During the month of May, in celebration of American Cheese Month, we’re spotlighting some of our local cheesemakers. These small producers keep our cheese case well-stocked with their unique, handcrafted cheeses. Each one has a unique story, and a true passion for the craft of cheesemaking.
A big thanks to Hannah Sessions, our first cheesemaker spotlight, for taking the time to share with us the history of Blue Ledge Farm and why their cheeses are so darn delicious!
Q. Can you tell us your name and your role at Blue Ledge Farm?
A. My name is Hannah Sessions and I am a co-owner of Blue Ledge Farm, with my husband of 20 years, Greg Bernhardt. Greg and I wear different hats on the farm: I manage the herd of 150 dairy goats, Greg manages the manufacturing of the cheese; I market and distribute the cheese, and Greg keeps the books as well as makes hay and maintains the equipment. We couldn’t do all of this without our team of employees: four part-time cheesemakers and three part time in the barn.
Q. What can you tell us about the history of the farm?
A. Blue Ledge Farm was originally a cow dairy farm. Two families before us made their livelihoods milking cows here for 30 years a piece. We purchased what was left of the expansive dairy farm: approximately 150 acres, a lovely traditional Gambrel tie-stall dairy barn and a house built in 1798. We were drawn to this farm for its ribbon of rocky ledge (hence the name Blue Ledge) which runs through the barnyard and which the goats love to frolic on year round.
Q. How and when did Blue Ledge Farm first get involved in cheese?
A. Our intention was always to make goat cheese. We purchased the farm in 2000, conserved the farm with the Vermont Land Trust, and invested these funds in building our initial cheese plant. We got our license to sell cheese in August of 2002.
The first cheese we produced was fresh chèvre. Fresh cheeses are a great way to get a cheese business started because they don’t require extensive aging space and the financial turnaround is faster than with a cheese that ages for months. Slowly we expanded our facility and worked into the semi-aged and aged cheeses, which today are a huge part of our annual cheese production. Now we have three make rooms and a 30’ x 60’ underground cave for aging our various cheeses. We brought in our line of cow’s milk cheeses in 2008 as a way to extend our cheesemaking into the winter months when goats are not milking. We are fortunate that there is an amazing herd of Ayrshire cows just four miles away and we have been purchasing milk from the same farm for 13 years now.
Q. What makes your product unique or special?
A. We make high-quality, clean milk from a herd of healthy and well-cared for goats. We have been an Animal Welfare Approved farm since 2015, ensuring that our goats have ample space and constant outdoor access. The Ayrshires that produce our full line of cow’s milk cheeses also are on a small, family-owned and run grass-based dairy. I believe good care comes through in the milk and therefore the cheese. We process milk every two days for most of the year, so the milk is very fresh. We also hand ladle all of our curds. This is very labor intensive but we feel its worth it as gentle handling creates a lighter, more sublime texture to the cheese.
Q. Who is your head cheesemaker and where did that person learn their craft?
A. My husband Greg is still the head cheesemaker. He is primarily self taught, learning through mentors, research, trial and error … and a big one: intuition. Someone once described him as the most intuitive cheesemaker they had ever met. He can read curds and know what they need in the present moment as well as in the future! He is helped by cheesemakers Sydney and Joi. One interesting fact: Not all milk is the same; for instance, goat milk behaves completely differently than cow milk during the cheesemaking process!
Q. What are the most important things to you in the cheesemaking process?
A. There are many efficiencies that we look for as cheesemakers, such as putting everything on wheels, making larger batches, washing moulds in a circulating vat and not by hand, but some parts of the process can never be short-cutted. Hand pouring curds is something that Greg will not sacrifice for efficiency, for example, as he believes that to be an essential part of the artisanal make process. Also, I believe all cheesemakers would say that proper cleaning is an essential aspect of their craft.
Q. How has the Covid-19 crisis impacted your business?
A. We felt the shock waves of Covid initially, as did everyone else. Due to the freshness (and therefore shorter shelf life) of many of our cheeses, we had to pivot our sales quickly to focus more on direct sales. We brushed off the ecommerce part of our website, pursued other direct-to-consumer avenues, and built an on-farm farmstand, all of which continue to exist today! We also made a lot of aged cheeses during the uncertain times. The vast majority of our business is via distributors and stores (like Woodstock Farmers’ Market!) and we are happy to say that business has bounced back! 2020 ended up being a very strong year for us.
Q. Anything new or exciting coming up at the farm?
A. We have expanded our little aforementioned farmstand to include Blue Ledge merchandise and cheese accompaniments, which has been a lot of fun. Some people know that Greg and I are both painters (in fact, we exhibit at the Woodstock Gallery), and our stand can now accommodate some of our art cards as well as Greg’s amazing book of poetry and his novel. We have a new cheese this spring as well: Honey Chèvre with Orange. Hope you get to try it!
Q. Do you have a desert island cheese?
A. Love this question! We are literally crazy about all of our cheeses, but our desert island cheese has always been and will always be the Crottina. We love the understated, elegant simplicity of our Crottina. It was our first venture into bloomy rind cheeses, and it won us our first national award at the American Cheese Society, which sort of put us on the map. Our staff favorite is the Riley’s 2×4. On a daily basis I probably consume the most of the Richville (I am obsessed).
Q. Anything else you’d like to add?
A. We have a special connection with Woodstock as Hannah’s grandmother, born Elizabeth Doton, was raised on a farm in Pomfret (now the Jenne Farm). Our extended Doton family still live and farm in Woodstock and are partly responsible for Hannah’s interest in agriculture all those years ago!
Blue Ledge Farm cheeses are 10% off through Sunday, May 9th!