100 days and $100,000 to turn this building into a creamery?
This blog will chronicle the planning, permitting, financing (including exact dollar amounts) and building of a micro creamery on a ranch in Tomales, California. It will feature alternating posts from 2 different people, Seana Doughty and Marissa Thornton, who have joined forces to help each other achieve their cheesemaking dreams and goals. Allow us to introduce ourselves.....
Greetings! I’m Seana Doughty, owner and cheesemaker of Bleating Heart Cheese www.bleatingheart.com. I grew up in Orange County, a suburban community of Southern California nestled between Los Angeles and San Diego. It has lots of malls and housing developments, and is probably most famous for Disneyland and the teen drama series “The O.C.” As far as I knew, milk came from the grocery store, and the cheese my mom bought was of the orange, pre-sliced, film-wrapped variety. My adult life was spent in San Diego, where I attended UCSD with plans to become an M.D., but eventually realized that medical school was not the path for me (little did I know that the science classes I took as a pre-med student would serve me so well someday). With a degree in Sociology, I eventually happened upon a career in Research Administration. I worked at organizations where I sat at a computer, leaving work each day with no tangible results of my efforts, only the very indirect satisfaction of knowing that I helped support biomedical research that could someday benefit humankind. In 2008, fed up with my life in an office, I quit my job. After a few weeks of soul and job searching, I took a huge pay cut and went to work at a local cheese shop called Venissimo www.venissimo.com. I was positively smitten by the endless variety of cheeses that greeted me each day when I arrived. To me, cheese embodied the perfect marriage of science and art - and it’s edible. How can anything else possibly top that? Then it hit me, at age 37, I finally I figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I would be a Cheesemaker.
With this life-changing breakthrough, I set out to learn as much as possible about cheesemaking – and sheep dairying. Why sheep? Because I would make sheep milk cheeses. Why? Because they’re my favorite. I took cheesemaking and dairying classes, read (and continue to read) many books, and traveled around visiting dairies and cheesemaking facilities. During this whirlwind of cheese and dairy immersion, I relocated to Northern California and founded Bleating Heart Cheese in the summer of 2009. Now here we are in 2012 (by “we” I mean myself and my partner/spouse, Dave Dalton). After several early withdrawals from my IRA, and getting another desk job to help finance both the business and basic living expenses, I did it. I started my own company and became a cheesemaker. In 2009, we sold about 300 lbs of cheese, this year it will top out at about 6000 lbs; that’s 2000% growth in just over 3 years. We did this without taking on any debt, and are not beholden to any investors. However, we also do not pay ourselves and do not have a creamery to call our own. We’ve gotten this far by renting small-scale cheesemaking facilities owned by other cheesemakers. This was a quick and affordable way to get started. It has also severely limited our growth. In order for the business to become financially sustainable, we must increase cheese production. The only way to do this is to build our own creamery.
When Marissa Thornton heard we were in need of a place to set up a creamery, she invited us for a tour of her ranch and showed us the 500 square foot milkhouse for the former cow dairy. Marissa thought it would make a good creamery. She was right. At first I wasn’t sure if it could all work, but I realized that Marissa and I could actually help each other in many ways by sharing the resources we each bring to the collaboration. Now we are in the early stages of making this happen. The goal is to have a functional, licensed creamery up and running by January 2013, and spend no more than $100,000 to do it. Fingers crossed!
Hi Readers! I'm Marissa Thornton, a 25 year old college graduate and bona fide country girl. I grew up in Tomales, a small coastal town in Northern California where cow pastures abound and the fog rolls in every afternoon. My ancestors came to Tomales from Ireland in 1850, starting a small dairy with Milking Shorthorn cows. My family still resides on 1,000 acres of their original settlement, which remained a dairy until fairly recently. In 2000 my grandpa passed away, and unfortunately my dad had to pay estate taxes upon his inheritance of the ranch. My dad was forced to sell his 200-cow dairy herd just to make the first payment. A conservation easement with Marin Agricultural Land Trust paid the remaining debt. Though the dairy is no longer in operation, my dad currently makes a living on the land raising 300 Angus beef cattle and 350 Dorset-Hampshire ewes.
As the sixth generation to live and work on the ranch, I've been trying to find a way to establish myself on the ranch, too. I've always been fascinated with agriculture, and as a kid would take any opportunity to follow my dad on the ranch as he worked. It was no surprise to my family that I decided to study Agriculture in college. I received my Animal Science degree from California State University, Chico in 2010 and moved back soon after. I'd been waiting my whole life to start a business on the ranch, and now I was finally old enough to try. During my final college years I brainstormed for what my niche business could be. I truly missed having the dairy and felt that restarting it would be bringing the ranch back to its original purpose. Selling commodity milk doesn't pay the bills anymore, and I really wanted my business to be successful enough to sustain myself and future generations. I thought using milk from my own sheep dairy to make farmstead cheese seemed to be the perfect answer, especially since Tomales was becoming an area where small creameries flourished. My dairy, creamery and I would fit right in. I would be working hard day and night, but it would be for something I loved. I researched what it would take to start a sheep dairy and creamery, remaining excited, but also facing the truth that it would take a whole lotta money I didn't have. I got an off-farm job so I could save some money while I continued researching and developing a business plan.
A few months ago, I received an email from my local Cooperative Extension office explaining a local cheesemaker was in need of space to build a creamery. A few days later, I met Seana Doughty at the ranch. I showed her the space where I was thinking of putting a creamery of my own, and we talked about how our individual cheese dreams might coincide; we could help each other achieve our goals. Now we are going through the beginning phases of starting a creamery, and it's looking like a long and winding road...but I'm looking forward to the journey!