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Interview With Jonathan White

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Interview with Dairy Scientist Jonathan White

When did your interest in cheese making and farming begin?

In the mid 70s I lived in England and I fell in love with English farmhouse cheeses. In my local market they had 40 types of cheeses for sale but in America at that time they had four - American, Swiss, provolone and Mozzarella. I came back from England and a friend of mine found me a book at a garage sale on how to make cheese at home. At the time I was living in Hoboken, NJ so I went to the grocery store, bought a gallon of milk and tried the recipes and it didnt work. I figured that the milk was probably too processed I put the book back on the shelf and thought someday, Ill be living on a farm and have a cow or maybe have a neighbor who has a cow and Ill try again. That was in 1979. Almost 10 years to the day - in 1989 we were living in Putnam County when a neighbor of mine showed up on my doorstep with a pail of goats milk - his kids wouldnt drink it. So I thought, well, there it is. The milk finally showed up. So I started making cheese as a hobby. It was a hobby form 1989 - 1993 when I decided that I liked my hobby better than I liked my job - I was an engineer for 17 years. But I thought that Id like to be a cheese maker so we started a company in Peekskill, NY called Egg Farm Dairy.

What special training is needed?

I got my training in Dairy Science from being a hobbyist. When youre a hobbyist you can take chances that you cant take if you are trying to make a living out of it. If a hobbyist makes a mistake they ruin a days worth of hobby rather than a days worth of paying the rent. When I first started I didnt know any cheese makers so I just started collecting old books from garage sales and old book stores. 1920s books on dairy farming and cheese making and I read them all. And then I started to learn. Ive only been a farmer for a year. Ive been a cheese maker for 14 years. 10 years commercially. Its only been my own cows for the past year.

What services are offered?

Besides wonderful cheese we bake bread and do a lot of education. We offer 4 classes a month and we also have interns. Right now I have two young students from Japan who are here for 18 days who came here to work. I have someone from Pennsylvania in the spring who would like to be a cheese maker. Earlier today I had a young visitor from Poland who is just finishing her masters degree in Dairy Science who really wants to learn about the style of grazing we do here at Bobolink so she may stay here next summer. We do a lot more than just make cheese

What special equipment and supplies are needed?

Well, you need cows. And you need grass. You can have all the greatest cheese making equipment in the world but it wont do you any good if you dont have happy, healthy cows eating grass. Thats where it all really begins.

You need a way to milk the cows...have you seen the milking system? OK, so you know a little bit about the milking system in the barn - there is a stainless steel pipe running around the barn in a circuit and there is also an iron pipe which is hooked up to a vacuum pump. We also have a milking unit which is plugged into the vacuum line and into the milk line. Then we have a suction type thing that goes on the nipple of the cows. The milk flows directly from the milking system into the cheese vat.

On most farms the milk is cooled and then stored for a few days until it gets picked up by a truck. Here the milk goes right out of the cow and into the cheese vat. If youre ever reading old recipes and they talk about heating something to milk temperature we think they mean 40 degrees - milk coming out of the fridge. What they mean is blood temperature 98-99 degrees. Cows run a little warmer than people. People run at a body temperature of 98.6 degrees but a cows body temperature is 100 degrees.

By the time the milk is actually out of the cow its a little bit cooler - about 98 degrees. it flows into the creamery and we cool it down to about 72 deg. Then we add some whey -the by product or serum that drips out of the mold into the evening milk to begin the fermentation.

Whey contains a large dose of the healthy bacterial you need - it comes from the cows. The bacteria that make cheese live in the milk ducts of the cows utters. Their purpose there is to protect the cow against infection from the outside. After the young have suckled this pore is open to the environment and its full of milk. Milk is a good growth medium for bacteria - both good ones and bad ones and if there werent these special lactic acid bacteria there disease causing organisms form the outside could cause mastitis which is an inflammation of the utter. Actually, the same things happens in women. Before antibiotics and sulfur drugs were invented (you know, penicillin) milk fever or breast infections killed almost as many women as child birth.

