Event in Review: Annual Meeting with A2B2

We just wrapped up our annual Slow Food Huron Valley meeting last week in partnership with A2B2 – it was a delightful evening! Delicious potluck spread, good company, and lots to learn from our presenters. For those who asked for the resources to be shared, they will be compiled here (as we receive them)! Thanks to all who came, and a hearty thank you to A2B2 and Matthaei Botanical Gardens!

Bee Safe Neighborhood: https://www.facebook.com/beesafea2/

Edible Pollinators: Edible Pollinator Plants Deck

SFHV Mini-Grant Program: http://slowfoodhuronvalley.com/web/mini-grants/

Honeybees in Michigan: A Closer Look

By KT Tomey

By now, most people have heard that honeybees around the world are struggling with a health problem that is causing a dramatic decline in their numbers. In the past few decades, most US beekeepers have suffered heavy losses. In Michigan, it’s not uncommon for beekeepers to lose 60% of their bees during the winter months. Roger Sutherland, President of Southeast Michigan Beekeepers Association (SEMBA) has been keeping honeybees for 42 years, and characterized the first 20 years as “the land of milk and honey.” In the past 20, he has seen as a gradual decline with greater winter losses each year, no matter what he does.

The term “colony collapse disorder” or CCD has made its way into the popular press since 2006 when it was first characterized. Though CCD has wreaked havoc nationally, claiming a quarter of our 2.4 million honeybee hives, CCD has not been much of a problem in Michigan. According to Sutherland, only one case of CCD has been reported in the state. The disorder is defined by several very specific criteria, including a complete absence of adult bees in colonies with little or no build-up of dead bees in or around the colonies, the presence of honey and pollen that are not immediately robbed by other bees, as well as several other conditions. CCD has mainly been an issue among commercial beekeepers, though admittedly formal data collection on backyard hobbyists is lacking.

When asked about the cause of bee deaths, most beekeepers will say that mites are major contributors to the problem, particularly the Verroa and tracheal mites. Prior to the arrival of these parasites in the 1980s, normal winter losses were 10-20% in the Midwest. Another major culprit is Nosema apis a spore-forming parasite that invades the intestinal tracts of adult bees causing nosema disease, a sort of bee diarrhea. Bees are more likely to have a problem if they can’t get out of the hive to “go to the bathroom” during the winter because the lack of ventilation allows spores to build up. A couple of warm days throughout winter months can help to mitigate the impact of this parasite, though it won’t necessarily prevent the disease. On the flip side, if winters are too consistently warm, bees are likely to be more active and eat through their food stores much earlier in the season, leading to a risk of starvation in late winter months.

Diseases are only part of the problem. Many entomologists and beekeepers are pointing their fingers at pesticides such as Merit that are routinely used on domestic crops such as apples. Many apple orchards are sprayed with Merit early in the season and when honeybees are in full pollination mode. And while the American government has yet to act, four European countries have already banned a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids because of their suspected impact on honeybee deaths. These pesticides are systemic chemicals that work their way through the plant, attacking the nervous system of insects that come into contact with it. The substances also get into life-sustaining pollen and nectar.

Our changing food system is also to blame, according to Royal Oak-based organic beekeeper Rich Wieske. Increased demand for pollination services nationwide has lead to dramatic increases in the stress level of bees. A Midwestern beekeeper who rents his bees to pollinate a California crop will pack them onto a truck and travel to the site with the bees in tow. Along the way, bees are fed high-fructose corn syrup and pollen substitute. Wieske says the process is like feeding a kid nothing but Coke and hot dogs and keeping him up all night traveling across the country. Once on site, the “kid” is thrown into a schoolyard with 20,000 other undernourished “kids” for a couple days in quarantine, and then asked to get to work. Wieske wonders how people could possibly be scratching their heads wondering why the bees aren’t healthy.

On top of the poor diet and stress of traveling, pollination of big-ticket crops such as California almonds is needed in January or February when most Midwestern bees are dormant; activity during this time of year means disrupting bees’ hibernation-like state. About half the colonies from Michigan are moved to warmer climates during the winter, and bees are often packed up and hauled from state to state repeatedly, pollinating as many as 7-8 different crops. Some bees are rented in state during other parts of the year for crops like apples.

Pollination services have become critical in the past few decades in part due to the decline in the feral or “wild” bee population. Loss of feral bees has been largely blamed on mites, but experts also blame reduction in bee forage and habitat.

