Story by Annette Newcomb | Photography by Holly Leitner
When Terry and Denise Woods officially open the doors to the Creamery at Highfield Farm, just south of Lake Geneva, on Memorial Day weekend, they will be the only licensed farmstead artisan cheesemakers in southeastern Wisconsin.
Getting to this point has been a journey that began 30 years ago and has spanned two continents.
“I knew I wanted to get land around me. We were living in Barrington, Illinois, and I wanted to get out of the city,” Terry recalls. “We went to look at a place in Harvard, Illinois but the owner never got back to us. The realtor said, ‘Well, I’ve got this other place a little further north.’”
“I figured we were already in Harvard, so we might as well keep going north,” he says.
That day in the winter of 1984 was unusually warm. It had been a brutal winter with consistent sub-zero temperatures, howling winds and dangerous, sub-zero wind chills. “The day I looked at the farm, in mid-February, it was 62 degrees so I took it as a sign,” explains Terry.
An old adage that says men with vision can look past what is and see what can be, certainly held true for the Woods family that day. Terry recalls, “The house was a shambles. It had been built in 1914 and had been rented for 20 years and not taken care of. The dairy barn was older, built in 1911 and was constructed of heavy post and beam.
There were several outbuildings, all in very poor shape. As we looked over the property, two deer ran across a field. I asked the realtor if he had timed that for us. He said ‘Yes, but there were supposed to be three.’ Either way, we were in … that day we made a deal to rent with the option to buy.”
The idea of making artisan cheese hadn’t yet occurred to Terry or Denise. Their immediate goal was to relocate their family, which included daughter, Aubrey, then 6, to a rural area. The couple met in college and had both grown up in Ohio. He in a rural area, she in the city.
The couple began the job of rehabbing the house and barn and fortifying the buildings they hoped to save on the 120-acre farmstead, now known as Highfield Farm.
AN ENTREPRENEUR FROM THE BEGINNING
Before moving to Wisconsin, Terry had spent years in the computer industry. Self-taught, he launched his first computer company in the 1970s. He and Denise were married in 1974 and four days later moved to Los Angeles. When their daughter was born, the family moved back to the Midwest. “I was afraid her first word was going to be ‘Totally,’” says Terry.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Terry launched and sold several successful computer companies that custom-tailored hardware, developed software and handled interfaces for manufacturers. It was during this period that he got the itch to move back to the country and that’s how the family landed in Wisconsin.
As an avid reader and traveler to Britain, Terry learned about a small cheesemaking operation in the Village of Achmore near Kyle of Lochalsh in the Scottish Highlands. He signed up for a one-week class offered by renowned cheesemaker Kathy Biss, who operates West Highland Dairy. This is where he first started formulating the idea of making farmstead artisan cheese, a process involving milk produced on site and in limited batches.
Upon his return, Terry bought Highfield Farm’s first cow while Denise was away. “That was Sephora,” he says, “followed quickly by Truffle.” The couple first milked the Jerseys by hand, and Terry began educating himself on how to create a creamery, a milking operation and develop a herd of dairy cows.
The easy part was selecting the breed, he explains. Jersey cows produce milk with a high percentage of butterfat and solid content, which has a favorable impact on the flavor of cheese. They are also smaller than the Holstein cows typical of Wisconsin’s dairy farms, and they have a better demeanor.
Terry designed the creamery by using computer software developed for designing homes and he buried himself in books and magazines. He also visited an estimated 23 different creameries in four countries in search of ideas.
First he constructed a two-stanchion milking parlor, which is still in use today as the couple continues to do all the milking themselves.
Terry points out that the milk is gravity fed directly to a vat from the creamery, a short and gentle ride of 30 feet. The cows, now a herd of 12, produce about 40 gallons of milk a day. It takes one gallon of milk to make one pound of cheese, and Terry plans to make 8,000 pounds of cheese annually.
The cows at Highfield Farm are all named and Terry and Denise know each one and its personality. These are no ordinary cows and they live idyllically with full run of the pastures, where they graze on natural, pesticide-free grasses during the warmer months and lounge under the property’s giant oaks to stay cool in the heat the summer. In the winter, during their natural rest period, the herd eats hay. Terry explains this cycle begins at the winter solstice and ends when calves are born in late April or early May when he and Denise resume milking the herd once a day.
