Sidle up to the cheese counter, and you'll usually find bright-golden wheels of Hidden Hills' Old Gold and Buttercup stacked up on display. They are both staff favorites and bestsellers at the 'stand, and one bite is all it takes to find out why. A few months back, Hidden Hills' owner and cheesemaker, Lori Sollenberger, was kind enough to answer some of our burning questions about her farm, her process, and what sustainability means to her.
If you’re hunting for the perfect pickle, look no further than the rows of Epic Pickles lined up on the farmstand shelves. Ranging from the classic Kosher Pickle to Spicy Carrots and Cauliflower, a jar is hard to resist. With a bold name like Epic Pickles, we’re here to confirm the product lives up to the hype. Rob Seufert, owner, recently answered some questions from Fair Food about the origins of his business and realities of a Philly food artisan. Want to ask Rob some of your own questions? Find Epic Pickles April 8th at Philly Farm and Food Fest in the PA Convention Center (tickets can be purchased here).
Fair Food: When did you start your business, and what got you into this kind of work?
Rob Seufert: I started Epic in 2011. After trying some flavored pickles for the first time I thought I’d try making some for myself. Little did I know where it would go!
FF: From where do you source the ingredients for your products?
RS: I use local wholesalers/distributors to acquire all my ingredients. And fortunately when they can acquire locally, they do too.
FF: How would you characterize your business philosophy?
RS: Do it fresh. Do it right. Make it Epic!
FF: What does sustainable agriculture mean to you, and how does it apply to your business/products?
RS: Anything we can do to make a better product while being conscious to our ecosystem, I’m all for it. And whether it’s dry spices or fresh produce we get for each batch, it makes a difference.
FF: Do you have a favorite product to make? If so, why?
RS: Not sure I have a favorite to make, but the trial-and-error of creating a new product is probably most fun. Invention even in its simplest form can be very exciting.
FF: Why did you choose to build your business in the Greater Philadelphia region?
RS: I think the location chose Epic. When the idea of making pickles first came to mind, I thought of all the great farmers and markets in the region. It’s where I sourced my first test batches!
FF: Is there anything you wish you had known before you started your business? What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out?
RS: Where do I start? Every day is a new challenge, just take it one step at a time. And do your research!
FF: What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a food artisan?
RS: As a food artisan it has to be how to sell or market your product. Most of us are small businesses that need to rely on grass roots efforts to get the word out—not just social media. It can be difficult.
FF: What are some of the greatest rewards?
RS: The greatest rewards are hearing the praise and seeing the smiles on customers’ faces—it’s a great feeling!
FF: Are there any goals you hope to accomplish or milestones you hope to reach for your business in 2017?
RS: We’ve been very blessed with word-of-mouth growth these past few years, but that only goes so far. So we’re looking at new distribution networks to get the Epic word out! Onward and upward!!
The month of March traditionally provides the first glimpses of warmer, spring weather in the midst of winter’s tumultuous throws. For many of our farmers, March is tumultuous for another reason: lambing, calving, and kidding spring seasons usher in waves of new life with similar highs and lows. The ultimate reward is a new group of healthy, happy lambs, calves, or kids who may grow to have their milk made into delicious cheeses like those at Yellow Springs Farm. Located in Chester Springs, PA, Yellow Springs Farm raises goats and provides favorite Farmstand goat cheeses such as Cloud Nine and Pepito.
Catherine Renzi, one half of the duo that owns Yellow Springs Farm, recently shared with Fair Food the importance of present work for sustainable future visions, including the generations of goats who have yet to arrive.
Fair Food: When did you start making cheese, and what got you into this kind of work?
Catherine Renzi: We started making cheese for friends and family in 2004—by 2009 we were licensed by PDA and selling cheese commercially. Several years ago we also became a Grade A dairy. We love to cook, and enjoy good food. When we had 2-3 goats – just pets—it seemed like fun to make cheese with extra milk on hand.
FF: Do you raise your own animals? If so, how would you characterize your farming practices / what methods do you use to protect your animals from infestations and diseases?
CR: We raise our animals with love. Each one has a name and a story. They are employees on our farm—like us, they work to contribute to the greater good. When they are successful, our Farm is successful. We use natural and sustainable farming methods, including some organic practices, but we are not certified organic.
We buy local hay and grains, and our goats graze healthy pasture. We also feed them invasive plants from our woodland—healthy browse for goats. We do not routinely use antibiotics or hormones in the dairy herd. If on a rare occasion a goat needs medication for an illness, we discard the milk, and exclude it from our cheese processing until the milk no longer contains any drug residue..
FF: Where do you age your cheeses, and what measures do you take to prevent spoilage and other issues?
CR: The most important ingredient in our cheese is our milk. We collect milk in a sanitary facility from healthy animals. We pasteurize our milk before we make cheeses. We age cheeses in a clean aging room. We monitor temperature and humidity as the cheeses age, and handle them with gloves.
FF: What does sustainable agriculture mean to you, and how is it connected to cheesemaking?
CR: Sustainability is often linked to people, profit and planet. We take care of our customers, our helpers, our goats, and ourselves—all must be happy, healthy and motivated to make good cheese. We price our products to make a fair profit, while covering expenses for animal care, facility maintenance, and food safety practices and protocols. Cutting corners to lower costs is not our plan; instead we hope each year to make cheese better than ever. We also think ahead to future generations of goats, plants and people who will live on our Farm. We think about water quality, erosion management, recycling, waste reduction, and conservation every day. Our Farm has solar panels that provide a large portion of our electricity, and we donated a conservation easement to protect our landscape in perpetuity.
