If I Were a Rich Man: The Unlikely Story of a Grass-Fed Dairy Farm and Creamery
On a cold Wednesday morning, gray with snow-heavy clouds, Jonathan and Nina White’s farmhouse kitchen on the 185-acre Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse in western New Jersey is a warm way station. Someone from the town of Milford stops by to pick up the wise men’s costumes for a church nativity that Paul, one of the White’s three sons, has sewn. There’s been a stomach virus going around, and a farm employee who lives in a camper on the property with her sister, the farm manager, is listing the ingredients in the homemade spiced “fire” cider she’s been sharing to help calm bellies. There are Bundt cake pans hanging on the walls, and an espresso machine on the counter alongside a gallon jar of pickled green beans—Jonathan’s grandmother’s recipe. Kale soup is on the stove and a loaf of dense, chewy whole-grain bread on the chopping block. The Whites' sons, as well as their employees, keep wandering in, cutting off slabs and making toast.
“I don’t think I ever aspired to own a farm. I’m sure I didn’t,” Nina laughs as the crowd temporarily dispersed—off to build solar panels, to open the farm store, to reconsider the length of the pants in Paul's wise men costumes. Despite the lack of intent, Nina and Jonathan are succeeding not just in farming, but also in upholding some aging agricultural traditions that have survived for generations on America's farms. Bobolink’s methods are founded on the old ways, which the Whites integrate with robust scientific knowledge, direct marketing, and social media.
“We have the ability to synthesize the best of the old and the new, and make choices based on a scientific understanding,” Nina explains. She’s been studying the epidemiology of gluten intolerance and obesity, and meticulously sources the ingredients for her breads to ensure the wheat has not been hybridized with goat grass, which some consider the culprit behind wheat allergies and celiac disease. “We still have a berry that seems like wheat,” Nina says of commercial grain, “but it’s got a genetic pattern closer to the grass that people didn’t eat, and people started getting intolerant to it.”
“Jonathan’s got a great talent for making delicious things, and for letting science do its thing to make it the best it can be,” she says.
The farm works in an elegant, circular system: Leftover bread is soaked in the cheese’s whey waste and then fed to the pigs and chickens. “You get some really, really yummy pork and you don’t destroy your ecosystem by flooding it with waste,” Nina explains. Her vegetable garden is “big enough to get into trouble,” and Nina counts somewhere between 50 and 100 jars of stewed tomatoes in the basement.
“We figured if we weren’t gonna get you with the cheese, we’d get you with the bread. And bread and cheese together, you know, what could be better?” Nina asks.
“But the devolution of our universe really dictated that it had to happen,” she continued, broadly alluding to the rise of large-scale dairy factories, to a growing divide between people and the food they eat, to the environmental damages associated with farming. “And Jonathan and I felt like we had the solutions and the methods. We didn’t really have the means, but we did it anyway.”
By way of context, Nina asks if I’ve seen Fiddler on the Roof, and her son Paul interjects to explain. “When I was shown Fiddler on the Roof as a child, it was explained as family history.” Anatevka, where the story takes place, is also where Nina’s Russian grandparents lived before emigrating to the United States.
“[It’s a] little town where everybody’s poor but happy and love each other,” Nina says. “And also all the struggles between tradition and looking to the future.” In a sense, the same story is playing out in the Whites' unlikely lives as farmers.
Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse has a simple approach to healing the planet, combining the best of old world with new, which is spelled out in an equation that’s affixed to the fridge with a Zelda magnet: Transform the sunlight and rain they have into as much food as possible. The herd of 100 or so grass-fed cows, which are milked once a day, roam the farm’s hilly pastures 365 days a year. That milk is aged into a selection of farmstead cheeses, from a mild cheddar to a funky, creamy beauty called Endgame, that are then shuttled to farmers markets in New York and New Jersey throughout the week and sold alongside wood-fired boules, duck-fat-brushed focaccia, and skinny baguettes.
These are the kind of thoughtfully crafted foods that appeal to city people and would be at home on any Brooklyn farm-to-table menu, though several of the products are made and sold in side-by-side collaboration with a very different bearded sect.
For 12 years, Bobolink Dairy has worked in collaboration with two different Amish groups in Pennsylvania; Jonathan churns his butter at an Amish cooperative and Bobolink sells the coop’s fresh milk, bacon, eggs, and a couple of cheeses at the Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse store. But their partnership has also included skill sharing.
“The Amish are more aware than the rest of the world of what they’ve lost,” Jonathan says. He explains the role of the book people in Fahrenheit 451, who have committed classic, banned works to memory, and share the stories with others on walks deep in the woods. “I kind of figure that that’s what some of us food artisans are right now. We’re the people who remember how to make stuff that’s good. So we have to do it non-commercially just to keep the techniques alive.”
“The big joke is that the Jewish boy from Hoboken is teaching the Amish how to make cottage cheese and salami,” Nina says. Over the summer she also taught the Amish how to bake whole-grain artisan bread. “They’re wrapping their minds around next summer us doing a wood-fired bread baking class in their summer kitchen,” Jonathan says. “We’re the book people. It’s an honor.”
Nina cuts a slice from a round loaf and hands me the butter. “Everyone who visits has to eat and meet the cows,” Jonathan says. After lunch, when the kitchen fills back up again and everyone at the crowded table tucks into bowls of soup and snaps at carrots from Pine Island, N.Y., Jonathan and I will walk the steep, muddy paths to see the cows in their pasture tailed by Lorraine, a show-off of a herding dog.
“I feel strongly that the world food system has to change, and the only way you’re going to convince the powers that be that this is feasible is to survive,” Nina tells me back in the warmth of the farmhouse. “So many people are convinced that you cannot feed the world this way. I think we’re keeping hope alive for a lot of people.”