Cheese Straight Outta Wisconsin: By George Farm Makes the Grade
Like any organically grown business, like every seemingly overnight success: By George Creamery has been years in the making—and like anything that comes from the heart: there’s a story to be told beyond bottom lines, branding, and your basic cheddar. It was a crisp autumn night in the capital of cheese country—Madison, Wisconsin, to be precise. Our young cheesemakers, Tyson Ferhman and Jonny Steiger, neither of them knowing their cheesemaker fate, first met at martini night in their local bar, when Tyson was still a student, and Jonny a recent graduate of University of Wisconsin.
The farm-to-table movement was booming from its urbane enclaves, and its salt of the earth roots, and entrenching itself in American culture when those two foodies fell in love. Tyson and Jonny worked together after college in fine dining, but waiting tables in Madison was a job, and not a calling. Their real desire was to be a part of that movement growing food. Alerted to Southern Oregon by Tyson’s sister Meghan, they secured jobs through Rogue Farm Corp, and for two years, worked on local organic farms, interning at Siskiyou Crest Farm, a goat dairy in the crook of a mountain outside of Jacksonville.
After two years of farming in The Applegate, the duo returned home with a new skill-set and a refined determination, leasing an acre plot near Madison to grow vegetables and raise poultry for the local fine dining scene. For another two years they grew into their own as food producers and small business owners, bankrolling sweat-equity into a beginning in Wisconsin. Jonny worked 40 hours a week in fine dining, and 20 hours a week on the farm, while Tyson worked 40 hours on the farm, and 20 in fine dining to make it all work.
They grew the vegetables, harvested the vegetables, cleaned the vegetables, sold them to chefs, and then served them to diners: all in the same long day. Jonny recalls a certain point when they had to don cotton gloves; not to be fancy for the patrons, but to hide the callouses and dirt filled cracks that couldn’t be washed from their farmer’s hands. They were making it work, but Madison was “cold and mid-westy,” and the early glint of spring in the Rogue Valley beckoned them back again.
By George began as an opportunity to lease 85 acres of pastureland in a serene valley with the Little Applegate River coursing through its center, where the couple, now married, and their growing herd still reside. Six years ago they packed a carload of seeds, clothes, and tools, and drove straight to The Little Applegate from Wisconsin. They arrived at midnight. Tyson looked at Jonny and said, “we have to seed tomorrow. You seed onions in February, and this is March.” So the very next morning, not twelve hours into their residency as Oregonians, they sowed 10,000 onion seeds before ever unpacking their bags.
In year one, Loretta, their first cow, provided raw milk and cheese sold mostly to neighbors, but they soon happened upon a perennial problem for their business: too many eager customers, and not enough milk. At the end of year two, with four Jersey cows in their pasture, they purchased the first mechanical milker, saving hours of wrist wringing—and so the cheesemaking began in earnest. Before it became a market mainstay, Dutchman’s Peak, an aged raw milk Tomme style cheese, was perfected through many trials and errors in a four gallon stockpot on the couple’s stovetop.
By their third year on the land, By George became a fully-fledged creamery, securing a loan from Northwest Farm Credit in 2015, which was tailored towards younger first generation farmers seeking business development and infrastructure. They constructed a building which housed a small creamery, a milking barn, cheese storage, packing, and they bought more cows. The little building that could, has been designed with easy future expansion in mind: meaning removable walls, and ready plots for concrete slabs to be poured. But the faith, the fate, and the aim of their business has always been slow and steady growth, and remaining grounded in the artisanal process of making good cheese. The feed, the sanitizers, even the essential oils that get sprayed on the heifers to abate the flies, are completely organic. The process will always require a knowing eye, and a human hand.
Feta, Fromage, and Brie are their fresh soft cheeses currently offered, and two aged alpine style hard cheeses: a swiss, and a tomme—in addition to about a hundred pounds of cheese curds a week being gobbled up by local connoisseurs. The fromage and curds also come in flavors infused by local produce and herbs grown on the farm. As demand increases, and as their ability to meet it grows: there’s the task at hand of making more of the standards that have established them; but there’s also talk of producing yogurt, bottled milk, and even ice cream.
The aim of By George is, and has always been, not to become cheese barons, but to just keep doing what they love doing — to be artisans providing for their community, and not an institution out to win global ribbons. With the herd presently expanded to twenty heifers, the magic number of cows to manage, and for the land to foster, would be somewhere around forty—which is still a lot of milk: enough to produce between 40,000 and 60,000 pounds of cheese per year.
The recent recipients of a Federal Value Added Producer grant, By George now has funding to develop and expand the brand throughout Oregon, with the main goal of bringing their wares to Portland, and establishing a meaningful presence in the city’s restaurants and markets, with interest already expressed by New Seasons Markets, and Whole Foods.
In our neck of the woods, By George can be found Tuesdays at the Ashland Farmers Market, Thursdays at the Medford Growers and Crafters Market, and in Ashland and Grants Pass Farmers Markets on Saturdays. You can also find their cheeses any day of the week at Cartwright’s, The Medford and Ashland Food Co-Op, and Market of Choice in Ashland, in addition to vineyards and restaurants throughout the Valley.