In nature everything has its own special little niche. In cows, the bacteria that live in the milk ducts have their own little capacity - they are very good at fermenting lactose which is the sugar in milk and converting it into lactic acid. They create an acid environment in that duct which is so acid that nothing else except them can live there. They not only produce lactic acid, they are also immune to it. So they basically pickle the last few droplets of milk and make it inhospitable to the bacteria that can cause infection.

Its really an extension of the cows immune system. Its a beautiful system and unfortunately, if the cow does get sick and you give it antibiotics it not only kills the bad bacteria, it kills the good ones and they lose that extra protection and then they can keep getting sick more easily. Its really important to prevent the cows from getting sick.

Have you met Eeoyre? Eeyore almost died last year. She is this pathetic cow - we named here Eeyore so you can imagine what she must have looked like. After she calved (had a baby) she got very sick and she would have died if we didnt give her antibiotics so we did - I dont want to let her die. And then we were very careful that she didnt get sick. After she milked Id actually dip her utter into whey to get the bacteria back in there.

So, the bacteria that cheese is made of is actually native to the utters of cows.

Back to the process:

We cooled down the evening milk in the big cheese vat.

The reason we cooled down the milk to 72 degrees is because those bacteria ferment milk very rapidly at 98 degrees and we dont want the milk to get too sour overnight. When we cool it down to 72 degrees those bacteria ferment a lot slower. We want to the milk to ripen slowly. Things that happen too fast in nature - well, if they are moving quickly they tend to go too fast.

So we flood the jacket or outer shell of the vat with water to cool it down

We can also fill it with steam to heat it up. So...the evening milk gets cooled down and we add the whey to it and let it sit overnight.

By the morning this cool evening milk has soured just a bit - not too much we then milk the cows again and this 98degree sweet milk gets mixed with the cool somewhat sour 72 degree evening milk and the temperature warms up. Plus weve added all this new lactose. About 1/3 of the lactose from the evening milk has been fermented out so the bacteria start slowing down a bit but when they get this new feeding of fresh sweet milk they get warmed up and begin to ferment really rapidly. We like that. We want it to ferment slowly overnight and in the morning we want it to ferment quickly. Sometimes in the morning well even add some steam to warm it back up. Once the morning is in there with the even milk well heat it up to 82degree just to get the fermentation process really moving then we add rennet which is an enzyme which is also form the cow - from the stomach of cows (one shot glass full for about 50 gallons of milk. The rennet helps the milk to coagulate. It forms a curd like jello.

We then cut the curd using a big stainless steel fringe with very thin wires. It cuts the curd like a very big egg slicer then we cut it in the other direction so it forms little cubes. So far everything weve talked about is the same for all cheeses. Before we start doing anything else we pull out a few cups of whey to start the next evenings production. Thats an important step. If you forget to do that youve blown it. I actually keep some frozen just in case we forget.

You need that whey. You cant make cheese without it.

Now, if we are making a big wheel of cheese like the Jean Louis, we then have to stir the curd, warm it and get it to shrink down fairly dry before we put it into the molds.

If were making the little half pound little pyramid cheeses we dont have to stir it at all. As soon as we cut the curd we begin taking the very wet drippy curd and putting it in the molds.

From the cutting of the curd on the process depends on which style of cheese were making. Stirred or not stirred. Drained or not drained.

They then get put into molds, the whey drains out and the curds sit in the mold all night. From 100 pounds of milk we can make about 12 pounds of cheese. Milk is mostly water. Our milk is about 4 1/2% fat, about 4% protein and 3-4%lactose. The rest is all water and some vitamins. Cheese is only 20% water. Milk is 4% protein and cheese is 40% protein so there is your 10 to 1 ratio. 10 pounds of milk to make 1 pound of cheese. We actually do a little bit better. We get almost 12% yield because our cows only eat grass and because they are extremely healthy we get a higher percentage of cheese from the same amount of milk.

