Md. cheese goes raw

One minute Eric Foster was touting cheese-making as a way to put the endangered family dairy farm on easy street. The next, his wife, Holly, was elbow deep in a vat of curds and whey, struggling to keep their morning's work from literally going down the drain.

As the Fosters made Maryland's first legal batch of raw milk cheese on their Easton dairy farm this week, cheese-making didn't look particularly easy - except when compared to all the work the couple had to do to get to this point.

For years, Maryland has banned the sale of raw milk because of health concerns. The ban also applied to products made with raw milk, even though such products made outside Maryland could be sold here.

Now, Maryland has started a test project allowing several dairy farms to produce raw milk cheese that is aged at least 60 days, a process that mimics pasteurization. And the Fosters' Chapel's Country Creamery is the first to start production.

"Don't expect too much," Eric Foster said with a laugh as he used a tool the size of an oar to stir the curds and whey.

But expectations are high. That three months from now - good Lord and good bacteria willing - the curds and whey will become fine blue cheese. That the blue cheese will command at least $22 a pound at farmers' markets and retailers such as Whole Foods. That this family farm can survive.

The last is perhaps the greatest challenge at a time when small dairy farms around the country are failing because of competition from mega milk producers, declining export markets and plummeting wholesale prices. The number of dairy farmers in Maryland has dwindled to 547 from about 800 just 10 years ago, according to state records.

To break even milking 85 grass-fed Jersey cows on their 114-acre farm, Eric and Holly Foster - both 39, with four children - need to make about $1.75 a gallon.

"You don't get rich, but you could pay your bills" at that price, Eric Foster said. "You could fix a flat tire."

Within the past two years, the Fosters got as much as $2.40 a gallon. Now the price is down to about $1.17 a gallon.

"This is the worst dairy crisis that's occurred in the last 100 years," he said. "It's just a bad spiral."

Cheese-making could help farms like theirs survive, even thrive, because the farmer reaps the return on a "value-added" product instead of a rock-bottom commodity.

"Cheese is the equivalent of $20 a gallon - $250 worth of milk, hopefully, becomes $3,000 worth of product," Eric Foster said.

But they can't make that churning out ordinary supermarket cheese. They need to tap into a high-end, niche market. Using raw milk helps them do that because the so-called "good bacteria," which would be killed in pasteurization, enhances the flavor.

"The way we're trying to market this cheese, it has to be a good cheese. It has to be the best of the best," said Eric Foster. "We can't compete with Kraft, which can just mass produce [pasteurized cheese] by the tractor-trailer load. It's artisanal, small-scale cheese-making."

The Fosters have been making upscale raw milk cheese for four years by carting their milk to Pennsylvania, which has looser milk laws. There, an Amish cheesemaker has helped them turn it into several varieties of cheddar, including a $20-a-pound, cave-aged "reserve" cheddar.

The oddest aspect of this arrangement: The Fosters turned around and sold the cheese in Maryland - legally. State law banned production of raw milk cheese, based on concerns that it could harbor dangerous bacteria, but did not prohibit its sale.

A chance encounter with a cheese-loving state senator helped change that little-known legal quirk. A few years ago, the Fosters were asked to provide a cheese table at a fundraiser for then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

State Sen. Richard F. Colburn "kept coming back for cheese and he said, 'This is great. And to think it's all made right here in Talbot County,' " Holly Foster recalled.

"Well," she told him, "it's not."

"They realized what we were doing in Pennsylvania. 'And why aren't you doing it here?' 'Because it's against the law - Maryland law.' "

Two years ago, the General Assembly approved a pilot program allowing a few Maryland farmers to make raw milk cheese that is properly aged for 60 days. The aging process is thought to mimic pasteurization because as the cheese ages, the good bacteria makes it grow more acidic, and that kills off dangerous bacteria. Some still discourage pregnant women from eating the finished product.

The acidity "competes with the pathogens and the acidity wins out," said Laurie Bucher, chief of milk control for Maryland's Office of Food Protection and Consumer Health Services.

The Fosters, who testified in Annapolis to help get the law changed, own one of the four Maryland farms participating in the pilot program. The program was initially set to expire in five years, but the time limit was lifted last year because farmers were having trouble getting banks to lend them money for cheese-making ventures with a fixed end date.

After finding $43,000 in federal and state grant money, and coming up with $150,000 to $200,000 of their own, the Fosters are the only makers of raw cheese up and running in Maryland. The others are eight months or more away from production, Bucher said.

"We're almost as excited as they are," Bucher said Tuesday, when she went to Easton to observe the Fosters making their first batch of blue cheese.

The process began about 5 a.m., when the brown-and-white Jersey cows stepped into the farm's milking parlor. A pipe carried their butterfat-rich milk through a wall, to a room so clean that visitors had to wear hair nets and booties.

Milk from 50 cows - 150 gallons of it - filled a stainless steel vat the size of a Jacuzzi. Still warm from the cows' bodies, the milk was mixed with freeze-dried cultures direct from France - Penicillium roqueforti and two others the Fosters were keeping secret - as well as rennet, an enzyme that causes milk to coagulate.

Eventually, the milk became a solid mass of curd. The Fosters took turns running curd knives - one with a series of horizontal blades, the other vertical blades - through the vat until it was filled with squishy white cubes.

After Eric Foster stirred the curd a while with his big oar, it was time to open a valve and let the whey spill out into a drain in the floor. And that's when the morning's work looked like it might wash away.

The Fosters purchased their cheese vat secondhand from a Virginia cheesemaker, who'd made it out of an old milk tank. It had come with a strainer-like part that kept the curds from pouring out, too. But that part had not passed muster with Maryland inspectors. So, the Fosters decided to use a hand-held metal strainer.

Holly Foster plunged her arm into the vat to hold the strainer against the drain pipe. Curds the size of mini-marshmallows slipped past her strainer and started spilling onto the floor. But after a few adjustments to the valve and the strainer, the curds stayed put.

There was more work to be done that day: packing the curd into cheese molds, scrubbing out the vat, and unmolding and remolding the curd that night, after the kids were in bed. The blue cheese will take about three months to ripen in a room set at 54 degrees. That won't be 90 days of downtime for the Fosters.

The cheese will need to be rubbed with salt periodically, and to ensure that it ages evenly, it must be flipped upside down and right side up again and again. There will be new batches of cheese to make during that time.

A lot of work, it seems, to anyone but a dairy farmer.

"We're used to it," Holly Foster said.