Whatcom County farms offer freshness, superior quality
By Tara Nelson
For delicious hand-made artisan cheese, north Whatcom County residents have little reason to look further than their own backyard.
For three generations, the Snook family at Pleasant Valley Dairy has been making Gouda in a dizzying array of delicious varieties including cumin, jalepeno, fine herbs and peppercorn; as well as a tangy Farmstead cheese; a Mutshli, or a Swiss-style cheese with a mild and nutty flavor; and a raw milk applewood smoked cheese on their bucolic 70-acre farm just south of Birch Bay on Kickerville Road.
Milk for the cheeses come from a herd of about 50 rBST-free and pasture-raised Brown Swiss, Jersey, Holstein, Hereshire, Dutch Belted and Guernsey cows that spend most of their days contently ruminating in a lush field on a green rolling hill behind their home.
The curds are then pressed into plastic molds and cured in a salt brine before being dipped in wax and aged.
George Train, a former paratrooper for the U.S. Army of Swedish descent, bought the farm in 1963 while looking for a way to support his family after leaving the military. He and his wife began making cheeses at the kitchen table of their home until operation grew too costly and he was forced to take up other means of employment with the Alcoa-Intalco aluminum plant in Ferndale.
It wasn’t until Alcoa sent Train to France on a business trip that he witnessed the variety of artisan cheese shops and came back with a renewed determination to make his business thrive.
On his return, Train talked to heads of different agricultural universities, but received the most help from an Oregon State University professor who gave him a book on cheese making and told him to “go for it.”
“The other county extensions offices of state universities were not looking forward to some renegade cheese maker out in Whatcom County,” said Train’s daughter Joyce Snook, who now runs the farm with her grown children, Mattie, 22, and Seth, 24. “They were afraid of dairy products that were unpasteurized.”
Train teamed up with another Ferndale resident – Jack Appel – but the two parted ways soon after, with Appel opening Appel Farms in Ferndale and Train opening Pleasant Valley Dairy. Snook said Appel wanted a more large-scale business and Train wanted something simple that adhered to the traditional methods.
“He wanted a simple cheese, something that didn’t need pasteurization and was easy to make, even without electricity,” she said.
Train retired in 2006, but he still lives on a small parcel of land adjoining the farm. He is also the family expert go-to for advice.
Up until last year, the farm was known as one of the few local dairies that sold raw, unpasteurized milk, which is considered by USDA to be less safe than pasteurized milk, but is revered by many for its nutritional benefits. Those benefits include better calcium absorption and the presence of enzymes that aid in digestion. Some of those components include CLAs or conjugated linoleic acid, a fatty acid that has been shown to aid in weight loss.
Snook said although the farm has never had a customer get sick from its milk, they stopped sales because of the cumbersome and expensive licensing process.
The transition has also given the family more time to concentrate on the art of making cheese, the sales for which have skyrocketed in the past few years as Americans’ tastes become more developed.
Snook said they also began producing traditional Norwegian cheese called “Noekkelost” in 2002 after a suggestion by Everybody’s Store owner Jeff Margolis, of Van Zandt. The cheese is flavored with cumin, caraway and cloves and is traditionally eaten during the Christmas season.
Out on the farm, Mattie wears typical farm attire – a t-shirt, pants, knee-high rubber boots and a bandana keeping her hair back.
She knows most of the cows by name, or at least she has a few favorites, pointing to a large Brown Swiss named Beth delicately scratching her ear with her back hoof. Another cow – a black Dutch Belted heifer with a large white stripe – is affectionately called “Oreo.”The farm has little resemblance to the massive confined feedlots typical of large dairy operations. The small-scale combined with a burgeoning demand for locally produced food has made business tough to keep up with. It could mean closing the on-site retail shop for a few weeks in the summer to build up enough stock.
“We can’t make anymore cheese and we’re selling out like crazy,” Mattie said. “But we get the best milk when they eat grass and it makes the best cheese. I guess grandpa knew what he was doing.”
The farm’s retail shop is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and is located at 6804 Kickerville Road in Ferndale. Their phone number is 366-5398.
Other local dairies
Grace Harbor Farms
Grace and Tim Lukens, owners of Grace Harbor Farms, a small 55-dairy goat operation in Custer maintain one of only a few licenses in Washington State to sell raw, unpasteurized grade ‘A’ goat milk products. Grace Harbor Farms sells a variety of cheeses, yogurt and milk.
9593 Guide Meridian, Lynden
Following H Street Road just east of Blaine brings one to Edaleen Dairy of Lynden. The farm has locally-produced milk and award-winning ice cream. Edaleen cows produce milk “free of added growth hormones.” Their store is located at 9593 Guide Meridian.
6605 Northwest Rd., Ferndale
Gouda cheeses (including mild, sharp, aged and smoked varieties. Flavored varieties include cumin, jalapeno, black pepper, sweet red pepper and garden herb). Appel Farms is one of a few dairies that produce Quark and the mild Indian cheese Paneer and Quark.