We get less milk because they only eat grass. But we get more cheese per pound of milk And its better milk. And better cheese because the cows are eating what nature meant for them to eat. If we gave our cows grain, within one week Id have twice as much milk from them. And a week later two or three of them would be on antibiotics. Theyd get mastitis from producing too much milk and most cows in America - 99% of them are fed grain because it stimulates more milk production but its sort of like eating Snickers bars to give you more energy. It works in the short term but pretty soon you hit the wall.

So by giving them only grass we get half as much milk but the other big difference is the average cow that eats grain - a calf is born ...when they are a year old they are bred and when they are about two years old their first calf is born and they begin making milk. A year later they are bred again and they give another year of milk. The average grain fed cow gives 2 1/2 years of milk. By the time they are 4 1/2 most of them are shipped to McDonalds.

Grazers, people like me who graze their cows, can typically get 14 years out of a cow.

No McDonalds?

No. Since we arent feeding them grain and they start giving us less milk each year we dont care. Were not buying grain to feed them. Eeyore is like family and I dont think we could ever eat her but we do eat the meat. We eat the boys mostly. There is no place here for mature bulls - theyd be a danger so by the time they are 3 months old they are either veal or we make them into steer. If they are allowed to mature even up to 6 months old, they become very dangerous to handle. Right now we have seven heifer calves and four steer - those are castrated bulls who will live for 3 1/2 years instead of 3 months. Its a Faustian bargain. So they just like to hang out, put on weight and in 3 1/2 years theyll be beef. So, we try not to fall in love with the boys.

What are some of the new developments in your field of science?

Most of the new developments in cheese making are in discovering the old ways. All the new stuff makes Velveeta. Everything new and improved in the 20th century had to do with figuring out how to get more milk out of the same cows. Weve already decided that thats just not a good idea. Or figuring out faster, cheaper ways to turn milk into cheese. Where my process takes 2-12 months to make cheese the mozzarella plant up the road in Goshen takes 20-30 minutes. They can make a lot of money that way. A tank truck pulls up in the morning with a tank full of milk and later that day a trailer truck pulls away full of mozzarella and it goes to market. I have to keep it around for somewhere up towards a year. So from a business point what they are doing makes a lot of sense but it doesnt make interesting cheese. Mozzarella is ok - but there is more to life than pizza.

How do you feel about the new developments?

New developments both in Dairy Science and the animal end have been in the wrong direction. I think whats happened is that now that so many farms have gone out of business because using grain costs a lot of money and its not very profitable, there is a new and growing interest in doing it the old way which is cows outside eating grass. 50 years ago every body laughed at the Amish men out there with his mule, the fact is that the Amish are making money. Now people are realizing that the old ways are valuable. Unfortunately, the people that teach agricultural sciences at the big universities havent figured it out yet. Ive had visits from places like Cornell and Rutgers and they come and they see what I do and they say Oh, Ill send my students here if they want to learn about dairy history but I tell them that I dont think this is dairy history, I think this is dairy future that were doing here. Sometimes the academics are the last ones to figure it out.

What is the best or worst part of your job?

The Best part of my job is the fact that Im producing something that brings other people happiness. The worst part - the winter. We dont make cheese in the winter. When the grass is gone we dry off the cows. We stop milking them. From Nov to march there is no cheese to make which is too bad because I love making cheese. Its just feeding the cows, keeping them from freezing, keeping things moving, keeping the pipes from freezing... The winters here are kind of hard.

Any Unusual Experiments or Experiences?

