Across the mountains in Preston County, on the windy hills of Terra Alta, a herd of Jersey cows graze on lush green grass. Twice a day, the cows are milked, then turned out to fresh pasture—and that’s when the real work begins.
About a mile down the road, at Green Glades Creamery, Ben and Callee Walsh are turning milk into award-winning cheese. The young entrepreneurs are West Virginia’s only farmstead cheese-makers, which means all of their cheese is made with milk from their own dairy farm. In only two years of operation, they’ve garnered international attention—winning two medals at the World Jersey Cheese Awards in 2012. Even more impressive is the fact that the pair didn’t have any experience making cheese before they opened the creamery.
The couple didn’t have much experience in dairy farming either, but that didn’t stop them from learning and starting their own farm, Green Glades Dairy. Ben discovered his interest as an intern at a Pennsylvania dairy farm when he was studying at West Virginia University — where he also met Callee.
“The dairy farming was Ben’s thing,” says Callee. In fact, when the farm opened in 2003, Callee was working on her master’s degree at Cornell University. “Ben started the dairy farm while I was in graduate school in New York. Once I came back to West Virginia, we were married and then farmed together,” she says.
Ben started the farm in Terra Alta, Callee’s hometown and where her parents still farm. Back then they had just 36 Jersey cows—now they have more than 80. The couple built up their herd and sold milk to United Dairy, while searching for other ways to use their milk. Because of the high fat content of milk from Jersey cows, cheese was a perfect avenue for experimentation. They spent years researching and took classes at The Ohio State University and the University of Wisconsin. In 2011, they opened Green Glades Creamery. “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and working with food and experimenting with food, so I was into it right away,” Callee says. “It seemed like a nice way to make use of our unique milk.”
In summer 2011, the Walshes won the New Entrepreneur Award in the State Fair of West Virginia’s Recipe Challenge and $10,000 in prizes. The competition is nationally recognized for helping new food entrepreneurs launch their products and get them in restaurants and grocery stores across the state. “We’d only been making cheeses for about six weeks at that point,” Ben laughs.
Soon, the creamery’s cheese was popping up in local restaurants like Richwood Grill and Madeleine’s and food markets like The Wild Ramp in Huntington and in Morgantown’s Mountain People’s Co-Op. Green Glades even made an appearance at the Cast Iron Cook-Off, where some competing chefs used the Preston County cheeses in their recipes. Ben and Callee are regular vendors at the Morgantown Farmers’ Market and also sell products online through Mountaineer Country Farmers Market.
Though they can produce up to 100 pounds of cheese a day, they often sell out of their most popular products. The business began in a small building in the couple’s backyard, but in spring 2013, Ben and Callee began construction on a new aging facility so they could make and store even more cheese. The new facility will allow them to add to the five varieties they make now—mozzarella, feta, havarti, cheddar, and farmstead spreadable cheese. They also sell cheddar curds, a byproduct of the cheese-making process.
When coming up with recipes, Ben and Callee relied heavily on The Cheesemaker’s Manual, a book by renowned cheese-maker Margaret Morris. “We got basic recipes from there, cook times, type of culture, and temperatures,” says Callee. “From there, we experimented.” Since the birth of their daughter Vada, Callee has taken a step back from the production end to focus on brainstorming new flavors, markets, and ideas. Although she works full-time as a scientist at Protea Biosciences in Morgantown, she still manages quality control for the creamery.
Ben handles the farm’s day-to-day production and management, with only one other employee on staff. “We’re fortunate to have good help on the farm, but I’m lucky to have a 12-hour day,” he says. Still, when Ben goes to the creamery, he says it’s like vacation.
The basic process for making cheese involves pasteurizing, culturing, coagulation, cooking, draining, and aging. Cheeses like cheddar and havarti need to age at least one month after they’ve been pressed into hoops—which shape and mold the cheese—and feta soaks in a brine after it comes out of hoops. Mozzarella goes through a different process, getting stretched and molded in a machine imported from Italy solely for that purpose.
One of Green Glades’ top sellers is feta with kalamata olives, and the creamery’s spreadable cheeses are so popular that Mountain People’s Co-Op can barely keep them on shelves. The cheeses are tangy, creamy, and incredibly fresh, typically sold within three days of being made. Fortunately, the spreadable cheeses are easier to make, allowing Ben and Callee to experiment with flavors like chive and onion and hot pepper. When the new aging facility is complete, the couple plans to add sharp cheddar and more varieties of mozzarella to their list of products, as well as an even more flavorful havarti.
Like wine, a cheese’s flavor changes over time, becoming more concentrated and intense, but the most important factor in flavor is the quality of milk used to make it. At Green Glades Creamery, that means All-Jersey milk. Jersey cows are the most efficient in the world—they produce milk that’s richer in protein and calcium than other varieties, and they do it with a 20 percent lower carbon footprint than the average cow. An average Jersey can produce about twice her body weight in cheddar cheese yearly. Ben and Callee’s commitment to sustainability and quality makes Green Glades unique and extends throughout their farming and cheese-making practice. They feed unwanted whey and unsold cheese to their hogs, and their cows graze on fresh pastures after each milking. “What the cows eat can flavor the cheese,” says Ben, adding that in summer months, he scours the pastures for things like wild onions, which can create unappetizing flavors.
During winter, when things slow down, Ben travels the state looking for more venues for Green Glades cheese. He and Callee hope to expand their market to the Washington, D.C., area, as well as get their cheese to more West Virginians. “We think people in West Virginia deserve good food,” Ben says. “Our goal is to produce a high quality, nutritious product for local distribution.”
For more information on Green Glades Creamery call 304.789.6511 or go to: www.facebook.com/greengladescreamery
By Elizabeth Roth