Pescadero is just an hour’s drive from where I live in the heart of Silicon Valley, but it’s worlds away from the frenetic pace of start-ups, gadgets and social media trends. Nestled a few miles east of the Pacific Ocean, it is part of a community of independent farms and producers that dot the coastline from Santa Cruz to San Francisco. Each day begins with a thick layer of fog that burns off to reveal a stunning landscape of rolling hills, pasture and farmland. I discovered this gem of a town when I profiled Blue House Farm last year and, upon many recommendations, seized the opportunity to return for a tour of Harley Farms, the county’s only goat dairy and farmstead cheese producer.
Deborah (Dee) Harley and her husband bought the land on which Harley Farms now stands in 1993. The 102-year-old property began life as a cow dairy under the ownership of George and Frank Goulart, two Portugese brothers from the Azores, but went out of business by the mid-1940s, when it became too hard for smaller dairies to compete with larger dairy farms in California’s Central Valley.
In those early days, Dee worked at nearby Jacobs Farm, where she connected with Nancy Gaffney, owner of Sea Stars Goat Cheese in Davenport – another coastal town 25 miles to the south. After picking up herbs at Dee’s house and seeing the pasture she had available, Nancy suggested that Dee raise some goats and sell the milk to Sea Stars. And so Harley Farms began with six of Nancy’s alpine goats, whose descendants constitute the 200-odd herd that roams the farm’s nine acres of pasture today.
“We started with a herd of six, which then became a herd of 12, 24, and so on, and all this while, Dee was milking each goat by hand, twice a day,” said Adriana Guzman, the farm’s office manager and our guide for the day. “At the peak, we were milking 32 goats by hand before purchasing a small electric milking machine that allowed us to milk four goats at a time.”
As the herd grew, Dee gradually worked to restore the dairy to its former glory: retrofitting the old milking parlor for her use, constructing shelter for the herd and installing farm infrastructure like fencing and feeding troughs. When Nancy eventually closed Sea Stars Goat Cheese, Dee took over her cheese-making equipment and brought cheese production in-house.
Today, the farm is able to milk 14 goats at a time, and milks their mature goats every 12 hours at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. Steel pipes transport the milk from the milking parlor into a huge vat in the processing room where it is stored before being transformed into cheese. The milk for ricotta is set aside and processed separately in a double boiler, with white wine vinegar and salt. Everything else, destined to be transformed into award-winning chevre, fromage blanc and feta, is transferred to another vat to be pasteurized at 146˚F for 30 minutes.
The milk is then cooled to 80˚F, after which 50 gallons are reserved for feta production (which requires more rennet and cultures than the softer cheeses), while rennet and cultures are added to the remaining milk and left to curdle overnight. The curds are drained the following morning in cheesecloths (usually for about a day), before being shaped into logs or rounds, and having flavors such as cranberry-walnut or tomato-basil added. The curds destined for feta are also left to drain overnight, but are then brine-soaked for a few more weeks before being packaged and sold.
Being a farmstead cheese producer means that the milk used for production comes exclusively from the farmer’s herd. It means that the flavor of the land melds with the unique characteristics of the farm’s location, its bacteria and seasonal variations, to produce a cheese that is truly a product of the place. One visit to Harley Farms and it’s immediately clear that they bring this philosophy of place to every aspect of the business. Goat manure is dried and added to the soil to nourish the herbs and flowers used in their cheese. Winter rains are collected in 5,000-gallon tanks that sit five feet underground and then pumped out to over 13 water troughs in the pasture. Nutrient-laden whey produced from the cheese-making process is either fed to the goats or given to a local hog farmer who feeds it to his pigs. Vegetables from their edible garden, along with their cheese and other local produce, are featured in the seasonal farm dinners held in a refurbished hayloft atop the barn. Everywhere you look, there are reminders of place, history and community, of the interdependence that undergirds our relationship with nature and with each other.
How important is eating local to you?
About the author: Danielle Tsi grew up in Singapore, a tiny, food-obsessed island on the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula, where every waking minute was spent thinking about what her next meal was going to be. Landing in the United States with her well-traveled Nikon, she turned her lifelong love affair with food into images and words on her blog, Beyond the Plate. When not behind the lens or at the stove, Danielle can be found on her yoga mat perfecting the headstand.