FF: Do you have a favorite cheese to make? If so, why?
CR: Cloud Nine is made by hand—each piece is formed like a snowball by our human hands. It feels like art, or clay pottery when we shape each unique piece. This tactile connection is satisfying.
FF: Which cheeses are the toughest to make? Why?
CR: We have a newer Alpine cheese that tastes great after aging 4-6 months. Most of our cheeses age two months or less, so this one takes patience. Plus, if you feel inspired to improve it, the wait until the results of our tweaks seems endless. We empathize with wine makers who can only make wine once a year with the grape harvest.
FF: Is there anything you wish you had known before you started making cheese? What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out?
CR: Decide if you are making cheese to fulfill a romantic notion or hobby, or creating a business venture. Be honest with yourself—either way—and make sure your actions and decisions are consistent with your intentions
Do it for love—love of food, or animals or nature, or a combination of these. Do it because you can’t imagine how you could not do it! Otherwise, it will only be hard work and stress, and a low-paying job. There are lots of other ways to make more money, and most jobs require you to work fewer hours with more flexible schedules, such as paid holidays, or weekends off. Be careful what you wish for, but if you become a cheesemaker, have fun and enjoy the ride!
FF: What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a cheesemaker and/or farmer?
CR: There is never enough time or money to realize all the ideas , goals and dreams … we have to choose carefully how to allocate our resources, and be satisfied each day with where we are in the moment, while keeping an eye on the future. I try to remember that the satisfaction comes from the journey more than arrival at a certain destination.
Americans are accustomed to low food prices as a percentage of their household income. It is important to educate consumers about food quality and food production so they can differentiate among food choices, and learn to value food in a more discerning way, rather than as commodity products. Of course, consumer food choices are very personal and individualistic, so we must also keep learning from our community members so we may satisfy their needs.
FF: What are some of the greatest rewards?
CR: We love people who love our cheese, and enjoy hearing stories of gatherings where our cheeses were served for celebrations, or somehow helped spread happiness and goodwill.
We also realize now that over 50 people (most but not all, younger than us) have helped at our Farm over the years. Some stay in touch and share anecdotes of how their time here influenced their lives. This is an unexpected benefit of our productivity here.
FF: Are there any goals you hope to accomplish or milestones you hope to reach for your dairy/business in 2017?
CR: We are again trying to make the cheeses even better than in 2016! We are also working to grow distribution of our goat milk yogurts around the region this year.
Ever wonder how we're able to carry tender, locally grown butterhead and mixed lettuce at the Farmstand, even in the coldest days of winter? Well, it's all thanks to the beauty of indoor hydroponic farming, and the passion and hard work of Tim Gehman and his crew at the Gehman Family Farm in Telford, PA. The Gehmans grow lettuce, basil, and pea shoots year-round in greenhouses that are heated primarily by the sun and with the help of wood and propane stoves in the winter. And as though their operation wasn't sustainable enough, they grow their crops in rainwater that has been harvested from their greenhouse roofs and cycled through a closed loop system.
Recently, the farm's owner, Tim Gehman, was kind enough to answer a few quick questions about his growing practices, his thoughts on sustainability, and his overall farming philosophy.
Fair Food: When did you start farming, and what got you into this kind of work?
Tim Gehman: I grew up in a family operated greenhouse and produce business.
FF: How would you characterize your core growing practices?
TG: Our growing practices are sustainable closed loop hydroponic growing.
FF: What methods do you use to protect your crops from infestations and diseases?
TG: We control the climate as best we can to minimize pests and diseases. We exclude insects with insect screening. We provide food such as flowers with nectar for beneficial insects. We use a banker plant system to provide food for the beneficials. We use organic and conventional sprays very rarely.
FF: What does sustainable agriculture mean to you?
TG: Sustainable means not harming the environment. It also means profitable. That which is not profitable and practical will not long be sustained. It means paying our employees a living wage.
FF: Which crops are the toughest to grow/raise?
TG: Basil is the most finicky of the greens and herbs we grow.
FF: Is there anything you wish you had known before you started farming? What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out?
TG: To someone starting out: start small and learn as you go. Don’t endeavor to start with a million dollar operation, whatever it is. Passion to learn and provide the best you can to your market is the top thing you need to have. If you want to be a farmer, be ready to work hard. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. If you need a source of advice, talk to experienced farmers or the county extension agents. Don’t buy a franchise type of business. Buy some good books on your interest and visit real farmers.
FF: What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a farmer?
TG: The biggest challenge is the weather. The next biggest challenge is finding good employees.
FF: What are some of the greatest rewards?
TG: Being able to raise a family on the farm. The opportunity to work together. Farmers work with God and nature to feed the world.
FF: Are there any goals you hope to accomplish or milestones you hope to reach for your farm in 2017?
TG: We are always improving and making improvements. In 2015 and very early 2016, we added another greenhouse. In 2016 we became GAP certified. We are always working on food safety.
We’re excited to announce that we’ll soon be welcoming La Divisa Meats and Wyebook Farm to our newly renovated space in the Reading Terminal Market! La Divisa and Wyebrook hope to move in for the holidays, but in the meantime, let’s get to know one of our soon-to-be stallmates! Read on for a Q&A with Dean Carlson, owner of Wyebrook Farm.