The growth of the almond industry in California has boosted demand, and US population growth has also contributed an increase demand for food and pollination. Another key systemic factor, according to Roger Sutherland, is that “there’s no money in honey.” Cheap imports from China and Argentina are undercutting American honey prices, and US beekeepers can earn much more pollinating than selling honey.

Another critical issue not discussed much outside “bee circles” is queen rearing. In order for a hive to survive, a strong queen is needed to lay eggs and keep the workers on task. Most beekeepers purchase queens from regional queen rearing operations. The number of these outfits has sharply declined, however, to just five from about 30 a decade ago. The main ramification, aside from reduced supply and increased cost, is the loss of genetic diversity in hives across the region. Such diversity is crucial for bees to adapt and survive in our environment, which is becoming less and less hospitable.

Improving honeybee health is vital for their survival and for ours. These bees continue to be the pollinator of choice because they are available throughout the growing season, because they pollinate such a wide variety of crops, and since they can be concentrated in large numbers whenever and wherever needed. They are critical to the diversity in our diet; one third of our food is derived directly or indirectly from insect pollinated plants and 80% of insect pollination is accomplished by honeybees. Honeybees pollinate 65 of Michigan’s 125 agricultural crops, including apples, tart cherries, blueberries, peppers, watermelons and cucumbers.

There are some bright spots on the horizon. In the past couple of years, Rich Wieske has been building a local queen rearing business; last year he raised 100 queens, and aims to raise 2,000 queens in 2009. He hopes that this will help improve genetic diversity in the region, and is encouraging others to do the same. “It is definitely much more of a sustainable venture than just merely selling honey. If you raise 200 queens per week, and queens are going for $20-25 each, you can do that for almost 3 months out of the year [in Michigan], and can get into serious money.”

Wieske and Sutherland also promote beekeeping. According to Sutherland urban bees do very well because of the diversity in nutrients, “something’s always blooming.” But beekeeping is not the only way to aid honeybee health. Buying local honey supports local apiaries and is a win-win situation for domestic plants that benefit from pollination. Increasing the diversity of the plants in your yard and reducing insecticide use will improve bees’ foraging habitat. A recent article in Bee Culture magazine recommends mixing 20% white clover (or white Dutch clover) in with your grass to provide a summertime buffet for honeybees and other pollinators. White clover also adds nitrogen to the soil. Clover seeds can be spread in late winter when the ground is still frozen, and will thrive if not cut too short. Other recommended backyard plants include thyme, Russian sage, lavender, bee balm, anis and hyssop. A birdbath will provide a vital water source for a variety of pollinators. The more hospitable your yard for honeybees and other pollinators, the more it will come to life.

——————

Rich Wieske is the owner of Green Toe Gardens. He raises bees in 60 hives in the Detroit area totally drug free; no chemicals are used in any part of the process. His honey is available at Avalon bakery and the Royal Oak farmer’s market the first and third Saturday of every month year round. He teaches beekeeping classes throughout the year. For more information, you can contact him at: rich@greentoegardens.com

Back in the USSA – The United States of Sustainable America

“Then I realized – I’m a farmer. I can do anything.” — Jim Koan

Jim Koan (pronounced with Michigan pragmatism as “cone” not “co-an”) has a dog named Felony, raises mighty-antlered reindeer, and Royal Palms – a breed of turkey so antique Ben Franklin was probably the last person who ever heard of it. Jim is also the 3rd generation owner, after his dad and grand-dad, of Al-Mar Orchards where he is brewing excellent hard cider and raising pastured heritage pigs. Jim is among the leaders like Joel Salatin from Michael Pollan’s now-famous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, who is that rare breed of farmer succeeding (he’s put 5 kids through college) and expanding his business. Jim is producing organic fruit, hard cider and pork in a way the American revolutionaries would recognize, and in a way that is also informed by the very latest research and technology.

Reading Michael Pollan’s description of Joel Salatin, the farmer who figures out a sustainable system for raising healthy pastured chickens in a way that enriches the land they’re on gave me a tiny bit of hope that we might not be going to hell in a hand-basket after all. There are ingenious people out there, motivated by love and learning more than by money, taking the first steps on the thousand mile journey toward a sustainable future.

By shepherding closed loop cycles that can continue indefinitely, rather than simply extracting resources for an end product, people like Joel Salatin are pointing us toward what the future is going to have to look like.

