A Visit to Spring Hill Cheese

September 21, 2007

It has been said that milk and honey are the only substances in our diet whose sole function in nature is to serve as food. Whether or not this is true, they certainly symbolize abundance of biblical proportions; the phrase “land of milk and honey” comes from a reference to Caanan in the Bible. Last Sunday, a group of 43 food lovers made a journey to our local lands of milk and honey—Spring Hill Jersey Cheese and Marshall’s Farm Natural Honey—on a CUESA-organized farm tour. This week, we bring you a summary and slide show of our trip to the land of milk.

Spring Hill Dairy is set amid Sonoma County’s rolling hillsides, which are tawny gold this time of year. In our Mediterranean climate of dry summers, the Spring Hill cows get to roam the fields and eat green grass from January through July. During our visit, the 400 bovine ladies were clustered in a pen, but they still eat well during the dry months; Larry Peter, owner of Spring Hill Cheese, grows them a special silage blend of fava beans, oats, rye grass, and other crops that is harvested green, chopped up, and fermented under a huge tarp. Larry supplements the silage with a mix of grains, including flax, soybean, barley, and corn.

cows eating silageThe Spring Hill cows, identified by numbered yellow tags hanging from their fuzzy ears, came and looked at us with some curiosity. Larry’s affection and concern for them became clear when someone in the group said, “It looked like something was wrong with number 330’s eye,” and Larry responded, “Oh! Number 330, she’s an old cow.” He explained that when she was a calf she was poked in the eye with a thistle and it never healed properly. Though each of the cows may be called only by a number, Larry seems to know and care about them as individuals.

Spring Hill is a relatively small dairy and Larry and his family and staff make great efforts to treat the cows well. He described many ways in which he tries to improve on the conventional practices of the dairy industry. For example, he milks his cows only twice a day instead of three times. He also lets them live to a ripe old age; some cows in his herd get to be 14 or older, whereas the average dairy cow in California only lives four or five years. And in 2004, Larry converted his entire operation to organic practices.

The plant where Spring Hill Cheese is made, adjacent to the milk barn, is not very big; our little group filled up most of the space between the shiny metal machines, vats, and tubs. Larry described the cheese-making process, impressively rattling off procedures, pH measurements, and temperatures that vary depending on which of their many cheeses he’s making.

We also toured Spring Hill’s recently purchased Petaluma Creamery in downtown Petaluma, which opened in 1913 and processed milk from dozens of local dairies for decades until it went under a few years ago. Larry bought the creamery and the milk supply agreement that came with it, with the hope of keeping local dairies in business and Sonoma County hillsides in agriculture, and of having a better place to make his own cheese.

Larry PeterThough the new facility seemed huge, Larry says it’s small by industry standards. It has much of the same equipment his cheese plant has (pasteurizer, vats, etc.), but everything is larger, and there are some additional high-tech gadgets, such as an ultrafiltration machine. Larry is gearing up to begin making cheese at the Petaluma Creamery in the next few months and says he feels “a lot better” about moving production to a plant with nicer equipment, improved quality control, and the ability to process milk more quickly. Meanwhile, he is purchasing milk from local dairies and turning it into cream and powder to help pay the mortgage and the whopping $160,000 monthly PG&E bill!

Larry told our group, “The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market saved my farm.” When he started out in the ranching business, he sold potatoes at the fledgling market to make ends meet. Gradually, he saved up to build the cheese plant on his land, producing fewer and fewer potatoes and more and more cheese. If it weren’t for his farmers’ market customers, who were willing to pay a fair price for his potatoes, he wouldn’t have been able to grow his business, and Spring Hill Cheese wouldn’t be what it is today.

Click here to view a slideshow of our time at Spring Hill >

Thanks to Barry Jan for his wonderful photos!

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