There are a number of reasons we love Ruggles Hill Creamery. If you’ve ever come in right after Michael Holland has dropped off one of their beautifully wrapped cake boxes filled with individually handmade and wrapped goat cheeses, we’ve probably told you, “you need to try this cheese.” I was very familiar with their cheeses, which ones were creamy, which ones were fudgy; the delicate Brother’s Walk, or the cider washed Hanna’s Awashed. But until I drove the hour and a half to the farm at the end of June, I was not yet aware of just how much heart and soul went into making these little lumps of deliciousness.
Behind the charming wood doors at Cricket Creek farm is the home of a herd of around 30 grass-fed Brown Swiss and Jersey cows. Though it wasn’t always so – 60 years ago, the 500-acre farm was home to an industrious 300 milking cows and a large, grain based operation. Between 2001-2004 the Sabot family purchased the land and instituted a more animal friendly and environmentally friendly farm. With assistance from cheese consultant Peter Dixon of Parish Hill creamery, they developed their first cheese recipe for what would become Maggie’s Round.
On the most upper left corner of a map of Massachusetts you’ll find Williamstown – part of the Berkshires, and the home of Cricket Creek farm. Down a long dirt road, past fields of rolling pastures, and a view of the Berkshire mountains in the distance – you may see some cows grazing the fields, and watch out for chickens – there’s a farm open to exploration. Other than cows and chickens, Cricket Creek is also home to a few pigs, named Ophelia and Lady Macbeth.
The Cricket Creek farm store is open to the public from 7am-7pm, 7 days a week. It runs off the honors system, but staff are usually nearby to help, whether they’re working in the office, making cheese, or washing dishes. The store not only houses the artisan cheeses that we at AP know them for, but also: raw milk by the glass jug, Sidehill yogurt, and beef and pork products from the animals they raise.
Teri Rutherford is Operations Manager and comes to the farm by way of an Americorps position that helped her discover her passion for farm managing. She realized she loved the work and connecting to a specific farm would also use her experience with engaging communities, event planning, and outdoor recreation.
“Our mission is to produce nourishing food that honors the animals with respect to the community. We also want to be an example of sustainable small farm viability,” Rutherford said. “Bringing people here allows them to see what we’re doing, see how we’re treating our animals, and see how we’re making our quality food products.”
For fans of the farm that don’t have the resources to make it out to the Berkshires very often, they can track goings-on through Instagram and Facebook. “We have people making trips out to the farm because of seeing us on Instagram, it helps get the word out there and build a fan base and share what we’re doing,” Rutherford said.
However, realities of small farm life can be lost in translation through social media. “We romanticize the farm and therefore other people do that. I think that people understand that farming is hard work but I don’t think that people fully understand the financial struggle that small farmers go through. They see the beautiful pictures of where we are and the animals that are super happy and healthy and we care for them deeply. But we’re on razor thin margins here,” Rutherford adds. “The other aspect is that it’s not all happy animals all the time; there is a lot of death in farming and we don’t post pictures like that.”
For the conscious consumer, these facts are disheartening but it all the more makes us appreciate the sacrifice of the animals and the people who care for them, who milk them, and yes, send them to slaughter. It’s difficult, but it’s part of what makes a farm tick. At Cricket Creek, usually less than half of the herd is for milking, and a lot of their calves end up going for veal. Their cheeses use veal rennet – and have very few other ingredients. A by-product of the cheese-making is whey, which is fed to the pigs. The pigs also act as natural trash eaters, as they also get any cheese and other products that are not quite fit for human consumption. Like most farms, they also compost and spread manure to keep the grass growing so that the cows can keep eating.
To help keep those razor thin profit margins at bay, the cheese makers work year round. In the wintertime, they feed the cows baleage (pronounce bay-ledge), which comes with it’s own quirks in it’s effect on cheese development. Baleage is fermented hay. It makes winter milk higher fat, and lower yield.
Calista Tarnuskas is one of those cheese makers that stays hard at work. She says, “We do have issues with it sometimes in our raw milk cheeses. There’s a lot of variation in the bales, so if you get a bad one it can seriously affect the flavor, or even the smell.” There are ways it can be finessed. Tarnuskas said, “It’s definitely good to make a washed rind cheese or anything that does well with high fat in the winter.”
Tarnuskas has worked as a cheesemaker since 2009, and started her career at another local farm we know and love, Lazy Lady goat farm. “Recipes are like an ongoing endeavor for cheese making,” She said. “We write it all down and have make sheets so I know the lot number of the culture and how much I used – exactly.” She logs the temperature, time, and PH, so she can track the tweaks she makes with the resulting cheese.
Another big draw of the farm is the newly renovated barn that sits right between the beautiful overlook of the mountains and the farm store. Cricket Creek, with the help of a 2014 Kickstarter campaign, got the barn renovated for events and weddings. Though it’s another source of revenue for the farm and it doesn’t magically solve financial struggles, it is helping them to more securely break even.
Cricket Creek farm fills their corner of Massachusetts with community potlucks, letting the public see the daily ins and outs of their operations, and all the work that maintaining a farm requires. It’s hard to explain or pinpoint what makes them do what they do, but it is most soundly a labor of love for all that are involved. The rewards may not manifest themselves in actual riches, but the quality of their cheese is certainly indicative of how much care and heart they put into their operation.
All pictures and words by the author.
Last week we told you about the second half of our day in the Constitution State, drinking sour beers at Two Roads Brewery. Today, we have the daunting task of sharing with you the incredible wealth of knowledge that is Brian Civitello.
We started our day with Brian, on the beautiful rolling hills of Lebanon, Connecticut. Tucked deep in some dense woods, the landscape opens up suddenly to reveal the vast expanse of fall foliage and pastureland of Graywall Farm. Herds of cows were lapping up a drink at a small brook and it was peaceful and quiet—the only sounds we heard were cows grunting lazily, a flock of birds singing on the roof of the barn, and breezes rustling the orange treetops.
This utopia is where Brian keeps the two shipping containers that house the Mystic Cheese Co. Continue reading
Each year for the past 3-4 years (no one can seem to remember exactly, maybe due to the boozy nature of the event), Peak & Blue Heron have co-hosted a hoe-down that is pretty much the best. Their annual Hop Harvest began when Peak was looking for more local organic hop farmers to use for their 100% organic beers, and Ellery of Blue Heron had just started experimenting with growing hops for use in her own homebrews. Continue reading
After you pass the entrance gate at Shelburne Farms, a certain suspension of disbelief becomes utterly necessary. As the road winds along, alternating between pavement, dirt, & gravel, the sheer wealth of the color green hits you hard while pristine yet ancient mansion barnhouses appear around each bend. Just as you’re trying to snap a photo of a row of cows in shady stalls that you swear are smiling, the dense rows of jade green summer foliage give way to a shimmering body of water that starts just feet from the road, with a simple row of pebbles where a beach would be. That body of water is the Shelburne Bay off of Lake Champlain, and despite sensory evidence to the contrary, this place is very real. Continue reading
As the rest of the AP staff was preparing to feed the masses filling up East Broadway on St. Patrick’s Day, I was hopping into the backseat of a rental car with a few other city mice from my alma mater, Northeastern University, and heading to Hardwick, MA to nibble on some cheese at Robinson Farm. Continue reading
There’s nothing that draws a crowd like live music and the promise of good food. It was just that which drew me to the Raise the Roof Benefit for Higher Ground Farm. While the bands were kickin’, the food would have to wait until harvest since the benefit was to raise funds to build the second-largest rooftop farm in North America right here in South Boston. Continue reading