Asked for his opinion about whether Salatin’s Polyface farm is a throwback from the past or a harbinger of the future, Michael Pollan says: “If you look closely, you are seeing a farm built on the most sophisticated understanding of the ecological relationships between different species and the land and the soil. That it is truly a knowledge-based business, and Joel is right when he talks that way about it. For my money it’s the future, but it is built off of borrowing the best things from the past.” Pollan rightly points out that the path to any real progress, both for individuals and as a society, is in synthesizing knowledge from the experience of the past with the most informed perspective of the present.

It was mostly the past I was recollecting on a recent trip to Al-Mar Orchards, 120 bucolic acres of apple trees and another 200 acres of woods and pastures just outside of Flushing, Michigan. Al-Mar was my Grandma’s favorite place to get apples, cider and hot crispy donuts back when my sister and I were little girls. Coming in the door on a wintry day last week, the warm smells of apples and of the donuts coming from the fryer had me thinking nostalgically that nothing had changed in the 25 years since I was last there.

We were on this road trip for a little piece of Al-Mar history – some of owner Jim Koan’s softly effervescent, spicy-sweet, apple-blossom-y hard cider. He started making hard cider again when the old-timers he knew as his dad’s and grampa’s friends wouldn’t stop reminiscing about that good hard cider they used to get at Al-Mar. Using the family recipe, he started making it at first in small batches for friends. Jim says: “Then they started bringing jugs for their friends and their friends’ friends. After a while I knew I was going to have to get legal.” Now fermenting 40,000 gallons at a time, Jim says he understands making hard cider as a process of “farming yeast.” In everything he does, he’s looking at the inputs and the outputs of the process, working toward optimizing a self-sustaining system.

Jim has help from a marketing friend selling his J.K. Scrumpy brand of hard cider in 24 states. Part of what makes his cider so good, he says, is that he uses organically grown apples that were picked at the apex of ripening. And he uses the real straight juice of the apples – no concentrate. He says you can taste the difference.

Here’s something interesting about Jim: Before going organic, he spent 20 years growing apples conventionally, with the full complement of nerve poison, insect-controlling pesticides that made it unsafe to go into the orchard for up to 3 days after spraying. He was always adjusting the fins and the sprayers, optimizing his equipment and technique, but noticed that no matter what he did most of the spray went where he didn’t want it. Not only was it a wasted expense, it was also unacceptable to him that these poisons became part of the air, ground and water. And it was an escalating cycle of needing to use larger amounts and more toxic applications every year to control the acclimitizing pests.

So 10 years ago he started to use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques, encouraging the good bugs while minimizing the bad, to grow apples both organically and with what he calls “softer” pesticides overall at Al-Mar. He says the variety and cycles of apple-damaging pests make it almost impossible to grow apples organically and that he wouldn’t be able to do it without the experience of years spent growing conventionally. At this point, Al-Mar is one of only a handful of small organic apple producers in the country. Jim says that to them, producing organic apples was a huge accomplishment. But their puffed up chests were quickly deflated when, instead of celebrating, the first thing customers wanted to know after seeing organic apples was – “What else do you have that’s organic?”

So few people know how to grow food now that we don’t have proper appreciation for what it takes to develop that expertise. The knowledge of soil types and ecologies, plant growth cycles and pathologies, business and marketing skills, knowledge of weather patterns, government regulations, and everything else that is required. At the same time, people are equating cooking with re-heating boxed macaroni and cheese in the microwave. A result of the depleted foods that we consume without second thoughts about who grew it or where it came from is an unsatiated national hunger that underlies the epidemic of obesity and depression we’re experiencing.

Real food, food that is recognizable as food (not a product of processing) and that has a known origin, nourishes us with deep sensual and intellectual enjoyment from both its flavor and its provenance. The pleasure of real food is that it comes from a specific community and must be enjoyed and celebrated in the context of a personal or family community. Real food (or what Alice Waters calls “living food”) is often something that you grow yourself or comes from the farm of someone who has developed a level of expertise that is now remarkably rare.

