Say cheese: Farm family in Mount Gilead adds milk product to bolster produce sales at community market

Wednesday, June 1, 2011 03:07 AM
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
The Sippels - from left: Lisa, Charlie and Ben - use milk from sheep and cows to make cheese at their farm in Mount Gilead.

Lisa Marie Miller | DISPATCH
The Sippels – from left: Lisa, Charlie and Ben – use milk from sheep and cows to make cheese at their farm in Mount Gilead.

After gathering curds, Lisa Sippel puts them in basket molds - one of many steps in the cheese-making process.

Lisa Marie Miller | DISPATCH
After gathering curds, Lisa Sippel puts them in basket molds – one of many steps in the cheese-making process.

Lisa Sippel gathers the curds and drains the whey. Next, she'll pack the curds into basket molds.

Lisa Marie Miller | DISPATCH
Lisa Sippel gathers the curds and drains the whey. Next, she’ll pack the curds into basket molds.

A pound of cheese requires milk from not just one but six sheep.

Lisa Marie Miller | DISPATCH
A pound of cheese requires milk from not just one but six sheep.

Vegetables of all kinds and apples from an orchard on their property – not to mention beef, lamb and pork they raise themselves – weren’t enough for Ben and Lisa Sippel of Sippel Family Farm.

So, in February, they added cheese-making to their repertoire.

The 31-year-old farmers and parents of 4-year-old Charlie started milking their 35 sheep and producing raw-milk cheese.

Their farm in Mount Gilead, according to the couple, represents the first in Ohio to make sheep’s-milk cheese. It also yields two types of cow’s-milk cheese from milk they buy at a nearby farm. (The cows raised by the Sippels are strictly for meat.)

Why keep expanding production on their 77-acre farm? In a word: diversity.

“The more diversified you are, the safer you are,” Lisa said. “The cheese is shelf-stable compared to vegetables.”

The strategy seems especially apt this year: Because of dismal weather conditions, many of the crops are late.

On a recent Saturday at the Olde Worthington Farmers Market, the Sippels would have had only lettuce to sell – if not for the three varieties of Kokoborrego cheese they make on their farm.

Shoppers at the market were drawn to the cheeses: Oak Creek Tomme, a mild sheep’s cheese; Headwaters Tomme, a cow’s cheese with a layer of ash in the center; and Moraine, a cow’s cheese with tiny eyes and a buttery flavor.

Barry Bennett, 62, of Worthington asked whether the cheeses would be supplied as part of the delivery of “community-supported agriculture” he gets each week from the Sippels.

“Cheese is not included,” Lisa said. “But you’ll be able to order it extra from us.”

Bennett likes the cheeses, comparing the Headwaters Tomme to an aged cheddar.

The sheep’s cheese, he said, has a “nice flavor. It’s not overpowering.”

Buyers appreciate the diversity that vendors such as the Sippels offer, said Michele Mooney, manager of the Worthington market.

“Most people expect to get fruits and vegetables and plants at farmers markets,” she said. “We have found it (the sale of other artisan products) enables us to have a market this time of year. Otherwise, we couldn’t start for a few more weeks.”

The training that the Sippels have in cheese-making consists only of a short class that Lisa took in Vermont.

The rest has involved experimentation: She has created a batch of feta cheese, perhaps the best-known of sheep’s cheeses; and a few batches of still-aging blue cheese.

“We’re not afraid to try anything,” Lisa said – although she probably won’t continue the experiments with the blue and feta cheeses because of their time-consuming nature.

She makes cheese two or three days a week.

“I have to milk six sheep to get a pound of cheese,” she said.

She adds bacteria to the vats of milk to encourage coagulation. Then she cuts the curds and heats and stirs the mixture to achieve the right consistency. Finally, she drains the whey and packs the curds into baskets, stacking them to remove additional whey.

From there, the wheels of cheese are salted and stored in the aging room.

Because of the use of raw milk, or milk that isn’t pasteurized, the cheese must be aged at least 60 days.

“There’s a demand for raw-milk cheese,” Lisa said.

In fact, she just filled orders for Alana’s Food & Wine restaurant in the University District, Mouton on High in the Short North and Katzinger’s Delicatessen in German Village.

The cheese sales, Ben Sippel said, help the farm turn a profit.

“One of the greatest challenges for most farmers is cash flow,” he said.

The community-supported-agriculture model, in which customers pay upfront for a share of the harvest each week, contributes, too.

Customers of the Worthington market, Mooney said, are drawn to the cheese.

“People love it,” she said. “One of the reasons we positioned Sippel at the end of the market is to serve as an anchor because the market has gotten so big. It lures people down further.”

Farming since their early 20s, the Sippels have garnered a following among shoppers.

“We have known the Sippels for a long time,” said Bennett, who isn’t surprised that they continue to broaden their offerings.

“I’m very much an advocate for regional agriculture. It’s walking the walk.”

Originally appeared at http://www.dispatch.com/live/content/food/stories/2011/06/01/say-cheese2.html