You might expect to find a dairy farm in Lister, a sleepy hamlet in the pastoral Creston Valley. It seems fitting that Mountain Valley Dairy uses a centuries old method of cheese making that evokes “taste of place”. As with chocolate and good wine, you can almost taste the Kootenay mountain air, fresh pasture grasses and the fertile soil – a reflection of the landscape, life and culture – as their web site says. But what is unexpected, at least it was surprising to me, was to discover that these artisan cheesemakers use very advanced, sustainable technology to make their cheeses. But of course it all begins with the cows.
Nearly two decades ago, owners Denise and Wayne Harris took over the conventional dairy farm from Wayne’s parents and gradually converted it to organic. Now they lovingly tend their certified organic herd of about 80 dairy cows, mostly Holstein, the cheery black and white ones with a few Swedish Red, Guernsey and Normande (a good breed for French cheese). They used to have Holsteins exclusively, but their three kids were in 4-H Club and had an influence on their herd.
“Our youngest daughter wanted something different, something more colourful,” said Denise. So they bought her a golden white Guernsey. Thus began their foray into a more colourful herd – the diversity and cross-breeding ultimately make for better cheeses. There are seven Guernseys now. As for the daughter – she’s completing a degree in organic agriculture at the University of Guelph.
“From April to October, they’re intensely grazing,” said Wayne, “We move them to a fresh paddock every 12 hours.”
The lush summer grasses make for the sweetest, nutrient rich raw organic milk from which most of their cheese is made. It’s common to graze dairy cattle in New Zealand and Ireland according to Wayne, but not here. In winter, the cows are fed homegrown hay, silage and grain in a cozy barn. And these well tended cows are indeed healthy cows – their feet tell the story.
“When the hoof trimmer comes, he always comments on how healthy the cows hooves are,” says Wayne. “We have fewer health issues because the cows get exercise and they have healthier feet when they are on dirt and grass.”
The cows are milked twice a day by machine in a “double six parlour”. It takes about two hours to milk the entire herd. And here’s where the contrast with ancient and new methods comes in. The fresh milk is piped directly from the milking parlour into a cone-shaped, cheese-making vat by gravity feed, so no gas guzzling, greenhouse gas producing transportation there. A lot of hot water is used in the cheese making process, accounting for 90% of a cheese plant’s energy needs. The Mountain Valley fromagerie uses solar power to heat 70% of the water they use instead. Composted cow manure and cheese whey fertilizes the grain and other crops that they grow.
The actual cheese making begins within a few hours of milking. Denise and Wayne use the same recipes and labour intensive methods as traditional French and Italian cheese-makers. The fresh cheese is moved to specially designed, geo-thermal aging caves; the temperature is maintained by circulating well water that is later reused for irrigating the fields. During the 60 days of aging, the cheese develops its rich, complex flavours. The wheels are turned and rubbed so that a natural rind forms.
Their raw milk organic cheeses are marketed under the Kootenay Alpine Cheese Company brand and sold throughout BC and in fact across the country. The line includes Nostrala, a firm cheese with mild earthy notes (think Italian Fontina); Mountain Grana, a hard, extra-aged cheese with a dense grainy texture (think Parmigiano Reggiano); and Alpindon, their premium reserve cheese, firm and nutty (think Beaufort d’Alpage).
Mountain Valley Dairy Farm, about 450 acres in total, is certified with Pacific Agricultural Certification Society. They are also members of the Kootenay Local Agricultural Society whose mandate is to foster local, sustainable agriculture. Visitors are invited to meet the cows in the barns and sample the cheeses in the farm shop attached to the fromagerie. I plan to do all of the above the next time I’m in the Kootenays. In the meantime, I’m off to Les Amis du Fromages, my neighbourhood cheese shop. Rumour has it they carry Kootenay Alpine cheeses.
This article first appeared in the summer 2010 issue of BC Organic Grower.