Jim Koan is an example of someone who has developed that rare level of expertise. Failing to celebrate Jim Koan’s organic apples is like saying Beethoven doesn’t matter because we’ve got Shakira and Fifty Cent. It’s skill at a level we don’t have the knowledge to judge. We’re not in a position to have an informed appreciation of things like great-tasting local organic apples and we suffer atrophy of other basic daily life skills – like making an apple pie – because we believe we don’t have time. And the reason we believe time is short for spending on a central family activity like meaningfully feeding ourselves is that we’re told in a thousand ways every day and we have been told – there’s no time – for 3 generations now.

David Kamp writes in his critique “The United States of Arugula: How America Became a Gourmet Nation”: “Throughout and immediately after the war years of the forties, the big food conglomerates were putting ever-more grotesque packaged products on the market, many of which were by-products of their efforts to produce tinned or freeze-dried field rations for the troops…In time, the packaged-food companies would abandon any pretense of claiming their processed and frozen products were superior in taste, instead stressing their convenience. Cannily (and often with canned foods), these companies’ advertising campaigns actually stigmatized the experience of spending hours in the kitchen. As Laura Shapiro puts it in Something from the Oven, her history of 1950s America cookery, “During the postwar era, time became an obsession of the food industry and eventually of American homemakers as a manufactured sense of panic pervaded even day-to-day cooking.”

This manufactured sense of time panic is now a given in our over-busy lives. And the only remedy to the surfeit of choices, information, and activity is to make intentional choices about what is truly meaningful. That’s why finding someone like Jim Koan here in Michigan is like stumbling on a jewel. I can’t think of something that matters more on a daily basis and for all future grandchildren than beautiful, sustainable food. At the very foundation of the Maslow pyramid of human needs, it’s not an exaggeration to say that food is connected to every single thing that sustains our lives and it always will be.

Jim says that he taught his 5 kids that the only thing we have in life, really, is learning. In learning to grow organic apples he’s created a systemic (rather than chemical) approach to controlling pests that damage apples. His latest innovation to the closed loop system he’s working out has been introducing pastured black and white Berkshire pigs to eat windfall apples. Fallen apples being the home of some of the most destructive bugs, including the plum curculio, having the pigs eat the apples breaks the pests’ cycles of reproduction. The result (in his first year) has been a 5-fold reduction in crop loss and a bonus of 5-8 thousands pounds of heritage breed, organic pork. Jim picked the Berkshire breed of pig because they are known to be good mothers to their piglets and gentle farmyard denizens. Watching Jim scratch the ears of his 400 pound boar, I can attest to the fact that these pigs are indeed eaters, not fighters.

Listening to Jim talk about farming yeast, and raising pigs that are good moms, and how close to impossible it is to grow apples organically, I found myself surprised and a little embarrassed by a lump in my throat and and a tear in my eye. It wasn’t until later that I understood from where that emotional response to a complete stranger had come. When you go to a play or a symphony and you see someone give the performance of a lifetime, bringing forth everything they are and pouring out everything they know, it brings tears to your eyes. There’s something in that combination of skill and heart that we recognize as a gift that an individual gives to the rest of the world, a gift that makes the world brighter, more spacious, more filled with possibility. And even if Shakespeare instructs that “all the world’s a stage,” somehow we can miss virtuoso performances if the klieg lights aren’t pointed directly at someone like Jim Koan.

I thought we were just going on a road trip to get some of Al-Mar Orchard’s spicy-sweet hard cider, lovely in no small part because it’s also organic. I hadn’t expected to be both thunderstruck and brought to tears at finding in addition to sweet cider, the pragmatic ingenuity of a man who has spent his entire lifetime learning how to create sustainable growing systems. After talking for a couple of hours with Jim Koan, Al-Mar’s 3rd generation owner and apple grower after his dad and his grand-dad, it was clear that I was talking to a maestro orchestrating his finest performance. Seeing something like that is sweeter than cider.

4 Places to Get Your Fresh Local Turkeys for Thanksgiving!

Ernst Farm Turkeys in Ann Arbor

The Ernst family farm (in addition to chickens) has fresh turkeys on offer. They are Broad-breasted Whites and will be in the range of 20-25 lbs. dressed. They are $2.00/lb. and can be picked up at the Farmer’s Market on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving from 7am – 12pm. Or, they can be picked up at the Ernst Farm at 9440 Spies Rd. west of Ann Arbor that afternoon, by prior arrangement.

Call Ernst Farm at: 734-662-8085

Or see Mrs. Ernst at the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market on Saturdays.

