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Made for Making Cheese. An interview with Cliff Hatch of Upinngil Farm

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2019 April Issue Newsletter

By Caro Roszell, NOFA/Mass Education Director

Cliff Hatch never intended to become a strawberry farmer—that was just one of his more successful strategies to figuring out how make a living farming—but he “always wanted to be a cheesemaker.” Growing up on a dairy farm in Granby, MA, he says he was fascinated by the process of turning milk into cheese. “It always seemed to be one of the more mysterious products ,” he told me in an interview on March 25, 2019 at his office at Upinngil Farm (Gill, MA).

Even when he was a pre-law student at Eisenhower University studying Germanic languages and comparative literature, he found himself helplessly fascinated by dairy products. “I remember working in the school kitchens, spooning buckets of sour cream into steel serving bowls and thinking—this is what I want to do.” Given an opportunity at that time (while working his way through college in the kitchen) to begin making yoghurt for the dining service, he jumped at the chance. Soon, compelled, Cliff switched from literature, law and language to culinary school and had a successful career in the restaurant industry.

Working in a hotel, he was thrilled by the sheer range of cheeses, and by the way that the hotel chefs worked to import whole, raw materials from farmers around the world. He recalls bringing in 80# blocks of parmesan and how the kitchen staff would cut them down and grate them for dishes—and how there were cheeses for every application, including fine desert cheeses. It was amazing to him what an incredible diversity of flavors and forms could be produced from essentially the same raw product—milk.

It wasn’t until Cliff left the restaurant industry to start his homestead in Gill, MA, that he starting cheese making in earnest. He started with a flock of sheep that he milked, and then started picking up milk from a neighbor. He experimented a lot in those days, and while many of hisc experiments ended up feeding the chickens, through trial and error he began to learn what was possible to do at a homestead scale.

At the same time, his strawberry business was taking off, and so he bought the current Upinngil Farm to support the popular crop, and he decided to start making cheese to sell to his strawberry customers. The original business plan, he says, was to make cheese in the winter and stock it during the strawberry season rush.

Cliff Hatch of Upinngil Farm“I was just wandering in the wilderness,” he says of this time, when he struggled to get good access to information about how to run a dairy and artisan cheese making business in a way that was legal. “It was the very beginning of the artisan food movement,” he said, and even the Department of Public Health didn’t have guidance for someone at his scale making the kinds of cheeses he was making.

Eventually, he says, ‘I got busted.’ It wasn’t until the DPH was putting biohazard tape around his refrigerator and inventorying his ‘contraband’ cheese-making supplies that he realized that he had to make a decision about whether to make a serious approach to cheese-making. Over the next several years he built a Grade A inspected raw milk dairy which quickly became a central part of the business and worked with the DPH to figure out how he, and others, could legally sell artisan cheese.

Now Cliff is working in his second inspected and approved creamery (after growing out of his first) and still makes the cheese for his family farm (which he now runs with his daughter Sorrel and son-in-law Isaac as full-time farmers). The integrated farm includes the popular pick-your-own strawberry business, a vegetable CSA, a raw milk dairy, eggs, pork, beef, grain, and other enterprises.

Cliff Hatch making cheeseOn May 18, Cliff will teach a class on how to make soft cheeses. ‘Soft cheeses are where to start,’ he said. They can easily be made with common household items and require the least mechanization, so you don’t need to invest in expensive supplies to start making soft cheeses for your own household. And, they’re nicely timed for early summer before the milk takes on a very yellow color due to the beta carotene that is stored in milk when cows are introduced to fresh pasture, which causes your blue cheese to start looking, well, green. “It’s not as appealing to the eyes at that point,” he commented, adding that high summer milk was best for cheddars and other more yellow cheeses.

Soft cheeses are the best way to learn the fundamentals, Cliff explained. He will explain different tips and techniques for household economy in making cheese—such as how to make mother cultures and freeze them to reuse (so you don’t have to keep buying cultures) and how to adapt or repurpose common kitchen items for cheese-making needs.

To register for this full-day, hands-on workshop, visit https://www.nofamass.org/events/making-soft-cheeses and follow the link to Brown Paper Tickets.


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