Gianaclis Caldwell makes aged cheese from the milk of her Nigerian Dwarf goats. She lives in Oregon, on a 23-acre, off-the-grid farm. She has critically acclaimed cheeses, a whole lot to say about the business of making and selling your own cheese, and a new book called The Farmstead Creamery Advisor. And there’s never been a better time to be making and selling great cheese, according to her. But how does one become a cheesemaker? How do you not drown in debt? How do you learn to love a goat? How do you wake up every morning at the crack of dawn, without a break? Gianaclis Caldwell is a rockstar, as far as cheesemakers go. She’s a tenacious farmer. And mother to a teenage daughter. And an artist. She does it all, and manages to make it work with a sense of humor to boot. Find out how she (and other small farmers like her) operate in the wild world of artisanal farmstead cheese.
Makenna Goodman: As a respected cheesemaker, instructor, and speaker — what do you think is the current state of the cheese world?
Gianaclis Caldwell: Amazingly, the boundaries continue to expand, both in respect to the opportunities and in the quality of artisanal farmstead cheese being produced. When we got started there were just a few articles and news events that showcases handmade, small production cheeses, but now cheese is everywhere! I mean, when Wine Spectator magazine puts cheese on its cover and devotes a “top 100” list to it, you know that cheese is taking it’s rightful place in the world of fine food. I am so privileged to be a part of this generation of cheesemakers!
MG: What drew you to become a small-scale farmstead cheesemaker?
GC: Our story is fairly typical; involving a 4-H project gone wild, on obsession with cheese, and a desire to move “back to the farm”. Vern, my husband, spent 25 years in the Marine Corps (I usually say “we spent” 25 years!) so during that time, I was a bit of a closet farm girl. I enjoyed some of our more metropolitan living, but I was always wanting to get back to my roots- milking, growing, and making food from the bounty of your own land. Once Vern’s retirement loomed, we knew we could move back to some family land and when the goats and cheese came into our lives, it just seemed like the right path to pursue. Who knew our timing would be so ideal? We sure didn’t, but are very excited to be where we are today.
MG: Why goats?
GC: I was originally a “cow-girl”, but when looking into getting cows again for milk for our family and a livestock project for our youngest daughter, it became evident that their scale, impact on the land, and volume of milk would be inappropriate for our lives at that time. Amelia, our daughter, and I became intrigued by the Nigerian Dwarf Dairy goat—a small breed that even a child of her age could handle easily. Once you get to know goats, at least for us, it would be hard to go back to cows, in fact, I have a saying that is modeled after the old standby of “Goats are the poor man’s cow.” Mine is “Cows are the unenlightened man’s goat.”
MG: What is a normal day like for you?
GC: Boy, this time of year (kidding season) there is no normal day, just normal chores that we try to accomplish and stay sane! Last night, for example, I got about one hour of sleep (from 4-5) and had to get back up to start the morning chores. We have our down times, though, and moments in the day that we set aside to catch our breaths and appreciate what this life has brought to us. But most days we are up at 5:00 for coffee and tea then out to milk and feed at 6:00. Cheese is made 2-3 times a week, with the following day being clean up and packaging. Baby feeding takes place 3 x a day during the spring. Office work takes up more time than I would like, about 10 hours a week- answering emails, invoicing, updating the website, etc. Other chores that occur daily are pen cleaning, taking the goats for a hike, and property maintenance. We milk and feed again at 6 in the evening. We are real wimps about staying up late (even before we had a farm), so we try to be in bed by 9PM. All in all, not very glamorous!
MG: Besides making cheese, what do you love to do?
GC: Well, writing books, for one thing! I am working on a second one, although during kidding season all of that work stops. Before starting on this career, I did art as my main life pursuit- I made large mixed media and installation art pieces. I used to love to ride horses and still have a gorgeous saddle mule that I hope to get back to, but it becomes difficult to take time out for things that don’t relate to promoting our business and securing our future. That is something I didn’t realize would happen—giving up other passions to this extent.
MG: Your book, The Farmstead Creamery Advisor, is referred to as an “essential guide for anyone starting a farmstead dairy,” according to readers. What would you tell an aspiring cheesemaker, who’s still in the idea stage?
GC: To do their research to the extent that the romance of the idea is completely wiped away. Then if they still want to do it, it might be a good idea. Honestly, for most of us this does start out as a bit of a “oh what a wonderful, wholesome life that would be!” kind of prospect, but there are trials and difficulties that are almost impossible to adequately share with anyone considering doing this full time. I think it is like most things in life, only when you experience something yourself do you fully appreciate it.
MG: Many farmers have their own “system”, or wisdom gained from experience. Do you have any particularly useful tricks of the trade you’d share with other cheesemakers?
GC: I believe we do, and hope that they are shared well in the book, but probably the most important thing I can pass on (other than finding ways to make the work load sustainable) is to never let your guard down on quality—both from the standpoint of safety and of sensory. If you can maintain a high alert level in both of these areas- meaning you continue to educate yourself, challenge your palate, and pursue excellence, then you will not only survive as a business, but thrive.
Yiamas! (Gianaclis taught me that word means “cheers,” in Greek.)
Makenna Goodman is Assistant Editor at Chelsea Green Publishing, the publisher of Caldwell’s book, which is now available here.