Producer Q&A: Lori Sollenberger of Hidden Hills Dairy

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.

Fair Food: When did you start making cheese, and what got you into this kind of work?

Lori Sollenberger: I started cheesemaking in 2000 when we added a creamery to the farm in an effort to generate more income by making fresh cheeses. That project failed miserably.  Then in 2005, several things happened, creating serious financial issues. I dispersed the herd, keeping only a few animals and decided to try raw milk, aged cheeses.

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?

LS: We have our own herd of registered Jerseys. The cows are pastured during the growing season and fed hay during the winter. The forages are supplemented with a basic grain mix from the local co-op. The animals seem to stay pretty healthy since they are under little stress. We do use antibiotics to treat clinical cases of illness. Since we exhibit animals at the county fair, we also vaccinate the herd against several common diseases.

FF: Where do you age your cheeses, and what measures do you take to prevent spoilage and other issues?

LS: We age our cheeses in a room in the creamery designed for that. Quality cheese starts with quality milk, and keeping the milk clean and cold before processing is key to producing a good product. We also monitor temperatures and humidity in the aging room, and brush and clean the rinds as necessary.  

FF: What does sustainable agriculture mean to you, and how is it connected to cheesemaking?

LS: Sustainable agriculture ties together all of the pieces of the system to protect the land, water, and animals as well as the farmer and consumer, so choices are made that ensure the long-term survival of each piece. Cheesemaking can be part of that if the cheese is made in ways that honor and value tradition and feed the body and soul of the farmer and consumer.  

FF: Do you have a favorite cheese to make? If so, why?

LS: Not really. So far we have concentrated on fairly basic cheeses, and the make process is fairly similar for each. I have tried to make something like a Reblochon with no success, but if that ever works, I could see that one becoming a fun favorite.

FF: Which cheeses are the toughest to make? Why?

LS: I have been completely unsuccessful with anything washed rind. I don’t have the appropriate conditions in my aging room for that. So, to me, those seem difficult. 

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?

LS: It takes far more time than I expected to produce cheese. Selling is a huge commitment, too. And not my best skill.

FF: What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a cheesemaker and/or farmer?

LS: My biggest challenges are sales and time. We continue to work at growing sales, and there is never enough time. I am always neglecting some part of the business, most often the farm. I got into this so that I could continue to keep cows, since that is my passion. But that is the part that ends up getting shortchanged the most.

FF: What are some of the greatest rewards?

LS: I have truly treasured the people I have met along this journey. I did not get involved in sustainable agriculture groups until I started making cheese, so without cheese, I wouldn’t have met all of these great people. It is also rewarding to know that we are producing a clean, taste-filled, healthy food. 

FF: Are there any goals you hope to accomplish or milestones you hope to reach for your dairy/business in 2017?

LS: I feel as though we are just on the edge of being a successful, profitable business but have struggled to get beyond just cash flowing. Maybe 2017 will be the turning point!