Yes, there is something Im trying. There is an old method that they used to practice in the abbeys in Europe mostly in Belgium . Remember I said we age cheeses from 2-12 months? Well, during that aging period you can wash cheeses with beer or ale and it changes the way they ripen. Specifically there are two things in beer that affect the aging of the cheese 1.) alcohol 2. hops which are flowers that grow on a vine that sort of looks like a grape vine - in fact they grow wild around here you - youve probably seen it and maybe not realized it. Smaller leaf that the grape leaf

Hop flowers have a bitterness - beer has a characteristic aroma and a biter flavor that comes from hops. The reason that hops are added to beer is as a preservative to keep it from going bad - from growing moldy. Hops inhibit the growth of mold. Alcohol also inhibits the growth of mold - and our cheeses are covered with mold - even from 3 weeks. So if you wash the cheese with beer the alchohol and the hops suppress the mold and instead encourage the growth of wild yeast and some beneficial bacteria on the surface of the cheese. Instead of the cheese getting a white downy rind it gets a red kind of smeary rind from this yeast and bacterial ferment and it gives the cheese a fairly strong aroma and fairly unpleasant one. Limburger all have that same reddish, smeary, bacterial rind but actually the stinker a cheese is, usually the tastier the cheese is. If you can get it past your nose. Ive been washing cheese with ale in 2001 and I did it again this spring and Ive just started again. Its really fascinating because its another whole dimension in the ripening process.

After 14 years Im still learning and experimenting using milk, bacteria, rennet and salt and time. A lot of my cheeses have a lot of complex spicy flavors but they are not from spices. The are right from the milk and the grass. to me that is the exciting part. Out of sweet bland milk we can make all these sophisticated, exciting flavors.


Have you have any unusual or exciting experiences?

The most unusual and exciting thing that has happened to me as a cheese maker was in 2001 I was sent to Tibet to teach cheese making to the nomadic yak herders. That was pretty fascinating. In Tibet they had never made cheese because historically the reason civilizations developed cheese was because there is too much milk in the spring and not enough in the winter. If you could figure out a way to store the surplus from May to eat in February youre more likely to pass your genes on to a new generation - it becomes a Darwinian thing.

Have you read The Long Winter - by Laura Ingles Wilder? Well in that book they almost starved. The fact is in subsistence farming starving to death is always a possibility and that book only took place 100 years ago. Starving to death isnt very common in America but it is in other countries.

In Tibet they didnt need a method of storing the protein. On the Tibetan plateau at 14000 feet theres only 100 days of grass in the summer and the other 265 days are the worst winter you could possibly imagine. Now, the Tibetan people have been herding Yak which is a smallish cows with very long hair, for between 10000 to 40000 years. (In Chinese the characters for cromagnum are the characters for Yak Herder)

For 100 days the yak gorge themselves on grass and produce a really rich milk but for the rest of the year they cant eat and they starve to death and then the Tibetans eat them. So the Tibetans have more protein than they can use in the winter but a starved to death animal while it has plenty of protein, has very little fat. There is no fat left. They burned all their body fat by the time they die. So the Tibetans needed a way to store fat for the winter - not protein.

I was sent over there to help them develop a way to make cheese hopefully to sell and make money - they need the money for shoes. It was fascinating because I got to reinvent cheese in an entirely different environment from an from a totally different animal and secondly I got to see a really ancient farming culture. People, especially modern American dairy farmers, ask me whered you learn how to dairy farm? because what Im doing seems pretty crazy to them. But I tell them what Ive learned is a combination of what I learned from some grazers from New Zealand, Amish friends in Pennsylvania and Tibetan Yakers.

Is there anything else you would like my class to know about your field of science?

These days going into agriculture is probably at the bottom of everybodys list of what they want to be when they grow up. Id like to suggest that if you dont like the way agriculture is, you can reinvent it. Those are the people we need to go into farming. The adventurers who are willing to reinvent it. If you want to farm the way your grand pop did, well, I dont know. Those days are gone. What we need are new young farmers who can look around and be willing to change things because if we dont, theres not going to be food in the future. The big mass production methods are all ecologically doomed.

What is your favorite kind of cheese?

Thats like asking me which one of my children do I love the most:)

I think the Jean Louis is my favorite right now - but Elwash cheese when its ready - that will be my favorite 

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