The more I get to know the farmers from whom I buy food, and the more I learn about their lifestyle and livelihood, the more curious I have become about who these devoted, disciplined and hearty people are. How they have come to take up their trade and what spurs on their hard work, in spite of tough labor, long hours and too often minimal profits. Critical to most community’s access to wholesome, chemical free foods, I want to know: What motivates these admirable farmers and artisans? Is it a labor of love, or maybe dogma? Or are the motives less lofty and more circumstance based? In this case I’ve been mining this theme with the Koons family, namely Linnea and her mother Jean.
Jean has been making cheese for many years and officially opened the Kennebec Cheesery six years ago. For much of that time Jean was making cheese on her own with occasional help from her husband and two sons, as well as Linnea and eventually a couple employees. But it was only earlier this year that Linnea and her husband James moved to the family farm in Maine so that Linnea could join forces with her mum full-time.
Here’s where it gets interesting: Linnea studied at Cornell University and has a degree in Earth Sciences (similar to her father, Peter, who’s a professor of geophysics). While living in Boston for a number of years, Linnea worked for various research projects, including at M.I.T., and considered pursuing her PhD.
Her husband James has a small business of his own. He’s the founder of Embrocation Cycle Journal, an artful magazine and shop specializing in all things related to professional cycling. On that note, the couple are both professional cyclists. To sum it up: Linnea and James are a highly educated, metropolitan couple. So how did they decide to return to the country and how did Linnea decide to pursue cheese making rather than a PhD?
In discussing it with Linnea, I tried my best to pinpoint some revelation, some remarkable event, an ‘aha’ moment, something really juicy to report for why they chose to move to the farm – but alas, it was simple. Linnea and James wanted the peace of rural living to be a daily experience, and after getting fed up with the competitive and stressful environment at M.I.T., Linnea naturally gravitated towards working with her mum, and intends to stick with it. There was no meltdown, dramatic exodus or ideological dogma, just a decision to return to a healthier environment.
Linnea points out that in part this was an easy decision for her since she comes from a long line of farmers: Jean grew up on a 1,000 acre farm in New Zealand and grandpa (Linnea’s mum’s dad) on a whopping 16,000 acres of farmland. Linnea herself was raised on a smaller farm in New Zealand – mostly a hobby farm that didn’t draw much of an income. This farm included a small heard of sheep for wool and meat, a few goats and a couple cows.
The land the Koons have now, near Augusta, Maine, is where Linnea’s father grew up and has been in her family for over 45 years. Although this land wasn’t actively farmed by Linnea’s grandfather, since their return to the United States 12 years ago, the Koons have been using the land to raise goats, sheep, to grow much of their own food, and of course for the cheesery.
Working on the farm with family means enjoying both a greater sense of security and self-responsibility. A day on the farm may include some hard work, but stress and anxiety go way down compared to that of most cubicle occupations. There are many other perks, like working in a beautiful enlivening environment, working at your own pace, having the freedom to be more creative, to work a variety of tasks and enjoy the satisfaction of physical labor – that’s right – there is a certain kind of fulfillment gained from accomplishing physical (as opposed to virtual) tasks.
A typical day for Linnea goes something like this: during the Summer there may be a lunch time swim in the lake that borders the Koons’ property, some cheese labeling, cheese making, cheese packing, goat herding, marketing, food styling. Some days she may rise at 5 am, in particular on the days that she goes to the Farmer’s Market (typically two to three days per week). There are many nights when she’s in the cheesery working away until 9 pm or later, but there are also days that are more relaxed with big dinners and family gatherings, cycling and enjoying of the outdoors. Basically a healthy smattering of meditative work, discipline, play and room to breathe – fresh air at that.
This is the crux of why Linnea chooses to farm.
As for the cheese, all Kennebec cheeses are made in small batches – a maximum 25 gallons of milk at a time from their 35 milking goats. As they have no way of storing milk for more than a day, the cheese making commences daily. Aside from the milking goats there are a bunch of sheep, 15 non-milking goats, and a cat.
Here’s how my two favorite Kennebec Cheeses are made:
Chèvre – heat treat milk; cool it down to 75-80°; add culture and rennet and then let it sit for ~24hrs in the kettle. The next day, scoop curd into moulds; day 3 flip chevre in moulds; day 4 salt and move to fridge; day 5 roll in herbs and sell at market/stores.
Caerphilly – next year they’ll be using raw milk, but the current process goes like this: heat treat milk; cool it down to 86°; add culture and rennet and let it set up for 1 – 1.5 hours. Cut the curds and reheat with the whey up to 90°. Pour off the whey and form curds into moulds (25 gallons makes 3 wheels).
As the curds are knitting together the cheese is flipped in the moulds to form a more symmetrical wheel. The wheels are pressed overnight with 40lbs and then soaked in brine for several hours. Once taken out of the brine, they are coated with a cream wax and placed in the aging room for 4-6 months.
And if you’re wondering about the use of heated (versus raw) milk, according to Linnea any fresh cheese is required to be either heat treated or pasteurized. ‘Fresh’ means any cheese aged less than 60 days, which most definitely includes Chèvre.
If you’re in Maine, you can find Linnea at the Portland Farmer’s Markets on Wednesday and Saturday, or buy Kennebec Cheeses anytime at Aurora Provisions in Portland. Find out more at the Kennebec Cheesery website.