LEARNING THE ROPES
Wisconsin is the only state that requires cheesemakers to be licensed to make cheese for public consumption. Terry interned a total of 240 hours under licensed cheesemakers at Cedar Grove Cheese, Upland Dairy and took classes at Babcock Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.
He approached Master Cheesemaker Gary Grosen and asked if he could work with him at UW’s campus dairy facility, while attending class, an inquiry no one had ever expressed. Terry was allowed to finish his apprenticeship under Grosen, and since then, two students a semester are able to work under Grosen’s tutelage.
The Creamery at Highfield Farm has been making cheese since last year. The facility and dairy have had to pass numerous state certifications and inspections just to open its doors. Terry is a certified cheesemaker and Denise is licensed to do antibiotic testing, so the duo is able to handle the workload.
FROM AN ANCIENT RECIPE NEW CHEESES EMERGE
Cheesemaking dates back at least 5,000 years and the basic recipe remains the same. Cheese is made with milk, culture, rennet (enzymes) and salt. How that combination will taste in the end is where the skill and talent come in.
Terry says, “The best milk makes the best cheese,” which is why he is adamant about how the milk is handled at the creamery. “We hand make very small batches of very special cheese,” he says with conviction. The names of the artisan cheese crafted at Highfield Farm pay homage to local landmarks and traditions, such as Shore Path, Pub Crawl, Buttons Bay Blue and The Narrows.
Terry begins the cheesemaking process by pasteurizing the milk with heat, which kills off harmful pathogens and bacteria. He says their Centennial and Geneva Jersey cheese will be offered in both a natural (or unpasteurized form) and pasteurized.
Once pasteurization is completed, the starter culture is added which helps to determine the ultimate flavor and texture for each batch. Next, a milk-clotting enzyme called rennet is added to coagulate the milk, forming a custard-like mass. The mass is carefully cut into small pieces to begin separating the liquid (whey) from the milk solids (curds).
Large curds are cooked at lower temperatures, yielding softer cheeses like Highfield Farms’ Village Square, named after the village square in Walworth. This cheese has a bloomy rind that is velvety and edible, and may range in color from white to golden. It comes in a one-pound square and it ripens from the surface and moves to the interior, so the cheese gets softer as it ages Curds cut smaller, but cooked at higher temperatures make harder cheeses like Highfield Farm’s Centennial or Geneva Jersey cheeses. They will be available as aged and extra aged (over one year) in five or ten pound wheels.
Cheese curds are then direct salted or brine salted, where the cheese is covered in a dry salt and sits for 24 hours before being pressed into individual cheese.
Pressing determines the characteristic shape of the cheese and helps complete the curd formation. Cheeses are pressed three to 12 hours, depending on size.
Affinage or aging is used for most cheeses to help fully develop the flavor and texture. This cheese is moved to what is referred to as a “cave” where humidity and temperature are carefully controlled. For centuries actual caves or caverns were used to age cheese. At Highfield Farm the caves consist of three 8-by-12-foot rooms with heat coils in the flooring and a stainless steel cooling radiator hung from the ceiling. Optimum conditions for aging cheese is 55 degrees and 90 percent humidity.
Aging a cheese lowers its moisture content, making it harder while giving it more time for the bacteria, enzymes or mold to do their work. Highfield Farm’s Buttons Bay Blue and Star Gazer are both blue cheeses. The Buttons Bay Blue is a firmer cheese that will spend more time in the cave to age it longer. Star Gazer, named after Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, is a softer cheese with a higher fat content.
Keeping the creamery and milking parlor clean is the name of the game and Terry keeps both spotless. Walking the short distance from the farmhouse to the creamery, wearing a white T-shirt and pants, he slips off his street shoes and slips on white clogs before entering the creamery.
The red tiled floors with numerous floor drains make for easy clean up and the stainless steel tables and sinks gleam from scrubbing. Radiant heat throughout the facility ensures a consistent temperature inside no matter what the weather is like outdoors.
A wall of glass separates the public area from the cheese production area or the “make room.” The public area will be used as a retail store on Saturdays. The Woods also plan to share their cheesemaking knowledge with a variety of classes open to the public. (See sidebar for more information.)
In addition, the Highfield Farm artisan cheeses will be available for purchase at a number of local shops and restaurants this summer with Terry planning to make deliveries via his restored 1930 Ford Model A panel truck. With city life in the rearview mirror, this artisan cheesemaker is firmly entrenched in life in the country, reaping its rich rewards and savoring each day on the farm.