Aric VanNatter Turkeys in Dexter

Aric has heritage Naragansett turkeys. They are fed natural soy, corn, oats, minerals, and fish meal for protein. They are outside on pasture and moved around every week.

Aric grows about 25 turkeys that he processes himself on his farm. They are $5/lb. and will be around 15-16 lbs. dressed. There will also be some smaller ones. Order now. He has about 10-12 turkeys remaining.

Call – 734-426-7932

Email – ajvann@sbcglobal.net

Aric will give a call the week before Thanksgiving about when to pick up the fresh birds. Turkeys will be ready for pickup Monday Nov. 19th, or Tuesday Nov. 20th at 6359 Joy Rd., in Dexter between Zeeb and Mast Rds.

You can also find Aric at the Dexter Farmer’s Market. He will have fresh chickens in the spring, but has frozen ones now. They are $2.25/lb. and approximately 4 and a half pounds. He will have fresh eggs again soon.

Bob and Carol Fletcher in Ann Arbor: Turkeys available at Morgan and York

From the Morgan and York website:

“Fletcher Farm Turkeys are Back! Back this year by popular demand, we are offering Fletcher Farm turkeys. Raised organically and free-range by Bob and Carol Fletcher at their family farm on Zeeb Rd at the west end of town.

Orders will be accepted through Friday, November 16 until 4PM as supplies last. Your turkey will arrive fresh, not frozen, and will be available for pick-up at the store on Wednesday, November 21 starting at 9AM.

These birds are available in a range of sizes, but please note that these are true agricultural products and some variation in weight is unavoidable. Please place your order in person at the store, or by phone.

Call: 734-662-0798

Local Free-Range Organic Fletcher Turkeys – $7/lb. Available sizes:

18-22 pounds

22-26 pounds

26 pounds or more”


John Harnois Turkeys near Pinckney

See more information about John Harnois Turkeys

John Harnois has heritage Naragansetts ($8/lb.) and also conventional Broad-breasted White turkeys ($3.50/lb.). They have been raised exactly the same way, with natural feed, outdoors in the day time and inside at night.

To order your turkey from John, email: harnoishappyhens@gmail.com

Send your name, address, phone number and whether you’d prefer a heritage or conventional bird. Also indicate whether you’d like a small (8-12lb.) or large (13-18lb.) bird. Size is not guaranteed, but John will accommodate as best he can.

The turkeys will be available for pick-up the weekend before Thanksgiving. For questions, email (above address) or give Kelly Dunham a call at 734-761-2333.

A Slow Food Farm Tour August 4, 2007

Old Pine Farm – oldpinefarm123@yahoo.com

One of the things that I’ve spent the most time examining in my food habits is the morality and economics of eating meat. We don’t eat a lot of meat, but when we do we want to be conscientious about it. Especially regarding the treatment of animals who are raised for meat in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, also known as CAFOs or factory farms. Because these places are immoral, polluting and hazardous (and because CAFOs are where most of the meat now sold cheaply in stores come from), we’ve stopped buying meat and chicken from traditional groceries. So it was wonderful to learn that there is an alternative that is both sustainable and humane. Old Pine Farm is on a tree-lined country road in Manchester. Kris Hirth raises chickens, cows, pigs, and emu for meat and offers a meat CSA – a monthly box of 13 pounds of meat.

Scratching the back of a pig with an old corncob, Kris’ regard for and connection with her animals is undeniable. She raises these animals with care for their well-being and with feed grown on her family’s farm. She demonstrates her care for her animals by giving them comfortable conditions both during and at the end of their lives. Believing that it’s kinder to them when it’s quick and they don’t know it’s coming, Kris hires an expert butcher come to the farm to slaughter the animals. It’s important to her to avoid the stress animals feel when traveling to an unfamiliar place and waiting in the harsh conditions at a slaughterhouse – usually without shade, food or water. So Kris doesn’t allow her animals to be sent to a USDA processing facility, even though it would be cheaper for her and she could sell the meat in local groceries if she did. According to Kris, the main thing the USDA inspection does is verify that an animal is alive before it is slaughtered, for which the criteria “alive” is demonstrated by the ability to blink.

