Could the North Fork area one day be known for its cheese?
David and Suanne Miller believe it could. The Millers own Western Culture Farmstead & Creamery. Located on 5.5 acres of agricultural land on Mathews Lane near Paonia, Western Culture recently earned its USDA Grade A certification, making it the only Grade A certified goat dairy in Colorado.
Beginning this spring, they plan to produce small-batch of artisan cheeses, yogurt, and single-serve fluid milks. Their 1,080 square foot facility includes a four-stall milking parlor, a licensed cheese-making facility, and the Western Culture Farm Store.
Prior to moving to Paonia three years ago, the Millers spent most of their lives on the Front Range. David had more than 20 years invested in the wine industry, and Suanne was an office manager at an oral surgeon's office. Having a farm was always in the backs of their minds, maybe after they retired.
"Neither of us had any experience in farm animals whatsoever," said David. About six years ago Suanne signed up for "The Art of Cheese," a cheese making class offered in the Boulder area.
After working her way through all the class levels, they talked about making goat's milk cheeses as a hobby and selling it at farmer's markets. Because it makes for a "livelier cheese," said Suanne, they wanted to use goat's milk. But with pasteurized goat's milk selling for upwards of $14 per gallon, they would need to cut the middle man out in order to make a profit.
That would require raising goats. They decided, "Why not?" said David. "Why can't we just completely switch our lives, switch our career, everything that we know, and do something completely different?"
They combed the Front Range for a suitable property, but with every property came a roadblock: too expensive, not enough water, fracking issues, zoning issues. "There was just nothing that we loved," said Suanne.
They headed west. After checking out Palisade and other areas, three years ago they found the perfect property on Mathews Lane. "It was just a great place to think about raising goats," said David.
They believe their timing is good. With wineries, farm-to-table and other organizations, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), and local stores like Berg Harvest, they see tremendous opportunities for collaboration.
They admit they were very naive heading into the business. They envisioned a beautiful farm, beautiful cheeses, and a licensed dairy. "We weren't even thinking Grade A," said David.
"But there's a business end, a practical side to everything," said Suanne. With milk among the most highly-regulated food product in the country, the learning curve was huge. But everyone, including government inspectors at all levels have been "nothing but encouraging" said Suanne. "The dairy inspector helped us every step of the way."
Region 10 North Fork business consultant Judy Martin helped them develop their business structure. "She has been phenomenal," said Suanne.
The Millers believe there is room for more than one cheese making business in the area. Avalanche Dairy Creamery on Bone Mesa, which provided goat milk for Basalt-based Avalanche Cheese Company, closed late last year after 10 years of operation. Their 200 goats found new homes in Wisconsin, and the Millers picked up some good used equipment.
"We were disappointed," said David. As with the wineries, they believe the area thrive with several cheese-making operations. They see more businesses like theirs as an opportunity for collaboration, rather than competition. "I came from the wine business and that's kind of how I was looking at this," said David. "To me, this could be the Loire Valley of Cheese."
Products aren't yet available, although some cheeses are aging. Seventeen nannies are pregnant, and kidding season begins soon. Production is scheduled to begin by early April. In addition to artisan cheeses and yogurts, they plan a line of pasteurized single-serve fluid milk in chocolate, strawberry and original flavors, which will be marketed through Berg Harvest in Paonia. "Chocolate goat milk, it's like creamy delight," said Suanne.
They also hope to partner with local CSAs to sell greens and other products at their farm market. They plan to market to restaurants, including in nearby resort towns, and invite chefs to make cheeses and teach their crafts at the farm. They want to participate in farm to table dinners and do wine and cheese tasting events with local wineries.
They also plan to remain small and stay within the boundary of their farm, sandwiched between another micro farm, Solar Energy International and the former Chaco property. "We will be a destination North Fork Valley cheese shop," geared toward the agro-tourism industry, said Sueann. They want people to not just buy their cheese, but to visit the dairy, meet the goats, and see how it's made.
To learn more about Western Culture, visit their Facebook page, or their website at westernculturefarmstead.com