In 2013, Ashlee Kleinhammer and Steven Googin, began to milk their herd of 19 Shorthorn and Jersey cows at Clover Mead Farm in Keeseville. Committed to keeping their milk local, they set up a creamery and developed farmstead and artisan cheeses as well as three flavors of yogurt made from their own milk. Once established, they added a café to serve simple, delicious meals with ingredients from farms in their thriving local network. Three years later, through Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions, their store and cafe, wholesalers, a web site and Facebook page, community involvement, farmers’ markets, and an annual Cheese Tour, their business is thriving. These thirty-somethings are living the dream: the ability to balance varied projects, make enough money to meet their needs and grow their business, offer nutritious food to the public at supermarket prices, and have time to enjoy the mountains, lakes, forests, and cities that surround this hub of life.
“We are really grateful to be supported by our customer base,” said Kleinhammer. “It would be easier to put our milk on a truck and say goodbye, but that’s not what we want to do. We want to milk our own cows and keep the milk local. We’ve been able to create a community with our employees and customers. It’s great to be able to commune with people with shared values.”
“We enjoy combining life and work,” added Googin. “Keeseville is having a revitalization, and the farms around us are prospering. We’ve decided to take advantage of grant money and assume the mortgage on the farm this year— two years ahead of schedule.”
Kleinhammer and Googin intend to use the grant money from the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program to assist small and beginning farmers) toward a drainage project that will increase pasture quality, and allow them to expand their herd from 22 to 30 cows. In order to accommodate this larger herd, they plan to change their infrastructure from a pit milking parlor to a step-up parlor. By always looking for new ways to market their products, doing research and listening to their customers, the two have been able to respond to the wishes and tastes of their clients while maintaining strict adherence to the principles of sustainable, environmentally friendly agriculture.
They are justifiably proud of their “grassfed” products. Eating grass provides better nutrition for cows by creating proper acidity in the ruminant digestive tract. Corn can’t be broken down by rumen bacteria, and this doesn’t encourage good microbes. When cows eat grass, the yogurt and cheese made from their milk is, not surprisingly, more nutritious and digestible for humans. Another benefit of feeding on grass is that cows eat locally, and are not fed grain transported from the mid- West. Grazing on what naturally grows on the land means Kleinhammer and Googin are not tilling soil, which encourages the proliferation of organic matter and even carbon sequestration.
“Over these last three years, we have expanded our creamery so we can offer pasteurized bottled milk, and increase our yogurt offerings from three flavors to five,” said Kleinhammer. (Due to state law, they can only sell unpasteurized milk from their store.) Googin has also built a cheese cave, and they now offer nine different kinds of cheese.
I was curious about the cheese cave so this self-described “tinkerer” led me down a shady path to this new structure and opened the door to a spotless, climate-controlled room equipped with wooden shelves hold- ing wheels of artisan cheese. “This cave holds 450 wheels,” said Googin, “that is literally a ton (2,000 pounds) of cheese. The shelves are cantilevered (long, projecting beams that are fixed only at one end) so they can be lifted out of the wall and be used to transport several wheels of cheese into the farm store. Wood is important in the shelf construction so the moisture emitted from the cheeses as they age does not get trapped between them and the shelf. They will literally sit in a pool of water if the shelves are not made of an organic mate- rial that allows moisture through.”
Collaboration continues to be another way that the duo expand their business opportunities and keep learning. In their farm store, they offer meat and sausage from the Mace Chasm Farm next door, are members of a CSA that includes Rehoboth Homestead and Fledging Crow, and continue to be members of the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC). In addition, eager to help future farms learn sustainable agriculture, they are part of St. Lawrence University’s Adirondack Program, and are preparing to welcome their second intern for the summer.
“We currently have two year-round employ- ees and we hire three more for the summer,” explained Kleinhammer. “Now that Ausable Brewery is open up the street, we’ve developed four flavors of frozen yogurt (lemon, maple, strawberry, and raspberry) to offer the overflow crowd. We use fruit grown on our farm, and sell a ‘flavor of the week’.”
While the business keeps them at home much of the time, it is a lifestyle Kleinhammer and Googin embrace. They are surrounded by natural beauty, appreciative customers, good friends, and are able to make a living pursuing their dream of a food hub and “agritourist” destination. The owners of the nearby Adirondack Abolitionist Museum are customers and they frequently receive visitors from local tourist attractions such as Ausable Chasm and the Underground Railroad tour. Their products are offered in four Essex County school districts (Elizabethtown, Schroon Lake, Willsboro, and Moriah) and the chef at the Adirondack Medical Center uses their products in patient meals.
As we sat in their café munching on freshly grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches, a steady stream of customers stopped in to pick up their milk, cheese and yogurt orders. “I discovered them when I rode my bike by last year and now I come every week for my favorite maple and lemon yogurt,” said Shawn Turner. “I went on
their first annual Cheese Tour last fall, and will no longer eat anyone else’s yogurt. We come here every weekend to stock up,” said Sue Hutchins. “I can’t wait for the next Cheese Tour!” Although both of these customers live some miles away, they consider it well worth the trip.
As they move into the next stages of life and business, Kleinhammer and Googin plan to keep their herd at a size that allows them the highest quality of life. They are considering opening the farmhouse as a bed and breakfast, and are developing gift baskets with home- made crackers and their yogurt and cheese to offer during the winter months when business slows down. They have a colorful, new logo, have purchased land that came up for sale across the street, and look forward to continuing to live their dream.