Turning milk into cheese may not be as miraculous as water into wine, but the transformation in taste bud impact can be almost as intoxicating. At least water and wine are both liquids - cheese is a whole other state of being.
Now think about turning Georgia grass into cheese. If you're a farmstead cheesemaker like Rebecca Williams at Many Fold Farms, that's exactly what you do every day, with major contributions from a herd of sheep. It's the sheep on Rebecca's farm that chew up the grass, take in its nutrients and flavors, and are then kind enough to share the milk that derives a good deal of its character from that Georgia grass. Without the grass, no sheep. Without the sheep, no milk. Without the milk, no cheese. Luckily, Georgia is benefitting from a growing group of zealot cheesemakers eager to shepherd that transformation from the grass and hay on their farm to the cheese on your table.
Most of the farmstead cheesemakers that now call Georgia home inhabit a band that stretches east and west around Atlanta. Not far from where I-20 hits the Alabama border, there's the Capra Gia Cheese Company and their four breeds of goats. A bit closer to Atlanta, into the verdant Chattahoochee Hill Country, you come across Many Fold Farms and their many, many sheep. Just barely outside the perimeter on the south side of town, Mary Rigdon and her goats make what is Atlanta's most local farmstead cheese at Decimal.Place Farm. To the east, a bit past Athens, you'll find Nature's Harmony Farm and their Jersey cows in Elberton. Finally, south of Augusta, Flat Creek Lodge manages to combine a dairy farm, cheesemaking, and a hunting and fishing lodge all in one place on the outskirts of Swainsboro. The proximity of all of these cheesemakers to the Atlanta market makes it (relatively) easy for them to tap into Atlanta's popular farmers markets, as well as the restaurants and cheese shops in town that put an emphasis on providing quality local products.
While further afield, Sweet Grass Dairy is clearly the big steer of Georgia cheesemaking, way down yonder in Thomasville. Sweet Grass can be excused their almost-in-Florida locale, now that they've reached their twelfth year of turning out the award-winning cheeses that put artisan Georgia cheese on the map. And despite their national presence, Sweet Grass still views the South as their primary market. Jeremy Little, owner and cheesemaker, said they wouldn't be where they are today without the support of Atlanta restaurants and cheese shops. And given their humble beginnings, Sweet Grass also welcomes the many newcomers now making cheese in Georgia, especially those with a strong stance on responsible farming and a commitment to showcasing great milk. "Georgia is like a blank slate for cheesemaking — especially since here in south Georgia we can have cows grazing lush pasture year-round. We try to capture the character of the southern Georgia soil, how milk produced by these cows that are eating these grasses in this part of Georgia influences the cheese. Overall, it's great to see newcomers. We welcome anyone who is working to improve the culinary landscape in the South."
The culinary landscape certainly seems attractive at Nature's Harmony Farm in Elberton, where Tim and Liz Young recently won a ribbon from this year's American Cheese Society awards for their rich and nutty Fortsonia Gruyere. They joined Sweet Grass Dairy and Flat Creek Lodge as winners hailing from Georgia, and Nature's Harmony is another example of a cheesemaker who is as much about the animals and the land as it is about the cheese. In fact, Tim has written a book — The Accidental Farmers — that details the challenges of moving from suburbia into the full-time life of starting up and managing a farm. Liz and Tim even host an amiable, almost weekly "farmcast" (available free on iTunes) to discuss the trials and tribulations of life on the farm. Typical quote? "Our life is a little different, isn't it?" (preceded by an in-depth discussion of animal birthing schedules).
Life on the farm, tending to a herd of dairy cattle or a flock of sheep, caring for the land they live on — it all adds up to hours both early and long. But it's not until the cheesemakers get their fresh milk that the actual cheesemaking can begin. Once the milk is present, a whole other bevy of things have to come together — deciding whether or not to pasteurize the milk*, having the knowledge and experience and equipment to actually make the cheese, having the space to properly age the cheese and the time to do so, and having the perseverance to see it all through from start to finish, over and over again. Maybe, just maybe, with all those things in harmony, something glorious will come of the land. Something like Many Fold Farm's Garretts Ferry, a remarkable taste of the farm being made not too far from the traffic and tumult of the city.