Today's consumers don't usually see their food sources. At Sweetwater Valley Farm, producer of homestead cheddar cheeses in Philadelphia, Tenn., the retail store is next to pastures, barns, and silos. I heard the plaintive mooing of a calf. All else was quiet—evidence, perhaps, of the pampered state of the farm's cows.
Owner John Harrison grew up on a dairy farm in Loudon County. Milk—around 18 million pounds a year—is his primary business. To build his business and "do something different," Harrison began making cheese in 1998, an operation that produces 2.5 million pounds of cheese annually. That's a lot of milk, a lot of cheese, and a lot of cows.
Office manager Nancy Nix, who took me on a rare behind-the-scenes tour, described the farm's goal as "keeping the cows as healthy and content as possible." Climate-controlled barns, clean stalls, feed developed in consultation with a nutritionist, and a hoof-trimming area referred to as the "pedicure table" contribute to the comfort of the Holsteins.
Not counting the incredibly cute calves, cows with "special needs," and moms on "maternity leave," about 700 cows are milked three times daily. If your notion of milking involves buckets, stools, and a pair of hands, the ID bands and keypads of a modern computerized milking operation will astound you.
At Sweetwater Valley, it takes about five minutes to milk 24 cows. The milking equipment automatically detaches. Upon the raising of a bar at the back of the milking stall, each cow steps backwards in a bovine ballet of remarkable unison to make room for the next group that moves into place with the same precision. One poor cow moved sideways instead of backwards; it stood out like the tuba player in the marching band who turns in the wrong direction during the half-time show.
Cheese is not made every day, so call (865-458-9192) if you want to watch part of the all-day process, which takes place behind a glass wall in the store. If you miss the cheese-making, you can learn about the process by watching the in-store video, "Say Cheese!" From the video, I learned that in the days before refrigeration, cheese was made in order to save unused milk—a delicacy born of the desire to conserve. Other forms of conservation are evident at Sweetwater Valley. Winter crops prevent soil erosion; recycled tires cover trench silos.
Sweetwater Valley Farm cheese is available in area markets, but a larger variety is found at the retail store in Philadelphia and online at sweetwatervalley.com. Ranging from traditional aged yellow cheddar to tangy buttermilk cheddar to fiery fiesta laced with jalapeno peppers, there is a cheese for every taste. All the cheeses are aged six-12 months, but the reserve cheddars are aged for years. The 2000 reserve is sharp and crumbly, too good to be eaten any way except by itself.
If you follow the news, you are aware that Sweetwater Valley cheese was subject to a recent recall. When informed of a problem discovered in a random sample, Harrison called for a quick voluntary recall: "We found out about it on Friday, and we got it out by Saturday." Thankful that no one got sick, Harrison says "everyone worked well together" and "we've been able to make changes to lessen the likelihood of anything happening down the road." Coming as it did, just before the holidays when maintaining sufficient inventory is already a struggle, the recall was an added challenge, but Harrison says "we chose to address it and move on."
At Sweetwater Valley, spring is approaching. Green grasses are coming up in the pasture. A new generation of milk-producing cows is being weaned and socialized in the pens between the barn and the store. Cheese-making equipment is being readied. In a world of mass production with little care for quality, Sweetwater Valley Farm is a model of good stewardship.