local bank. Both women found their interests increasingly converging around agriculture.
“I realized that a lot of the Greek myths went back to agriculture,” said Susman, who had begun studying the Classics at the University of Massachusetts after her two-year program in Greenfield. “I thought this is what I really need to do.”
Soon, Susman transferred to the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass Amherst. Together, Susman and Pollack raised a garden — Pollack had been gardening for most of her adult life — and canned the fruits and vegetables they grew.
The more time they spent gardening and with livestock, the more meaningful it became to Susman.
“It answered the question of what am I going to do with my life? It just became so meaningful to plant seeds and watch them growing up. It just felt so magical in a way.”
The two women decided to leave Massachusetts, where they noted the rapid decline of farming in the towns around them, and moved to Vermont. They answered an advertisement in the newspaper for two milking jobs and moved to a farm in Morrisville.
Susman and Pollack struggled at the Morrisville farm. Not only was the work difficult, but they were woefully inexperienced at the tasks they were expected to complete.
After just six months, Susman and Pollack answered another ad for a milking job and moved south to Monkton. They visited the new farm on Valentine’s Day 1981 and discovered a farmhouse “just in shambles,” remembered Susman, but they decided to move there anyway.
At the farm, then owned by Jim and Margaret Morse, Susman and Pollack were given their own plot of land and were allowed to buy a cow within their first month of employment.They sustained themselves on their farmhand salaries and by selling vegetables from their plot of land to local restaurants. Susman and Pollack struggled with money, but their tight funds taught them to be efficient farmers.
After a year, the Morses sold their farm to Susman and Pollack and moved to Virginia.
With less than a year of real farming experience, Susman and Pollack now found themselves the proud owners of a 30-acre farm.
A CASTLE OF CHEESE
Back in the cheese room, Susman and Pollack have begun filling the cheese molds with curd. The work is divided evenly between them, Susman filling the larger molds for the Cave-Aged cheese and Pollack the smaller ones for the Farmhouse. A harmony, honed from 30 years of intimate collaboration, prevails.
When nearly all the molds are filled, Pollack prepares the molds for pressing. She arranges molds of the same size in a row, places a board on top of them and begins a new row on top of the board. It is like watching a meticulous child build a castle out of Legos.
Pollack slowly bends to examine her work. Her back looks like it aches, but she says nothing. The youthful image disappears.
When the cheese castle is complete — two stacked rows of molds with two boards — Pollack lowers the press and attaches weight to it in the form of a gallon-sized jug of water. The entire contraption looks like a kind of torture device that may have been used to crush confessions out the Salem witches. Now, it is crushing any remaining whey out of the cheese.
Susman brushes flecks of curd from her hands as she fills the last mold. It is now nearly 1 p.m. They have been working for over six hours non-stop.
PERFECTING ARTISAN CHEESE MAKING
Susman and Pollack christened their new home Orb Weaver Farm, after the orb weaver spider, in 1981 when their cow Sultana gave birth and they needed a farm name to register her calf.
“We didn’t realize we were staying and figured we’d rename it when we moved,” said Susman. “But we stayed, and so did our name.”
In 1982, after two years on the farm and one year of ownership, they built their cheese-making house, a small red building less than 100 yards from their barn with a cheese making room and a walk-in refrigerator for cheese storage.
They wanted to make cheese because of its greater market stability as compared to milk. While the price of milk fluctuated unpredictably — sometimes dropping as low as $14 per 100 pounds of milk, according to Susman — cheese prices remained more consistent.
So, Susman and Pollack embarked on a learning expedition, pioneering a new cheese recipe as they taught themselves cheese-making techniques.
“All we did was work and figure things out because there weren’t people we could turn to for help because nobody else was doing it,” said Susman.“We just sort of put our heads down and went for it.”
The pair had dabbled in cheesemaking in their kitchen in Massachusetts, and they continued to perfect their recipe in their Vermont kitchen until it was ready for commercial production.
Today, they make cheese twice a week from November to May, producing approximately 1,000 wheels of cheese per year.
They produce two kinds of cheese. One is the Orb Weaver Farmhouse cheese, which Susman describes as “a good all around cheese,” and perfect for making macaroni and cheese. Their other cheese, the Orb Weaver Cave-Aged cheese, is denser and more complex and required the construction of a cave in 2000 that strongly resembles a Hobbit’s home.
These cheeses are sold at 12 vendors in Vermont, located within a 25-mile radius of their farm. Although there is demand for their cheese in Manhattan and Boston — Orb Weaver Cheese has a national recognition because it was one of the first cheeses of its kind in what is a now exploding market and for the numerous awards it has won — Susman and Pollack have refused to sell Orb Weaver products there; local is their priority.
In addition, Susman and Pollack aim to cultivate relationships with everyone who sells their cheese. For this reason, they will not work with distributors, but instead negotiate directly with the 12 vendors that sell their cheese.
The Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op was the first retail outlet to sell Orb Weaver cheese and has now been selling their cheese and produce for the past three decades.
“Their cheese has always been a welcome product at our store,” said Reiner Winkler, manager of the cheese department at the Middlebury co-op. “What is remarkable about their cheese is … they have always kept their price at a very affordable level.”
Nancy Weber-Curth of Sparkling, a wine bar in Middlebury, said she has sold Orb Weaver cheese since her bar opened in 2012 because of the cheese’s excellent quality and Susman and Pollack’s business competence.
“They are fair, flexible, dependable and extremely competent,” said Weber-Curth. “(As women), they pay attention to details, listen to what I need and are very accommodating.”
Susman and Pollack see their identity as business women as critical to their farming operation.
“Men bring a different energy to an operation,” said Pollack. “They are restless.”
Susman suggested that women are more likely to be content with a smaller-scale business, like Orb Weaver’s, than male farmers.
Not everyone recognizes these virtues, however. When Susman and Pollack began farming in the 1980s, they experienced much sexism from the local community.
“When we moved here, our neighbors thought we were just two rich kids with a trust fund,” remembered Pollack. “But we proved ourselves hard workers.”
“Now our neighbors say, ‘We don’t know anybody who works like you girls,’” added Susman.
Both women, who consider themselves feminists, said they would encourage any female to try her hand at farming.
“We love what we do,” said Susman. “Very few people get to follow their dreams like this.”
She added, “It turns out women can do anything.”
Susman and Pollack are up at the farmhouse, lunch plates stacked in the sink.
Each afternoon, they get about two hours off from farm work. On nice days, they like to go for a walk or sit on their front porch, basking in the sunshine.
But today it is drizzling. February has been unseasonably warm this year. They take up their books instead, a brief moment of rest.
In a while, they will resume their chores. Susman will go to the barn this time and perform the same routine that Pollack executed this morning.
Pollack will go to the cheese room. She will rotate each mold, ensuring that an even cheese wheel forms. Then, she will add more weight to the cheese press, compressing the curds even more.
Then, as she has done hundreds of times before, she will turn out the light, close up the building and let their orb-like cheese wheels age in the dark.
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