You could say it all started with Dave Matthews’s goats.
Back in 2005, Gail Hobbs-Page was living in the countryside near Charlottesville, a self-described recovering chef. When she learned that the musician was looking for someone to start a goat dairy and cheesemaking program at his nearby farm, she signed on, even though she was a cheesemaking novice. And when, a year later, the farm decided to streamline its operation to focus on beef cattle and heirloom apples, Hobbs-Page took home the dozen or so goats — she calls them a generous consolation gift — and started making cheese on her own.
“Yes, I rather naively jumped into cheesemaking,” says Hobbs-Page, 55. “I figured if I could cook, I could make cheese. Now when I think about it, I think: Really?”
Now in its ninth year of production, Caromont Farm, which Hobbs-Page runs with her husband, Daniel Page, and a small staff, makes about 30,000 pounds of cheese a year. Its Esmontonian, an aged, semi-firm cheese, won a second-place award in 2014 from the American Cheese Society in the American Made/International Style category. Caromont also makes a farmstead chevre; a bloomy-rind goat’s milk cheese; and two cow’s milk cheeses using organic milk from a nearby farm.
In addition to accolades over the past near-decade, there have been growing pains, a successful Kickstarter campaign and a goat-cuddling event that went viral on social media and attracted so many volunteers, it nearly became a victim of its own success. “The trajectory of this business has been a lot of luck, a lot of heartache and a lot of reality, of buckling down and just saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this thing,’ ” Hobbs-Page says.
As Lisa Bogan, Caromont’s new sales manager and a longtime friend of Hobbs-Page, puts it: “Gail is relentless. . . . She just goes and goes. You have to have that to be a farmer.”
Virginia’s cheesemaking scene is not big — there are about 80 producers — but it is on the rise, says Dany Schutte, a Richmond-based cheese consultant and former cheesemonger at Southern Season and Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market, both in Richmond. So is cheesemaking nationally: The American Cheese Society has seen its membership more than double since 2004, to almost 1,700 members. Most of the artisan and specialty cheesemakers the society surveyed in 2012 were around the size of Caromont or smaller, with 71 percent producing less than 25,000 pounds of cheese a year.
Schutte compares Virginia’s cheese-producing industry to the state’s wine industry as it was just a decade or two ago. “Wine and cheese go hand in hand,” she says. “Over the last 15 years, our wine scene has finally grown up; we are getting highly competitive world-class wines. Following that is the burgeoning artisan food scene, and that includes cheese. We may be 10 years out, but we are building a critical mass that is going to elevate the cheesemaking industry in Virginia.”
Leading the way, Schutte says, is Meadow Creek Dairy in the southwest part of the state, which has been producing cheeses since 1980, including the award-winning Appalachian and Grayson varieties. “Meadow Creek has already established Virginia as a place of terroir cheesemaking,” she says, referring to the concept that cheese, like wine, expresses certain characteristics of the place where it is produced. “And I think Gail is next in line, and behind her some younger folks who are just getting started.”
Caromont Farm, located outside tiny Esmont, Va., sits at the end of a long gravel driveway on a wooded property overlooking a valley. If you visit, you are likely to be greeted upon arrival by Fidel, the farm’s boisterous peacock, who seems to have a thing about patrolling the parking area.
The farm is not a food-magazine-centerfold sort of place; it is an eclectic collection of permanent and temporary structures, each with a purpose: a hoop barn with plenty of hay for shelter and snacking for the 150 goats; a dairy parlor; a cheese-aging room; a trailer that often serves as temporary housing for interns; and, at the end of the property, the owners’ farmhouse. On a breezy morning in May, the goats, a mix of Alpines, Saanens and LaManchas, lounge around in clumps here and there: in the barn, under a canopied structure that provides shade and in grassy patches beneath the tall trees. A handful of them are inexplicably clustered around the front of an old pickup truck, as though inspecting the grille and headlights.
To say the goats are friendly is an understatement. The new kids, kept in a separate area, flock around Hobbs-Page, pushing their noses into her hand and nipping gently at her fingers. “Kidding season is my favorite time of year,” she says.
Farm life isn’t new to Hobbs-Page. She grew up on a peanut and tobacco farm in North Carolina and kept a few goats as a child: “I milked them, and I drank the milk, and I made yogurt and cheese.” She had no idea it would become her livelihood. In fact, she spent 26 years as a professional cook, working in restaurants including Magnolia Grill and the Fearington House, both in North Carolina, and Hamiltons’ at First & Main, in Charlottesville. “I was at a crossroads,” she says. “Actually, I was at the end of the road; I was burned out.”
She and her husband started Caromont with a $180,000 loan on her family’s North Carolina farm. “It was a seat-of-the-pants operation,” Daniel Page says. They made 320 pounds of fresh goat cheese their first year, using an old salad bar as a draining board for the curds. The cheese was good, clean-tasting and mild. But Hobbs-Page thought it was inconsistent, and the packaging, which featured a googly-eyed goat, was amateurish; it was eventually redesigned to depict a farmhouse on a hill.
