THE COMMUNITY STARTS WITH THE FARMERS
PHOTOS BY ADAM DETOUR
What do a cheese maker, a beef farmer and a pig farmer all have in common? If they are Couët Farm & Fromagerie, Walnut Lane Farm and Kettle Brook Farm, they’re all part of one unique CSA that provides not just vegetables to its shareholders and not just meat. The Circle CSA offers its members shares of cheese from Couët, beef from Walnut Lane and pork and vegetables from Kettle Brook, all grown or made in Dudley and North Brookfield. The CSA was the cheesemaker’s idea, and it’s the cheese and its maker, Marie-Laure Couët, that connects the three farms, all with different histories and products, bringing them together for its members.
When Marie-Laure set out to begin making cheese on her Dudley farm, she went looking for a local milk source. She found one just two miles away at Walnut Lane, a dairy and beef farm also in Dudley.
Anticipating a need to dispose of whey once she started making her cheese, Marie-Laure drew on her time in France and sought out a pig farmer. The watery part of milk that separates from the curds, whey “is really high in protein and minerals,” she says. In France, she knew a pig farmer who fed his animals this nutritious byproduct of the cheese making process. At a Central Mass Grown meeting in Sturbridge, she met someone who introduced her to Kettle Brook’s Neil Johnson.
Now Marie-Laure makes 200 pounds of fresh, creamy spreads and cave-aged wheels per week with milk from Walnut Lane Farm’s cows, and Neil comes by weekly to collect the roughly 85 gallons of whey Marie-Laure accumulates in a tank outside her barn. “Just the fact that his pigs drink the whey means that he doesn’t spend as much on grain. It has a huge impact on his financials and his bottom line, and it would be a pain for me to have to dispose of the whey. It’s very convenient for both of us,” she says.
Helping each other and working together, as well as providing customers with local, wholesome food, is something all three farms believe in, so in November, when Marie-Laure was trying to think of a way to create an income for the farmers during the winter months, she had an idea.
As a graduate student in Providence, Marie-Laure learned the benefits of being part of a community. She became a CSA shareholder at a nearby vegetable farm while studying the economic impact of community gardens in the city. “It was really nice to get to know the communities and individuals doing community gardens,” she says. When she started her farm, it was logical for her to reach out to the community and then to start her own CSA with the community she’d created.
“I thought it was great that I was working with two farmers, and we were connected with cheese,” Marie-Laure says. Neil was interested. He had some pork and some winter squashes he could add to the CSA. Walnut Lane Farm’s Krisanne and Jim Koebke were hesitant at first, but when they met Neil, “Everyone got along,” Marie-Laure says. “So that’s how it started.”
The biggest challenge, according to Neil, was communication among the farmers and figuring out what everyone wanted to do. “Once the logistics were set, it was easy,” he says.
For the first CSA offering, the farmers decided to limit the number of shares to 10. A full share would include five pounds each of free range, grass-fed beef (New York sirloin, London broil or chuck steak) and pork (chops, country-style ribs, slab bacon), one pound of cheese, and vegetables. A half share would include three pounds of each type of meat, three quarters of a pound of cheese, and vegetables. Pickup would be at Walnut Lane Farm every other Wednesday for 16 weeks. Shares were placed in the farm’s store: meat and pork in the freezer and vegetables and cheese in the adjacent fridge. The farmer who arrived first would begin to assemble the shares.
Through word of mouth and farmers markets, the three farms began advertising a winter CSA to start in January. Eight families signed up, and on the first day, Marie-Laure and Neil joined Krisanne and Jim at Walnut Lane Farm to meet the shareholders. “The very first pickup we were all here. Jim was milking,” Krisanne says. “We thought we’d greet people when they came in. This is where you’ll find it, and this is who we are.”
When the winter CSA ended in April, Marie-Laure asked the shareholders for feedback. “Overall, people were satisfied,” she says. The CSA’s success has encouraged the farmers to offer a summer CSA. The cheese and pork will remain the same, but Krisanne will include beef cuts that are more conducive to grilling, and Neil will include an optional peck of a variety of vegetables and fruit. Although each of the farmers could do their own CSA, Krisanne says, “It’s nice to work off of each other.”
When I first meet Marie-Laure on her farm, she hands me a hair net, a white smock and colorful Crocs to wear before bringing me into the sterile room where she makes cheese and into the adjacent cheese cave where black-speckled white and yellow tommes are aging. After the tour, she invites me into her farmhouse kitchen, puts a kettle on the stove to boil, and tells me her story.
Marie-Laure was destined to be a cheese maker. The child of a French mother and a French-Canadian father, she remembers hiking one summer in the Swiss Alps as a kid. “I remember distinctly finding this hidden cheese maker’s hut tucked away in the mountains and going in and tasting chevre for the first time,” she says. “It just blew me away. I had never tasted anything so fresh and bright as I had in that moment.”
That memory has lingered with Marie-Laure, influencing her college years (she spent her junior year in Geneva studying the environmental impact of cheese making in the Swiss and French Alps) and now her vocation. She even spent a few years after graduate school in France, Italy, and Spain studying the art of cheese making and goat herding and apprenticing on a cows’ milk farm. In 2012, Marie-Laure and her French husband, Aurélien Alphe, bought a 23-acre farm in Dudley, retrofitted a barn, and built a cheese making facility. She began cooking on her stove, experimenting and testing the Catalonian and Beaujolais recipes she learned in Europe. Finally, in February 2015, after years of research, Marie-Laure was ready to sell her cheese.
