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.
Liz and Mark are particular about the quality and taste of each batch of Cato Corner cheese. Cleanliness in the milking parlor is imperative. The cheese is only as good as the milk it’s made from, and the quality is dependent on both the health of the cows and the feed they eat. The foundation of the feeding program is grass pasture, supplemented with a custom-formulated grain mix from a local mill. Liz prefers to let the cows graze and stresses that her cheeses are not certified organic but they are all natural.
“I can taste the difference in the cheeses from spring to summer depending on how much grass there is for the cows to eat,” Liz says. “Our best cheeses are made when the cows have more grass to eat. We have some very discerning ethnic customers who are quite particular about the cheeses they buy. Pasturing gives the cheese a more desirable flavor for our market.”
In the space of 10 years, Liz and Mark have developed an impressive cheese business. In just a few years they outgrew their first small cheese aging room and, in 2004, received a state grant that allowed them to build the underground 12,000-pound capacity aging cellar. Cato Corner Farm produced more than 44,000 pounds of cheese in 2006. With unique names like Bridgid’s Abbey, Vivace and their award-winning Hooligan, the cheeses are now available in a growing selection of specialty stores in the Northeast and on the Web (www.CatoCornerFarm.com). And with the help of a national distributor, Cato Corner Cheeses are now offered in Chicago and California.
The formula for Cato Corner Farm’s success has been a strong entrepreneurial ambition, finding a niche market and producing a first-class product that keeps people coming back for more. At a time when the trend in the dairy industry is to “get big or get out,” Liz McAlister and Mark Gillman are winning big and doing something they love. “There’s such a huge market for artisan cheeses in the city,” Liz says. “I’m really surprised there aren’t more dairy farmers around here looking at this type of marketing.”
John Hibma is a freelance writer living in Connecticut with his wonderful wife of 30-plus years, and he will always be a farm boy at heart.