Willapa Hills Farmstead Cheese
One of the many reasons I love being the Market Manager at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market is that every year I get to go on farm visits. Not long ago, I decided to get out of town for a few days and visit a number of HFM vendors along the way.
Over the course of three days, my friend Madhu (the photographer) and I visited six locations in SW Washington and Oregon.
We started out on a sunny Sunday morning after sleeping on a bed of hemlock boughs at a friend’s property in Kalama, Washington. With just a few kinks in my neck and smelling like a campfire, I felt almost ready for the sheep farm. Two cups of coffee later we were in a Zipcar Prius, headed towards I-5N.
La Ferme de Metras, home to Willapa Hills Farmstead Cheese, is located in Doty, Washington, along Highway 6, just west of the old-growth forest laden Rainbow Falls State Park and about 15 miles west of Chehalis. Willapa Hills Farmstead Cheese is one of my favorite new vendors at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market. The cheese is made by Amy Turnbull and Stephen Hueffed who bought the farm in July of 2005. They knew they wanted to raise their family on a farm and they knew they wanted to make cheese. So when the opportunity presented itself, they took it. With 150 acres spanning both sides of the Chehalis River, La Ferme de Metras is a picture-perfect setting for a family farm.
After getting only slightly lost, we drove down a long gravel driveway and in both directions saw herds of sheep in the distance. We came upon a rather large and magnificent barn next to an unassuming house. Kids toys were spread about the driveway and there appeared to be an industrial-sized refrigerator being built in the garage. We were definitely in the right place.
Amy Turnbull, one of the owners and cheesemakers of Willapa Hills and mother of three, came out to meet us as we pulled up. She explained that the cheesemaking needs have finally crept over to the house and they are building a larger aging room as they outgrow the one in the barn.
We started out with a trip to the milking room, which is no longer being used for the year. Sheep milk production is truly seasonal. Lambing season for La Ferme de Metras was in March and by mid-August the ewes’ milk production had dropped from 50 gallons a day down to 10 gallons. Sheep produce far less milk than their bovine counterparts, but the fat content is higher which is why you’ll find some of the creamiest and most tender cheeses come from sheep milk. This year the folks at Willapa Hills milked just under 100 ewes twice a day and hope to milk around 150 ewes in 2010.
Next we put on plastic booties to keep from contaminating the cheese room and entered one of the cleanest rooms I’d been in, ever. There were rounds of fresh cheese, vats for boiling the milk, vats for holding the milk, molds for the cheeses, and dozens of other contraptions that all have very specific uses in the art of making sheep milk cheese. The cheese room is where the magic happens and it was the place we had been waiting for. Or so we thought until we saw the aging room.
Shelves and shelves of cheese at various stages in the aging process sat before me as my mind began to swirl. It was hard to wonder why Amy and Stephen had left Seattle to start this farm with such treasures before my eyes. In addition to their 100% sheep milk blues, they have a couple of cow/sheep milk blends and source the cow milk from a dairy just down the road. At the Hollywood Farmers’ Market, you will currently find the Little Boy Blue, Two Faced Blue, and Ewe Moon Blue cheeses along with fresh sheep milk cheese and yoghurt cheese available for your eating pleasure.
After longingly gazing at the aging room for an embarrassing amount of time, we slowly left and headed out toward the fields. We were going to visit the lambs! To protect the livestock, the farm has Maremmas – Italian sheep dogs – that look like large, overgrown sheep from a distance. These beastly animals guard the sheep 24/7 and wag their tails, too! The lambs had aged to the point where they no longer looked like pictures from a storybook, but it was great to see them nonetheless. During lambing season, each lamb is marked with a tag to differentiate the males from the females. The males will get sold, processed, and, well, eaten. The female lambs eventually join the herd of ewes and add to the milk production the following year.
Our visit to Willapa Hills Farmstead Cheeses ended with us asking about on-farm sales. We left with grins on our faces and a nice wedge of Ewe Moon Blue in the cooler. Headed west to the coast for our next destination we soon saw the water from Willapa Bay sparkling in the sun and I asked Madhu if he thought he could reach the knife and loaf of crusty bread I’d brought along with Willapa Hills Farmstead Cheese in mind. He suggested we pull over for safety reasons. Smart guy, that one.
For more information on Willapa Hills Farmstead Cheese please visit their website.
Written by Sarah Broderick, HFM Market Manager, 2009