“We had never packaged anything,” she says. “We had never shipped anything. We also knew very little about affinage,” the practice of ripening and aging cheese, “about rind development or culturing times.”
In 2010, she hired Bridge Cox, a University of Virginia graduate with a science degree who, like Hobbs-Page, had worked in kitchens and knew something about making cheese. This was a turning point. “Bridge is a hipster; he would stay up all night researching rennet on the Internet,” Hobbs-Page says, referring to the enzyme used to separate milk into cheese and whey. It was Cox who, together with Hobbs-Page, developed Caromont’s cheeses. He took an experiment that Hobbs-Page had been working on and turned it into what eventually became Esmontonian, a raw-milk, tomme-style cheese that is aged for 90 to 120 days. Cox also developed Red Row and Bloomsbury, the farm’s two cow’s milk cheeses.
“Ultimately, I think what really helped is that Gail and I come from a kitchen background,” says Cox. “The hours are long and the days are long, but you just keep your head down and you keep on moving. That’s what we did.”
Another turning point came in 2012, when Caromont raised almost $40,000 in a successful Kickstarter campaign — nearly $5,000 more than its goal. The money allowed the dairy to buy a new, larger cheesemaking vat and make other improvements, including the construction of a ripening room. Still, Hobbs-Page said, they were caught off guard when Esmontonian won the second-place award in the American Cheese Society competition. All of a sudden, requests were coming in from across the country from retailers who wanted to carry the cheese.
“That was probably the worst thing to happen to this company,” she says. “We weren’t prepared for the exposure. I didn’t have enough goats; I didn’t have the aging facility space. It was a bit of a nightmare, but you learn from that. We had to step back and ask ourselves, ‘Is it sustainable to send our cheese to Portland, Oregon?’ ”
Even as it works to refine its own vision and purpose, Caromont has always served as an incubator of sorts for young dairy farmers and cheesemakers. The farm’s first intern, Nathan Vergin, went on to start Silky Cow Farm, which now supplies Caromont with milk from grass-fed Jersey cows.
When Cox left in 2013 to start his own cheesemaking business — he is a partner at Twenty Paces, which makes sheep’s milk cheeses near Charlottesville — Hobbs-Page hired Joe Alstat, another creative young soul who had studied cheesemaking in Vermont. Alstat saw the dairy through a transitional period, helping to set up standards of practice and working to refine the cheeses. He is now a cheesemaker at Grey Barn Farm on Martha’s Vineyard.
Current cheesemaker Tyler Davis is also headed north, to Vermont, to work at Parish Hill Creamery. Meanwhile, current intern Isabella (Izzy) Zechini has been hired full time to work on social media and events at Caromont, including cooking classes and farm dinners. It is Zechini who, back in February, dreamed up the goat-cuddling volunteer days.
“We’ve always recruited volunteers to help us feed the babies and clean out the pens, but cuddling goats sounds a lot more adorable than cleaning pens,” Zechini says. After she posted the call for goat cuddlers on Caromont’s Facebook page, a local news affiliate picked up and aired the story, which in turn was picked up by other affiliates and eventually by online sites such as BuzzFeed and Huffington Post. First hundreds, then thousands signed up. The farm kept adding days and shifts to accommodate the volunteers. Finally, it ended up throwing a ticketed Goatapalooza open house.
“Social media to me has always been distant, like a hologram,” Hobbs-Page says. “But this was a revelation.”
If the episode taught Hobbs-Page a lesson about the power of social media, it also taught her that people have a strong desire to hug goats. Among those who came to take a turn caring for the animals were cancer survivors, autistic children, soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder and people looking for relief from the daily grind. “There is a clear need for farm therapy,” she says. “We had people in tears thanking us.”
And so Caromont Farm is at another crossroads. Hobbs-Page is now putting together a plan, still in the early stages, to buy a 16-acre piece of land next to Caromont to turn into a therapy farm. She is also continuing to slowly expand the cheesemaking operation. Her two newest hires reflect that evolving vision of the farm.
One is Bogan, the new sales manager, who, among other things, studied cheesemaking in Vermont and in Italy and worked as a cheesemonger at Di Bruno Bros. in Philadelphia. She plans to raise and milk goats for Caromont on an 8½ -acre farm she recently bought nearby.
The other is Mark Thompson, a Charlottesville native and founder of Starr Hill Brewery in the city, who sold his stake in that company last year. In addition to learning to make cheese, Thompson will focus on business and marketing strategy. “I’d like to take things to the next level,” he says. A longtime friend of Hobbs-Page who recently reconnected with her, Thompson says he was drawn to the idea of working at Caromont after attending the Goatapalooza.
“The thing that really endeared Gail and this company to me is her commitment to making a world-class product, right here,” he says. “That has never changed. She is just a fire-and-brimstone believer in what she is doing.”
Marchetti is author of seven books on Italian cooking, including the recently published “Preserving Italy.” She will join the Free Range chat Wednesday at noon.