They climb down the steps from the buses carrying pillows and holding their noses. The smell of manure on the 1,000-acre Spring Brook Farm in Reading, Vt., welcomes the eight- to 12-year-olds who turn up, teachers in tow, from urban schools as far as Mississippi to spend a week on the farm. During that time, they will care for the farm’s cows, chickens, roosters, and goats; grow sweet corn and tomatoes; and keep busy in the cheese house, greenhouse, and raspberry bushes. They tap maples in the spring and press cider in the fall. In a few days, the recoiling reaction to the smell of farm life has morphed into something else. “There’s so many kinds of green,” one student who visited the farm this summer marveled.
The 20-year-old nonprofit Farms for City Kids program hosts about 750 kids throughout the year for residential stays that integrate usually textbook-bound subjects, such as economics, chemistry, and biology, into everyday farm work. The program began after founders Karli and Jim Hagedorn returned from a trip to England in 1992, inspired by a hands-on agricultural program for urban kids.
Cheese is integral to the foundation’s mission to allow kids to learn how food is made. Students get a close-up view of the slow-going traditional cheese-making process, learning the roles played by milk, enzymes, and curds. Then, after a thorough prepping on food safety, they’re given gloves, overalls, and boots and led into the aging room, where they turn and wash the aging cheese.
But this isn’t just any farmer’s cheese. These kids have a small hand in Tarentaise, the 2014 winner of the American Cheese Society’s Awards best-of-show award.
“We’re really psyched,” said head cheese maker Jeremy Stephenson. “That’s usually a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
It is a beauty: A semi-firm cheese made in the style of Alpine cheeses like Gruyère and Comté, Tarentaise is aged for 10 to 12 months and has a washed rind and a golden-yellow color. Tarentaise is made from raw cow’s milk that hasn’t been standardized by testing and adjusting for various chemical measurements, as is the approach in industrialized cheese production. That kind of standardization creates a reliably uniform product, but it usually can’t match the exceptional quality of an artisan-made cheese.
“What we do reflects the milk,” Stephenson explained. “The milk has seasonal variations, and it comes out in the cheese. Summer is more floral—you’re going to pick up the grass notes from the cows grazing. Winter’s going to be more nutty, meaty. Our best wheels have a lot of complexity.”
Production of the cheese, which began in May 2008, heralded a couple of important changes on the farm. Use of chemical fertilizers in the pastures was discontinued, and the cows are no longer fed fermented feed. (Fermented feed contains spores that get into the cheese, creating off flavors and textures and causing the cheese to expand and explode.) Six years later, it appears that those practices have more than paid off in the final product.
Stephenson learned the Alpine style of cheese making from French cheese makers from the Savoie region, where John and Janine Putnam of Vermont’s Thistle Hill Farm first learned the methods they would bring home to produce Tarentaise in the early 2000s. When demand for Thistle Hill Farm’s Tarentaise outpaced what they could supply, they licensed the name to Spring Brook Farm.
That the cheese has garnered awards and fans as far away as Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes, Calif., is good news for the foundation. Cheese making began at Spring Brook as a way to make the farm—which also sells hay, corn, chicken, turkeys, eggs, and maple syrup—more economically self-sufficient. All profits from the sale of Spring Brook Farm’s Tarentaise, which retails for about $30 per pound, go to the Farms for City Kids Foundation. So eating more Tarentaise—with Alsatian whites such as Riesling and gewürztraminer in the warmer months or a nutty brown ale or a glass of cabernet come fall—helps more kids learn to love the smell of manure. Everybody wins.