Our lives are filled with little food epiphanies – the first time we tasted a ripe farmers' market apple, that bite of a Ladurée macaron... Now we can add seasonal dairy to that list. Last week we had the pleasure of visiting Otter Creek Organic Farm in Avoca, Wisconsin, and we will never look at cheese in the same way! Terms like pasture-grazed, seasonal, and sustainable are things we had heard about in relation to dairy but didn't truly understand until we found ourselves in the pasture and parlor at Otter Creek. This organic family farm in southwestern Wisconsin specializes in milk used to craft raw milk seasonal cheddars.
It all starts with healthy soils and a type of farming called mineralized balanced agriculture. Pioneered by farmer Gary Zimmer, this process involves farmers growing their own fertilizers and using practices that promote beneficial organisms in the soil. In many ways, it's a return to what was natural before around World War Two, when farmers abandoned biological farming processes in favor of chemical processes, which led to poor soil and animal health (and struggling farms). As a result of Otter Creek's farming processes, its land and animals are nutrient-rich and healthy, and the flavor of the cheese is just incredible.
1 The farm practices managed grazing, in which around 200 Holstein cows are rotated through seeded pastures with different types of grains and grasses. Otter Creek's Bartlett Durand calls this a "salad bar approach" that keeps the pastures fertile and actively balanced.
2 Otter Creek is Certified Organic and bears the Master's Mark, Wisconsin's highest appellation for cheese. It is also certified by Food Alliance, which ensures fair working conditions, humane treatment of animals, and good environmental stewardship.
3 The herd heading out to graze. After they finish grazing, mobile chicken pens are dispatched to dig into the manure and grass, further enhancing the soil.
4 Durand explains the terroir concept as it applies to cheese. Due to the changes in seasons, the balance of what the cows eat, how much they move around, and their weight changes. This affects the flavor of their milk and subsequently the cheddar cheese.
5 After the cows have grazed, the remaining grasses are harvested for hay, which they eat in winter.
6 A two week-old calf. The health and comfort of all animals, young and old, is closely monitored, as any cow that gets sick and requires antibiotics would have to be sold off to a conventional farm. The animals here are so healthy that they have a 13-year old cow still producing milk, in comparison to the commercial farm average of 2-3 years.
7 "Every dairy farm has a cat," says Durand.
8 The parlor where cows are milked.
9 A glass of raw milk – the cleanest and sweetest we have ever tasted!
10 Cows eating after leaving the parlor.
11 Durand says the milking is like a workout, so afterward the cows get a sweet-smelling, energy-rich mixture of fermented hay, corn, and nutrients like probiotics and kelp.
12 Not until we tasted Otter Creek's spring and fall cheddars side-by-side did we truly understand how distinct seasonal cheeses can be. In the spring, the cows are moved from the winter barn back to the pasture to feed on young grasses, clover, and rye. The resulting cheese is creamy and lightly grassy with a more yellow color due to higher beta carotene levels in the milk.
13 In contrast, the fall cheddar has a lighter color and sharper bite. In this season, the cows feed on woodier plants like mature rye and alfalfa, and the cooler weather brings out a higher fat content in their milk. We didn't get to taste the summer and winter cheeses but these are said to be intensely grassy (summer) and deeply creamy (winter).
14 Other friends on the farm.
15 What an educational day! We encourage everyone to visit their local dairy farms if they have the opportunity.
Unfortunately, Otter Creek Organic Farm's cheese (and meat) isn't widely sold outside of Wisconsin and Minnesota, but do seek it out if you're in that part of the country and conduct your own seasonal cheese taste test. It's really quite eye-opening.
• Learn more: Otter Creek Organic Farm
(Image: Emily Ho)