Interview with Mary Keehn of Cypress Grove Chevre
Cypress Grove founder Mary Keehn is interviewed by Culture's editor, Elaine Khosrova:
In the late ’60s, my husband and I were living in a barn in Sonoma, next to a cow dairy where they kept wild goats for brush control. I asked the woman next door if I could buy a goat. She said, “Honey, if you can catch one, you can have it.” So every day I put out some grain for goats. Eventually, I was able to grab their horns to catch them. Those were my first goats—Hazel and Esmerelda.
After we got those goats, we moved to 80 acres in southern Humboldt and built a cabin out of logs we dragged out of the woods with a horse. We were serious hippies. We got our water from the spring. If you wanted hot water, it came from a black pipe in the sun. There was no electricity.
It was all about self-sufficiency then. And it’s exciting to see it happening again. People are growing their own food, raising chickens . . . they want to experience something real.
Years later when my daughters were school age, I was their 4-H leader, and that’s when we really got carried away with keeping goats and making cheese. I didn’t have any experience with French goat cheeses. I looked at the cheese pictures in French books. I used yogurt for the culture in my first cheeses because home cheesemakers couldn’t buy them. I had cheeses hanging all over the kitchen.
I officially started Cypress Grove in 1983. I was a single mom by then with four daughters. Every morning I’d milk about 50 goats by hand, get the girls off to school, then go make cheese. We had milk cans then. I used to put a milk can in a trash can filled with water and frozen gel packs, and every time I finished milking a goat I would swish the can to cool the milk. My inspector didn’t like it. So many things we were able to do then because we were cute, you couldn’t do now.
A friend of mine urged me to go to the Fancy Food Show to sell my cheese. So I put some cheese in my purse and we went up to the Columbus Distributing booth, and she said, “This is my friend Mary, and she makes really good cheese, and you should buy it.” I had it wrapped in Saran and then rewrapped with a label—the package was really wet and looked awful. I don’t know why they bought it, but they did. I used to ship it to them on a Greyhound bus, from Eureka down to San Francisco.
Our signature cheese, Humboldt Fog, happened because of my first trip to France. Judy [Schad] and I toured all these tiny idyllic family cheesemakers. On the plane ride home, I had a dream of Humboldt Fog. I saw it clearly in my dream—everything about it and exactly how to make it. And so I just went home and made it. But nobody bought it. It didn’t catch on until years later when Florence Fabricant at the New York Times wrote about it. After that Metropolitan Home pictured it next to things like Hermes scarves and great architecture as one of the 100 best things in the world!
We’ve interviewed many suitors over the years who have wanted to buy Cypress Grove. About a year ago we sold the company to Emmi, which is primarily owned by dairymen. They understand that cheese is not a big-margin thing. It’s what you do because you love it. And they promised to keep it in Humboldt County.
What really sealed the deal, though, was an experience I had with the head of the international department at Emmi. We were having a serious business talk, walking from our hotel in San Francisco, when this homeless guy asked us for money. This man from Emmi said, “No, I won’t give you money, but I’ll buy you a meal.” And the guy said, “No, I just want money.” As we started walking away, the homeless man came back and said, “Okay, I’ll take the meal.” The Emmi man looked at me, said, “Excuse me for a minute,” and he went in and bought the guy a meal and then came back and said, “I’m sorry to hold you up.” That’s when I knew I’d found the right buyer. It proved to me that you can have a big operation and still be human.