Now she and her mother, Marie-Christine Zolcinski Couët, make four different types of cheese on the farm, some soft and some aged, cured in her cheese cave. All four are named after Marie-Laure’s great-grandmothers: Franciszka and Karolina from Poland and Evelina and Adelisca from Quebec. Just last fall, Evelina, a cave-aged sheep's milk cheese (made with sheep’s milk sourced from the Amish collective of eastern New York) and Adelisca, a fresh cow's milk spread made with milk from Walnut Lane Farm, won silver medals at the 2015 Big E Gold Medal Cheese Competition.
Couët Farm & Fromagerie cheeses are sold at the farm by Marie-Laure, at farmers markets by Aurélien and Marie-Laure’s father, Benoît Couët, and at specialty stores from Boston to Princeton. You may even find Couët Farm & Fromagerie’s cheese on the menu at several restaurants in the greater Boston area.
The entrance to Walnut Lane Farm is down a long road, appropriately named Koebke Lane for the family that has owned the farm since 1910. When I visit the farm in late April Jim Koebke, a fourth-generation farmer, and his wife Krisanne, are out front with their youngest son. As Krisanne tells me about the farm, we are interrupted occasionally by a visiting farmer, the sounds of a tractor, and the mooing of the black and white dairy cows grazing nearby.
Jim and Krisanne began milking cows at the 200-acre farm in 1991, just after they were married. “We took over the operation from his folks in 1992,” Krisanne says. “We’ve always been cow people. That’s how we made our money, by taking good care of our cows so they lived a long time,” she says. The Koebkes sell their milk wholesale to Garelick Farms and raw milk to visitors on the farm, but since a commercial dairy wasn’t enough to sustain the family farm, they decided to diversify. When a friend passed away in 2011, the Koebkes purchased half of his cattle, and in 2013, they started buying breeding cattle. The beef herd, a South-Devon Cross, now numbers just over 50, Krisanne says, including “everything from newborn calves to the finishing steers, momma cows, and bull.” She adds, “The dairy herd totals 129 head, and that includes a new heifer born in May all the way to the 12-year old (oldest) milking cow.”
Krisanne shows me where the Jersey and Holstein cows are milked and where the newborn calves are kept. We walk over the hill to see the rust and milk chocolate beef herd. She says, “You can come see our cows and see that they’re here and that they’re eating grass. I think that’s important for the accountability. Because anybody can say anything’s organic or grass fed. Unless you can see it, you don’t know. Ours is truly local and truly raised here.”
Walnut Lane Farm’s raw milk, grass fed beef, fresh eggs, chicken, and compost are available directly from the farm in Dudley and occasionally at a farmers market. The beef is often the source of the “local burger” at B.T.’s Smokehouse in Sturbridge.
THE PORK, THE VEGETABLES, AND THE FRUIT
I meet 23-year old Neil Johnson at his 53-acre farm. Neil grew up here and has recently taken over Kettle Brook from his father. A black lab puppy nips at our heels as Neil walks me around, explaining that the farm was a tree nursery when his father ran it. Now Neil raises pigs and grows vegetables on the same property he started farming as a kid.
On this day in late April, Neil has 10 breeder pigs, 20 feeder pigs and 30 piglets as well as broiler chickens, beef cows, a few egg-laying hens and a horse. “Pigs are not like cows that need to be finished. You can eat a pig that’s 30 pounds or that’s 200 pounds. It might have different fat content, but the meat still tastes good either way,” he says.
“Typically, I like 150- to 200-pound pigs.” The pigs he raises for meat are fed a non-GMO corn and soybean grain he buys from Clover Hill Farm in Hardwick, but that can get expensive, Neil says. So to cut down costs, he feeds his breeder pigs vegetable waste from grocery stores and the whey he gets from Marie-Laure.
Neil shows me his greenhouses, green with the seedlings of vegetables for the CSA. There are tomatoes and onions, herbs, peppers, spinach, fennel, beets, broccoli, eggplant, turnips, kale, cauliflower and even hanging strawberries. There are flowers and ornamental grasses. This summer, Neil is offering his own vegetable CSA with a cheese option for those not interested in meat.
In addition to his father’s farm, Neil rents more than 100 acres of private, state-owned and town-owned land to grow vegetables and hay, and is working to reclaim 10 acres of apple, pear and peach orchards plus strawberries and blueberries on land owned by the Town of Charlton and known as Fay Mountain Farm. In May, Neil opened a country store in the renovated Fay Mountain Farm dairy barn where people can buy his pork and vegetables as well as fruit from the farm and local artists’ wares.
Kettle Brook Farm’s products are available at Fay Mountain Farm’s country store in Charlton. Neil also sells his pork to local restaurants, including The Twisted Fork Bistro of Cherry Valley.
Shareholders of this summer’s Circle CSA pickup will be at Fay Mountain Farm. “It’s really nice space,” Marie-Laure says. “It will be really good for people because they can pick up everything there.”
“People want to buy the local meat. They might not necessarily know where to go to get it steadily,” Neil says. “In the CSA they get two types of meat and local cheese in one pickup.”
How did they come up with the name, Circle CSA? “We were trying to think of a name that symbolizes all three of us,” Neil says. “The cheese is kind of the center of it. The milk goes to the cheese, and the cheese whey comes to the pigs. Kind of goes in a circle all the way around us.”
This story appeared in the Summer 2016 issue.