Steve’s Update for 4-25-12

Climatology 2012:  Spring is here, absent the damaging winds, so far.  We continue to hope for more moisture.

This week’s Cow stories:  Mesa Top cows and Jim Miller Ayrshire project:  What an ordeal we had with first calf heifer Lucie last week.  I have been tempted to write you every difficult detail, but the long and the short of it is we pulled our first calf, successfully, and have a healthy momma and baby bull calf to show for it.  Several painful hours in labor and several painful days since, and things are looking up for everyone that was involved. Momma forgives us and we are now best friends for life.  Little Junior is starting to cavort and kick up his heels, and is off antibiotics, without which he would have died in the first 24 hours.  Momma goes on the milk lien today and starts to make her contribution to the cheese making adventure.

This week’s cheese making update – Continuing Ed…  This is about the difference between artisanal, farmstead, small batch cheese and larger scale, commercial cheese making.

At Mesa Top we are practicing to become skilled at producing small batch cheeses.  Our learning process is complicated by the fact that we are sticking to raw, unpasteurized cheese making, which means that all products have to be aged for 60 days or more to assure that they are clean, healthy and free of any harmful bacteria.  We milk up to 11 cows each day, and sometimes make cheese every day and sometimes bottle and save it up until we can make a larger batch.  We make batches out of 15 to 35 gallons of milk.

At the Tucumcari Cheese Factory, commercially produced milk arrives in semi-trucks, and is pumped into holding tanks and made into cheese in batches of several thousand gallons at a time.  Of course, Tucumcari has direct relationships with each of its milk suppliers, and so the milk is not totally anonymous, but their system is based on commodity milk at market prices.  All milk is pasteurized and the resulting product is sold coast to coat.  Tucumcari is a very small plant by commercial standards, and employs over 40 people to produce cheese that is as “handmade” as is possible in a plant that size.  Owner Chuck Krausse is a master cheese-maker, with over 35 years experience and oversees a high quality local business.  He is a mentor to us at Mesa Top.

For further comparison, the largest cheese factory in the world is south of Clovis.  Southwest Cheese has 70 miles of stainless steel pipelines in its facility and receives semi- trucks all day and night every day.  It is a technological marvel of mass production with human involvement largely to monitor the machinery, to perform maintenance, and to keep the place sparkling clean.  Before its expansion in 2009, Southwest was turning 2.5 BILLION pounds of milk per year (just under 300 MILLION Gallons) into cheese and other high valued milk protein derivatives.

I am offering these comparisons as I grow somewhat frustrated with some of the less than positive comments that  are being passed along to us about the Mesa Top cheese.  This is more than a bit demoralizing for us at the farm.

When I was first setting up the CSA, as a one farm operation back in the mid-1990s, I offered some advice to members about the challenges of making the most of garden produce grown in harsh and challenging conditions.  This is a challenge that continues to this day.  Sometimes the bugs chew holes in the produce, sometimes an item becomes slightly over ripe or dried out, and needs extra attention, sometimes an item causes extra effort or work in the kitchen.  But if we approach the food as if we grew it /produced it with our own hands, we get a different appreciation for the food.  Always produced with care and attention, rarely perfect, always interesting, always a story.  Kind of like ourselves and our lives!  Always worth a little extra effort, always worth appreciating.

Of course, there is a limit.  We do not have the time to devote that much attention to everything that comes through our kitchens, and at Mesa Top and in the CSA we do our best to minimize that phenomenon.  But as a local food collaboration, the need to look at the food as if we produced it ourselves and just cannot bear to waste it, needs to always be in the back of our minds.

The Mesa Top cheese is just like that!  We have fed to the piggies and chickens about ¼ of what we have produced.  If we added up every hour and penny of cost in the cheese, we probably have $20 per pound invested in it.  We are offering it to CSA members one time a month so that we can gain perspective on the recipes and the uses of the cheese.

We can improve this process by giving more information about the cheese when we distribute it in the share:  One of our friends who trades work for cheese commented that the feta was their favorite cheese yet, and that they crumble it and melt it on toast, open faced.  In February I attended a sustainable agriculture conference in Pennsylvania and met a small batch feta maker there, who told me that they like to age their feta 4+ months and they believe the flavor gets better with age.  The saltiness cannot be avoided, and they suggested that their customers have learned to use the cheese more sparingly in recipes to adapt to the stronger flavor.

We can also work to offer more choices:  we have 3 very distinct cheeses currently in inventory:  strong, aged feta, aged cheddar, best used grated, and somewhat soft salado jack.  Perhaps Dena and Amy can help members share their creative uses of the different cheeses. Perhaps next time Dena will get some of the hard cheese and grated cheese as well as the feta.  That way folks can choose according to their preference.

So enjoy the Tucumcari cheese, as it is a truly superb commercially produced cheese.  Please recognize what it is and what it is not.  And please think of the Mesa Top cheese as if it was the work of your own hands.  Recognize it also for what it is and what it is not.  At Mesa Top we will continue to do all we can to make the cheese a good value and useful to you in your kitchen.  If anyone wants to make a trip out and make some cheese with us, let us know!  But remember, it will be 60 days until we can taste the results of your effort, as we first and foremost aim to make a safe and healthy product.

This week’s cheese share includes: Hot pepper jack and provolone

Mesa Top Meat (Protein) update:   At Mesa Top, we are needing to shut down as many freezers as possible due to electrical use in the summer.  We need to re-direct our electricity to pumping water for the garden, as the plants grow and the heat comes on.  We are looking for a loan to install much more solar electrical generating capacity.  Meantime it is a bit of a juggling act.  Since we do have some pasture available, we can grow some cattle that were ready to process.  We will have a larger beef harvest in early fall.

This week’s Veggie/Share Update:  This week we are strong on greens and items for salad making.  Included in your share is Organic lettuce from Preferred Produce in Deming, spinach from Red Mountain Farm, along with pea shoots from Sungreen Living Foods and radishes from Frisco Farm in Silver City.

We also have leeks of loveliness from Talon Del Gato farm in Embudo,(Farmers Adam and Steve have given this poetic name to their leeks…) and an early spring delicacy also from Talon Del Gato: rhubarb.

For an additional the fruit element of the share we offer grapefruit from Patagonia Orchards in neighboring Arizona.

Membership news:  Please keep referring new members!  We add $10 to your Farm Account for every member you refer.

Thank you for your investment in and support of the CSA.  We appreciate your continued support!

Steve Warshawer

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