The Blueberry Patch – (517) 522-4796

Like Kris Hirth, Steve Toth could sell his beautiful organic blueberries for twice the price if he were willing to work within the established food system. But he doesn’t want to deal with the hassle. So if you want delicious organic blueberries, you have to go to his farm in Grass Lake and pick them yourself. For $3.50 a pound you strap on a berry bucket and walk into berry heaven. His forty-year old blueberry bushes are at least 8 feet high. The entire patch is covered in berries and completely netted to protect it from birds. I heard one woman exclaim that she had heard about having berry-picking experiences like this, but had never seen such a gorgeous profusion before. It truly is blueberry nirvana. And Steve is a character with a Grizzly Adams beard and silly stories that will entertain the kids.

As great as it is, the Blueberry Patch is just a sideline. Steve’s main business is de-constructing ancient barns to rescue wood that we don’t have any more – oak planks 3 inches thick and 15 feet long, mahogany boards an inch thick and 3 feet wide, things like that. He talks about the ancient forests that once covered Michigan, with trees that rivaled the redwoods and were probably 3000 years old when the first European settlers arrived here. He says that by the 1850s those trees had all been cut down, and now only the oldest barns still have remnants of those lost and mighty giants. Steve and his brother re-purpose the wood to make furniture and mantle-pieces. They don’t use stains because the wood color is so dark and rich by itself. So visiting the Blueberry Patch was really a 2 for 1 deal, getting great berries and learning a little bit about Michigan history in the process.

Tantre Farm – tantrefarm@hotmail.com

Around a bend in Hayes Road in Chelsea around 15 years ago, Richard Andres bought 50 acres of land, owned by sisters, that had long lain fallow. He quickly got organic certification and started Tantre Farm, growing mostly potatoes and peppers for sale in local markets. When he and Deb Lentz married around 5 years later, they were able to expand the operation of the farm to grow even more produce and start an organic CSA. The Tantre Farm CSA now has about 240 members who, each week, get a box of gorgeous, locally grown organic produce from June until mid-October.

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and participating is like getting a subscription to a particular farm for a “farm share.” You pay a fee at the beginning of the season and then share in the seasonal produce from the farm as it comes. Lettuce, asparagus and lots of greens in late spring and early summer; tomatoes, melon, corn and basil in high summer; and finally things like brussels sprouts, root crops and hard winter squashes as the season ends.

Along with flowers, herbs, and a few u-pick berries Richard and Deb grow about 80 different food crops that go in the weekly CSA boxes. Although Deb sends an email alerting members about what will be included, each week is a fun surprise to see what will be there. Deb sends recipes along with her weekly update to give ideas for what to do with things like kohlrabi and extra summer squash.

Deb and Richard welcome their members to come to the farm almost any time and for almost any reason. They just ask that you call ahead. You can visit to help out with whatever is happening that day, or just to have a picnic in a lovely, bucolic setting. The people who seem to love it the most are the scores of kids who get to run around barefoot, feed the cows and the goats, swing on the high, high tree swing, sit in the hammock, or hide in a sunflower teepee.

Finally

When a visiting relative reflected recently that I know personally the family who grows our vegetables, the man who provides our meat, and the lady who get us our eggs, I was surprised and happy to agree. I hadn’t thought about it like that exactly. The unexpected bonus of eating sustainable and real food has been learning the faces and knowing the names of real people and nearby places where our food comes from. It’s all connected. As I read in the paper this morning, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I think the food system is included in there.

To find more contact information for these farms and others in our area, look on the wonderful Local Harvest website: http://www.localharvest.org/

Michigan Cheeses

Yes, Virginia, there is a Michigan Artisanal Cheese

And surprise – according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture, Michigan is the 8th largest producer of cow’s milk in the country, with 300,000 cows producing 5.7 billion pounds of milk. While everyone in Michigan probably knows about Pinconning cheese produced on a massive scale and sold in hard orange vacuum packed bricks, less well-known is that Michigan also has a few small scale cheesemakers turning out some very unique regional specialties. Some of these special cheeses include an amazing nutty and firm Raclette from Leelanau County and John Loomis’ incredible goat cheeses at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor.

Cheese in Brief

Although the world of cheese contains hundreds of varieties, at Morgan and York’s fabulous cheese class they teach that cheese falls into 6 main types of “recipes.” These categories are: 1) Fresh (like Fromage Frais or Mascarpone), 2) Soft (like Chevre or Mozzarella), 3) Washed rind (Munster, Epoisses), 4) Cooked curd (Comte, Gruyere), 5) Blue (Gorgonzola, Stilton), and 6) Hard (Cheddar, Piave). Each individual cheese is its own little ecosystem, with both good bacteria acting to create many of the nuanced flavors and forms of the cheese and bad bacteria that can be kept in check with cleanliness and the health of the good bacteria. Interestingly, there is a Michigan made cheese in each of the main categories of cheese except blue.

