Q&A with Catherine Renzi of Yellow Springs Farm

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.