When I first noticed the number of women making artisan cheese in Ohio, it was 2008 and there were six of us. Just a few short years later, now out of the 18 artisan cheesemakers in Ohio, 16 of them are women!
Across the county, we have all witnessed the rise of female chefs, vintners and brewers. Women have made names for themselves in each of these businesses that have historically been dominated by men. Now we are seeing a rise in the number of women who have made their move into the cheesemaking arena and are crafting amazing cheeses.
There is a gentle, natural rhythm inherent in agriculture. The four seasons and working with livestock force you to slow down and find that special tempo. Each of us has embraced this lifestyle, which is reflected in our lives and our products. Some of us use a single-milk cheese of cow, goat or sheep, while others use blended milks. And, because of the variation of terroir across the state, we are all producing cheeses that possess wonderfully different characteristics.
We are a small but passionate group. We own small-batch creameries, every one of which is very different, ranging from farmstead to urban, but we have each found that perfect blend of art and science. We are all women who enjoy the solitary time in our make rooms, alone with our work, gently working the curds into delectable cheeses. But many of us also enjoy the energized, almost party atmosphere of the farmers markets where we have developed lasting friendships with our customers and other vendors. Most importantly, as a group, Ohio’s women cheesemakers are making some of the finest cheese in the country.
Becoming a Cheesemaker
Different roads have led each of us to this wonderful profession. For me, it came quite late in life. I was 61, had raised three children, had a career in residential real estate and then headed up the real estate division of a local land conservancy. During vacation in May 2007, I took a cheesemaking class through the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). It was an epiphany. I suddenly knew that this was what I was supposed to do with my life. I also knew that I had a very small window of time. My partner, Jim Zella, and I went about converting the lower level of our barn from livestock stalls to meet the specifications of the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA). In four short months the facility was completed, licensed and I was making cheese.
Shortly after I had received my processing license from the ODA, my neighbor, Andy Luckay, who grew up next door to my farm, asked if I had time to take a walk on the property. We walked south through the woods to the southeast corner of the farm where two deep, spring-fed ravines converge and a small stream runs year-round.
When we got to a particular place, Andy stopped and, looking all around, asking me if I knew where we were. I was standing in a rather deep part of the ravine with stone walls on three sides and the stream was gently running over my Muck boots. It was pleasantly cool and the humidity that was produced by the stream was captured by the stone walls. With a twinkle in his eye, Andy told me that we were standing in what was once one of the area’s many cheese factories, back in the 1800s. It was the perfect setting for making cheese. The spring water would have kept the space at a constant 56 degrees year-round with a humidity level of about 90 percent, the exact requirements for an aging room.
The Road We’ve Traveled
According to the National Historical Cheesemaking Center, the role of women in cheesemaking goes back to the 17th century, when the art of cheesemaking was introduced to North America by the English dairy farmers who brought their knowledge of dairy farming and cheesemaking with them from the Old World to the colonies. In those days, women were the primary cheesemakers. From the 17th century until the early 19th century, cheesemaking in America was almost entirely farmstead centered, primarily in New England. It was the role of the women to make cheese using their traditional Old World techniques. Milking the cows, hauling the milk, churning the butter and processing the cheese were all a part of the duties performed by women on the farm in early America.
The role of women in cheesemaking decreased significantly after the birth of the “cheese factory,” but it would be impossible to tell any realistic story of cheese in America without paying tribute to the countless contributions made to the industry by America’s pioneering women.
Ohio played a significant role in the history of cheesemaking. In the mid to late 1800s cheese companies sprang up all over Ohio, from Aurora to Wellington. Most of these were cheese factories. The Silver Creek Cheese Factory in Aurora alone was producing and shipping more than a million pounds of cheese a year all over the country. By the late 19th century, Aurora residents produced and shipped more cheese than any other community in the entire world.
Laura Chenel is considered the matriarch and leading forerunner of women cheesemakers in the United States. She started her business in the late 1970s in the Carneros region of California’s Sonoma County and sold her fabulous chèvre to restaurateurs such as Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. Laura was part of the original pioneering group of women who turned America on to the wonders of goat cheese. Allison Hooper of Vermont Butter and Cheese, along with Mary Keehn of Cypress Groves (California), Judy Schad of Capriole Farms (Indiana) and Paula Lambert of the Mozzarella Co. (Texas) followed Laura Chenel’s lead and in the 1980s launched the artisan cheesemaking movement across the country.
Ohio was fortunate to have experienced the amazing talent of Anne Hauser, our matriarch of farmstead goat cheese. Anne produced her highly sought after chèvre across Ohio from 1986 to 1996. She was a one-woman show doing everything from milking her does and birthing their kids to tracking breeding records, handling sales and marketing, driving deliveries and taking her cheese to farmers market each week. All the while, Anne was making her amazing cheese that provided fresh local chèvre to some of the top chefs in the state, the likes of Parker Bosley.
As cheesemakers, we do not look at ourselves as competitors but rather as a group of people with the same passion who have come together to support the business of cheesemaking in Ohio and across the country. This is a vibrant, growing business filled with wonderful people who are doing exciting things. Each year new American cheeses are created that are winning recognition at major competitions across the country. The future is bright and it is an incredibly exciting time to be in the business of making Ohio cheese.
Please grab a copy of our directory of 16 amazing women cheese makers.