Cheese *IS* Milk

Because cheese *is* milk, concentrated 5-10 times in the process of cooking, pressing, and aging, the quality, treatment and taste of the milk that makes the cheese are paramount in the ultimate fullness and flavor of the finished cheese.

Getting Milk to the Cheesemaker: the Raw vs. Pasteurized Debate

One of the main debates in Michigan and elsewhere around artisanal cheese is the “raw v. pasteurized” milk war. Many myths surround the raw v. pasteurized debate, but it only makes sense (and thousands of years before pasteurization prove) that well-produced and carefully handled milk, whether raw or pasteurized, is what makes great cheese. Any cheese can be contaminated either in the making or in the post production phase if sanitary procedures are not followed. Time magazine recently ran an article about raw milk farmers in Michigan – some people believe that the large dairy interests in the state are working to drive out smaller farmers supplying even highest quality raw milk. Although pasteurized milk cheese is also excellent, a war on raw milk cannot benefit cheese lovers.

Whether made with raw or pasteurized milk, one of the reasons that there are not more Michigan artisanal cheeses is the problem that a small cheesemaker has with getting a consistent supply of really superior milk. While 30 years ago there were over 12,500 dairy farms in Michigan, in 2005 there were but 2800. And only a few of those (mostly small family-owned farms) producing the quality of milk needed for great cheese.

Cheeselovers Need Great Dairies

Some dairies close to us that produce milk that is good enough to turn into incredible cheese are:

  • Calder Dairy: in Carleton, MI supplying milk, butter, cream, yogurt, cottage cheese and still offering home delivery.
  • Grassfields Farm in Coopersville, MI makes Raw Milk Gouda, Edam and Leyden cheeses along with their own special Polkton Corners cheese.
  • Cook’s Farm Dairy in Ortonville, MI also makes their own ice cream which they sell on site.

Supporting Michigan Cheesemakers

Because the quality of the milk and way in which the cheese is made matter so much to the final product, it pays to know your cheesemaker. And your dairy farmer. And your cheesemonger cannot be forgotten. A Michigan Cheese Tasting in April, 2007 sponsored by Slow Food Huron Valley, showcased the cheeses of four Michigan cheesemakers. We tasted close to a dozen different cheeses along with bread and other delicious side dishes provided by Zingerman’s.

  • Grassfields Farms makes their Gouda and Edam in Coopersville, Michigan. With 125 cows in their dairy, they are set to be certified organic this summer. The cheesemaker is a fourth generation farmer who has been making cheese for five years. You can buy Grassfields Gouda at the People’s Food Coop on Fourth Ave. in Ann Arbor.
  • Traffic Jam and Snug makes Asiago and a Hickory Smoked Colby once a month. The cheesemaker also makes the beer at this local Detroit brewery and creamery. They are making only a batch of cheese a month. Traffic Jam and Snug is in Detroit.
  • Leelanau Cheese Company at Black Star Farms makes a special Raclette. In Sutton’s Bay, MI, Black Star focuses on making European style cheese and specializes in Raclette with pasteurized milk from Martin Farm Dairy. You may have to go up north to find this one.
  • Zingerman’s Creamery and master cheesemaker John Loomis specialize in fresh goat and cow’s milk cheese using milk from a goat milk cooperative and from Calder dairy. They make 2 different cheeses every day which are available at Zingerman’s of course: the Deli, the Creamery, the Roadhouse. And also at the Farmer’s Market on Saturdays.

Learn More about Cheese!

To appreciate cheeses from Michigan and beyond, some excellent places to learn include:

  • Morgan and York, offering a 3-session classes on the regions, making, and taste of the world’s cheeses in their fabulous Cheese Discovery Tour.
  • Zingerman’s has many tasting events, often including cheese. The wonderful Zingerman’s Creamery offers more than a dozen housemade cheeses with tours of the Creamery every Sunday.

June is National Dairy Month

Don’t forget: June is National Dairy Month. Michigan cheeses are amazingly good and they want you to eat them. And the more we eat Michigan cheese, the more the cheesemakers will want to make.