Meet the farmers: Hannah Sessions and Greg Bernhardt from Blue Ledge Farm

LEICESTER — After 15 years of making cheese, you might think that Hannah Sessions and Greg Bernhardt are sick of the stuff. But that’s simply untrue. “We still love cheese,” said Bernhardt; Sessions nodded by her husband’s side in a recent interview. “It has to be the greatest food.”
They are true turophiles — cheese lovers. 
Sessions and Bernhardt met while studying art and culture of Europe in Florence, Italy, where the dream to make their own cheese began. After graduating from Bates College, the two 23-year-olds bought an old dairy barn in Leicester (formerly owned by the Laroque and Pierpont families) and founded Blue Ledge Farm. They got to work transforming the barn; what used to hold upwards of 60 Holstein cows would soon be home to Alpine and LaMancha dairy goats. 
“We grew our family and our business at the same time,” Sessions said. She and Bernhardt had their daughter in 2002; the same time they started processing cheese. Their son came two years later. “That was when we had endless energy and really good backs. We gave up our 20s and our 30s to this business.”
They started with fresh chevre. Why? There’s no aging process and the return on the investment is much faster — good for a growing business with limited storage space. In 2004, Blue Ledge Farm sold their development rights to the Vermont Land Trust, which ensured that their 110 acres would always remain open — it also gave them the financial resources to construct their cheeseroom. Four years later, they added a three-room cheese cave.
“We built that for the future,” Sessions said. The caves can easily hold the 50,000 pounds of cheese that Blue Ledge Farm produces every year, and gives them a comfortable buffer to grow and room to be competitive with larger cheese brands.
But for now, Sessions and Bernhardt are content with the size and scope of their business. “We want to stay in that range,” Sessions said. “We’re happy with the lifestyle that affords us … We’re a tag team,” she added. “I manage the goats, he manages making cheese. I sell the cheese and do the marketing, and he does the books, makes hay and takes care of the equipment.” 
Sessions has 125 milking goats. Every freshening season (when kids are born) she will raise between 30 and 40 goats to replace the older goats, but will keep the herd at 125. The math doesn’t add up, however; if you have 125 goats freshening every season (give or take a few) and they average twins, that’s a potential 250 goats! So how does Sessions keep her herd to 125? The extras are sold as pets, to other dairies and for meat.
 “Goat meat business is growing,” Sessions said. “It’s very good for you. It’s the highest in iron and lowest in cholesterol.” But Sessions admits it’s hard to let them go. “The hardest part of the job is not getting attached because ultimately it is a business,” she said. “ But I do have a heart.”
For the 26 new goats that join the milking herd, Sessions names them thematically. Last year they were goddesses, this year they’re tomato varieties. The goats spend their spring, summer and fall days browsing in the woods bordered by open fields and 50 acres of conserved wetland. They return to the barn for 4 p.m. milking, where they file in 16 at a time. Then start the whole process over 12 hours later when they’re due for milking again. 
Considering the amount of work that goes into it, Sessions is still amazed when cheese is actually produced. “It’s a miracle,” she said. “First your raise the goat, then breed, freshen, feed, collect the milk, process and age the cheese.”
“If you lose about 5 percent of the product you’re doing well,” Bernhardt quantified.
In the caves, Bernhardt is the master. Among the varieties that Blue Ledge produces, Lake’s Edge is probably the most popular; it’s an ash-veined goat cheese that’s aged for three weeks. Bernhardt’s other creations include Camembrie, Middlebury Blue, Crottina, fresh chevres, maple chevre (Sessions helped with this one), La Luna and Riley’s Coat. “We make what we love,” Bernhardt said. “For example, I was not a huge blue cheese fan. I wanted to make it the way I love it — more nuanced.” And so he did, and people love it. 
About 45 percent of Blue Ledge Farm cheese is sold in Vermont. A strong local presence is important to Sessions and Bernhardt. “We have to stay strong in Vermont,” Sessions said. 
They’re also passionate about sustainable farming practices. They are champion composters and use a clean-burning EPA-approved biomass furnace to heat their home, cheesehouse, barn and the hot water used in the cheese plant with locally produced wood pellets. In 2015, Blue Ledge Farm installed solar panels on the south facing roof of their barn. The panels provide nearly half of the farm’s electricity usage in the summer. 
“Essentially the goal is to make our business something we would want to buy,” said Bernhardt. “When we step back and look at the business, it is something we’d want to buy and so we keep doing it.”
But the couple has hired two full-time and two part-time employees to help run things. “We’re moving in a good direction, finding employees who are passionate about what we’re doing,” Bernhardt added.  Both Sessions and Bernhardt are artists and sell their paintings locally. “The farm generally provides us with a nice life balance,” they reflected. “We get to live in this beautiful place, participate in a great community and make food for people — what could be better than that?”
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