Fine Farmstead Cheese
Cato Corner dairy gets whey more for curds than milk.
About a dozen years ago, Liz McAlister of Colchester, Connecticut, was faced with the reality that she couldn’t make a living as a dairy farmer if she continued on a conventional milk marketing path. Even though Connecticut sits in the middle of the most densely populated region of the country with a huge market for dairy products in nearby New York City, Federal Milk Marketing Orders make it a challenge for many New England dairy farmers to make ends meet.
Motivated by falling milk prices and increased expenses, Liz attended a local seminar sponsored by the Connecticut Department of Agriculture and discovered an opportunity to direct-market farmstead dairy products throughout the region.
“I knew I always wanted to (have a) dairy and do something with cheeses,” Liz says. “My father used to make these wonderful cheeses from sheep’s milk, and I loved it.”
Drawing on early cheese-making experiences with her father and some added training from California Polytechnic College, Liz stepped off the conventional dairy train in 1997 and began crafting aged European-style cheeses at her farm. Initially, Liz sold her cheeses at local farmers’ markets. However, the seasonality of those outlets posed a cash flow problem that was solved with help from the Greenmarket program in New York City.
Today, Liz sells her Cato Corner Cheeses at three markets – two in Brooklyn and one at Union Square on Saturdays throughout the year, and again, at Union Square during the week.
When you meet Liz, she’s quick with a smile and generous with her time, but you’ll soon find out that this is one hard-working woman. Running a dairy farm involves an endless cycle of chores – cows have to be milked twice a day, they have to be fed along with the young stock, barns have to be cleaned, fences have to be mended and pastures have to be looked after. At Cato Corner, that’s all in addition to making and marketing the cheese.
In 1999, Liz’s son, Mark Gillman, joined the fledgling business, and he’s now responsible for the cheese-making aspect of the operation. The pair also participates in a foreign exchange program where students interested in learning the cheese-making trade live and work at the farm for months at a time.
With a 25 to 30 cow herd of mostly Jerseys, Cato Corner’s roughly 1,100 pounds daily milk production is converted (right at the farm) to about 120 pounds of cheese in a room adjacent to the milking parlor. The cheese is molded into wheels and aged in an underground cold storage cellar for no less than 60 days, which is required by law in Connecticut for raw milk cheeses.