A Day in the Life of Michael Lee
In this blog series, our summer intern Jackie will interview a variety of cheesemakers, mongers, and buyers, in order to get a glimpse into their day-to-day life. Follow along as Jackie goes behind the scenes and brings you the inside look on the cheese world.
If you ever find yourself driving around the winding roads of Vermont, I highly suggest planning a visit to Twig Farm, located in West Cornwall, VT. Michael Lee and his wife Emily Sunderman, have owned and operated Twig Farm since 2005. Michael manages their herd of goats, as well as makes and ages the cheese, while Emily manages the business side of things. Twig Farm specializes in mainly aged, raw, goat cheeses, with a little cow's milk sprinkled in from time to time from their neighbors at Scapeland Farm, in Whiting, VT.
The property is incredibly picturesque. They keep goats, milk goats, make cheese, age cheese, and live, all on the very same piece of land. Michael and Emily say they chose goats because they saw a gap in the market. Before moving to Vermont, Michael and Emily lived in Jamaica Plain, MA, and Michael was a cheese manager and monger at the Southend location of Formaggio Kitchen. He found that hardly anyone was making aged, goat's milk cheese, not even in Europe, and it was a style he really liked. Michael had only previously worked with sheep (see Fun Facts, below) so he needed to see what there was to learn about goats. While Twig Farm was being built, Michael worked and trained at Peaked Mountain Farm in Townsend, Vermont, where he learned the ins and outs of owning a goat farm and making cheese.
What's in a Name?
Twig Farm is kind of a funky name and I was interested in the story behind it. What do twigs have to do with cheese anyway? Michael explained to me that when he and Emily were deciding on a name for their farm, they had already bought the land and they had a really good image in their head of what the land looked like and what it was made up of. They knew the property was really open with not many large trees, but there were lots of juniper, dogwood, and buckthorn, which are considered to be very "twiggy" trees. Emily and Michael decided that if the whole goat-milking and cheesemaking thing didn't pan out, they would at least have Twig Farm. "Goats eat twigs too, so why not?"
How Early is Early?
Michael starts his day at 4:00 a.m. He wakes up and walks his dog, Buffy, to the end of the driveway and back. He then checks the score of the Red Sox game from the previous evening (assuming there was a game). Next, he makes his way out to the barn where he sets up the "cheese house". He gets the culture going, sanitizes all of this tools, and sets up the milking parlor. Michael usually does the morning milking himself, but he has a full time employee (Kelly) who comes in around 8:00 a.m. and takes care of the evening milking.
Once everything is set up, Michael ventures out to the goat pastures, where they keep the mature milking goats, which they currently have 36 of. The small goats you see closest to the house and barn (and in my photos) are too young and do not yet produce milk. There are about 20 of these younger goats.
Once the goats are in the parlor, Michael puts out a little hay for them, to calm them down and keep them busy while they are waiting to be milked. The goats are milked and Michael pumps all the fresh milk over to the cheese house, cleans up the parlor, feeds the cat, and finishes up any loose ends. During the school year, Michael walks his son down to the bus stop and then goes inside for breakfast. At this point, it's only 8:00 a.m.
After a quick breakfast, Michael is back out to the barn to start making cheese. At this point, Kelly has arrived to help. They usually finish up making cheese around 11:30 a.m., depending on the amount of milk. Summer is the season they make the most cheese, because that's when there is the most milk! The goats are freshened or bred in March, and peak lactation is about 45-60 days after they freshen, which lands smack in the middle of May. Michael jokes that "after May, it is all down hill". In the height of summer, they are making and shipping up to 250 pounds of cheese a week. This is considered seasonal production. Michael and Emily acknowledge the importance of keeping the goats as close to their natural lactation schedule as possible, even if it means the winters are a little sparse.
Once the cheesemaking is done for the day, Michael will dump the whey and head inside for some lunch.
After lunch, Michael uses his time to do some maintenance around the farm. He often finds himself moving fences to herd the goats into different areas, feeding the goats, and cutting the grass. Michael finds the summer to be much more challenging and busy than the winter, not just because of the large quantity of milk production. "Things are growing and you can't stop them from growing, and you have to deal with it immediately. In the winter, they [the goats] aren't going out to pasture, they are dried off in the middle of December, everything becomes a choice—which is nice, because everything moves a lot more slowly. The only thing you have to respond to immediately is if there is a snow storm."
Around 4:00 p.m., Kelly sets everything up for the afternoon milking. Michael sometimes tries to steal away for a bike ride around the rolling, dirt hills of Cornwall, but he admits that this doesn't happen as much as he would like it to. You can usually find him working until 6:00 p.m.
This is Michael's schedule four days a week. Tuesday is the closest thing he has to a "day off". There is no cheesemaking on Tuesdays, but Kelly still comes by to feed the animals and finish up her daily chores. Since they don't make cheese on Tuesdays, they get the cheese they have ready to ship to their distributors. Twig Farm used to have personal restaurant accounts, but they have never been able to keep up with the demand for their cheese, so they decided to leave it up to the distributors to ration it to the cheese-hungry people.
In winter, life on the farm is much different. "I like to imagine that the winters are a lot easier. I get up late, take care of the goats, I'm done by 8:30 a.m., go skiing all day! It's not really like that, but it gets me through the summer." Though it may not be all skiing and sleeping in, there is definitely less to do in the winters on Twig Farm. Since the goats are dried off in December—meaning they do not produce any more milk until spring—Twig Farm continues to make a small amount of cow's milk cheese, with Ayshire milk from their neighbors at Scapeland Farm.
Twig Farm Favorites
Twig Farm makes a goat's milk tomme that is aged 3 months and has a natural rind. They also make a soft, washed rind wheel and a square cheese, that has a similar texture to the tomme. Michael told me that he is currently aging a mixed mlk (goat's and cow's milk) cheese, that will most like be called Mixed Drum, and will be available in September.They are also well-known for their uniquely named Fuzzy Wheel.
Michael's Favorite Things
Michael's favorite parts of his job including puttering around outside and milking the goats. "It's problem solving, number one, kind of cool if you can deal with the bugs and the smells. If you like problem solving, its a great job." He also enjoys making the cheese, but it gets really hot in the cheese barn and being bent over for so long really hurts his back. He does however, find immense satisfaction when a batch of cheese comes out really, really well. He says you can usually tell in the early stages how good it will be. "It's nice when it comes out right, its fun when you know its going to be a really good batch of cheese. You are always trying to get it exactly right. It's like you are riding a bicycle, and you know there is something a little bit wrong and you know you can do the ride just fine, but you really wish you could go back and work on it."
- Michael is originally from Maine and Emily is from Connecticut. They met during undergraduate study at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA.
- While studying at Hampshire College, Michael's work study job was a Shepard! Seriously, I'm not kidding.
- When not at the farm, Michael enjoys riding his bike and skiing in the winter.
- In addition to making cheese, Michael also likes to make hard cider from fresh picked apples. Will Twig Farm hard cider be hitting the shelves soon? Probably not, but we can keep our fingers crossed.
- Michael actually enjoys the weather in Cornwall, VT. "You can always feel good when you compare it to the northeast kingdom," which couldn't be more true.