hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires

 

Arts & Culture July 2024

 

Happy herd, tasty cheese

At Ardith Mae Farm, the flavor starts with rambunctious goats

 

Farmstead cheesemaker Shereen Alinaghian walks among the goats at Ardith Mae Farm in Stockport, N.Y. The farm has earned Animal Welfare Approved certification for more than a decade. Scott Langley photo

Farmstead cheesemaker Shereen Alinaghian walks among the goats at Ardith Mae Farm in Stockport, N.Y. The farm has earned Animal Welfare Approved certification for more than a decade. Scott Langley photo

 

By STACEY MORRIS
Contributing writer

STOCKPORT, N.Y.


It may be early afternoon, but Shereen Alinaghian has about seven more hours to go in her workday at Ardith Mae Farm.


It’s a job with never-ending demands and little to no vacation time. But Alinaghian wasn’t looking for a cushy schedule when she chose to become a cheesemaker and owner of a goat farm. It’s her love of the animals and the craft of making cheese that attracted her in the first place, and it’s this love that has kept her in the game for nearly 20 years.


On a weekday afternoon in May, Alinaghian took a brief pause from a batch of chevre for a visit to the sunny pasture to check in on the herd of snowy white Saanen does (a highly productive breed from western Switzerland).


The goats immediately trotted over to her for a snuggle, their tails wagging enthusiastically.
“Goats are extremely smart … and sensitive,” Alinaghian said. “They’re similar to dogs in some ways. Once someone asked me to sell them one to have as a pet, but they’re herd animals.”
And they’re clearly very content to be where they are: on Alinaghian’s compact farm, where they’re treated with TLC. Her dairy operation has earned Animal Welfare Approved certification for more than a decade.


The goats enjoy climbing and exploring as they forage in the farm’s rotational grazing system. They’re fed organic grains and never given hormones or “preventative” antibiotics. Ardith Mae also has established an every-other-year breeding program that relieves the stress of annual pregnancy and improves the herd’s longevity.


And in contrast to many farms, Alinaghian keeps her milkers even after they’ve aged out of their job, letting them live out their golden years with a leisurely routine of grazing, resting and socializing with the other goats.


“I’ve been with the animal welfare program for 12 years,” Alinaghian said. “It’s a lot of paperwork and record keeping, but it really helps you organize the things that are necessary to keep track of anyway.”


The guidelines involved in animal welfare certification range from cortisol testing (to gauge the goats’ stress level) to documenting the farm’s use of organic and non-GMO feed, hygienic drinking water, parasite management, proper outdoor access, and the spaciousness of indoor quarters.


The herd of 50-plus does at Ardith Mae is a “closed tested and cleaned herd,” with breeding bucks the only outsiders ever permitted. Before they’re permitted to mingle, the bucks are tested and quarantined. And during the frigid months of winter, the herd is kept protected when conditions get too harsh.


“If it’s below 5 degrees, we lock the barn and they don’t go out,” Alinaghian said. “Also, they’re pregnant at that time and saving energy reserves.”

 

City to farmstead
Although Alinaghian makes it clear she loves what she does, she’s the first to admit that running a goat dairy is one of the most arduous endeavors on the planet.


“Right before I left my cheese-making internship, I wrote in my journal how I could not wait -- I thought it would be like vacation,” she recalled. “But my first day on job I was in tears because it was so difficult.”


A native of Orange County, Calif., Alinaghian left the West Coast in 2003 for Brooklyn, where she worked as a bread baker for two years.
“I’ve always loved making food,” she recalled.
But it was while perusing farmers markets such as Manhattan’s Union Square Green Market that Alinaghian felt an increasing pull toward agricultural life. Two years of city living were enough for her, and in 2005, she convinced her then-husband to start a farm in rural Pennsylvania near the New York state line.


Alinaghian dreamed of making farmstead cheese. But the couple needed to learn the craft, so they pursued an internship at Does Leap Farm in East Fairfield, Vt., about 45 minutes northeast of Burlington. For 10 months, they learned everything about making cheese as well as caring for goats — including the proper installation and use of electric fences — from wife-and-husband team Kristen Doolan and George Vlaanderlen.


“George was fun but very strict,” Alinaghian recalled. “His wife was the polar opposite. It was interesting to pull so much knowledge from both.”


Alinaghian was so grateful for intensive learning experience that she ended up naming one of her soft-ripened cheeses after Doolan.


The name Ardith Mae came from her husband’s late grandmother.
“I love the name,” Alinaghian said. “It just fit for the business. And it separates me out from the farm. I’m a private person by nature; I just like working the farmers market stands and being a farmer.”


After getting started in Pennsylvania, Alinaghian and her husband had a successful seven year-run selling their cheese locally and to city farmers markets. But she felt the setting wasn’t quite right.


“Northeastern Pennsylvania was a beautiful area, but there was fracking going on,” she recalled.
There also wasn’t a cohesive farming community in that region, she explained. So Alinaghian decided to relocate to the fertile Hudson Valley, known for its robust community of farmsteaders and artisan food makers.


It proved to be a fresh start in more ways than one. Alinaghian and her husband divorced; he moved back to the city, and she bought his share of the business while simultaneously leasing a farm in the Columbia County town of Stuyvesant.


Arriving in the region in early 2013, she continued to perfect her craft. Then, after a decade of leasing farmland, Alinaghian decided she was ready for the move to ownership. She found an ideal location a few miles away in the town of Stockport.


The 10-acre package included a house, barns, ample pasture space for rotational grazing, and a building perfect for the dual purpose of cheese-making facility and retail store. Customers who visit can peer in through a plate-glass window to see cheesemakers Katie Doyne and Kim Strohmaier toil away on the latest batch of soft-ripened goat cheese.


On a recent afternoon, the duo were crafting a variety known as Bigelo, a vegetable ash-coated pyramid of cheese. Rows of the bright white cheese sat in plastic pyramids with holes in the bottom, biding their time as the whey separated from the curds. By the end of the process, the size of the cheese pyramid would shrink by half with the liquid drained off. Then each would be hand-wrapped in paper, labeled, and designated for farmers markets, wholesale distribution or the farm’s retail store, which recently opened for business.

 

Making cheese and connections
Ardith Mae carries five varieties of soft-ripened goat cheeses, most of which retail for $38 per pound. Four varieties of chevre (plain, garlic scape, honey lavender, and red pepper) retail for $11-$12 for six ounces. The French-style feta is 100 percent goats’ milk and retails for $11 for six ounces. (Another French-inspired touch: delicate flowers from Alinaghian’s garden accent scoops of chevre sold in four-packs.)


Goat yogurt retails for $8 for 32 ounces. There are also cow-goat cheese blends such as a soft-ripened smoked paprika variety, herbed cow’s milk feta, and a soft-ripened disc coated with herbes de Provence.


Although her cheese has won rave reviews, Alinaghian stresses that Ardith Mae is a farmstead brand that isn’t aiming for uniform perfection.


“There are a couple different styles of cheesemaking,” Alinaghian said. “Some styles are the award winners, but they don’t raise the animals, so they’re able to pour all their energy into making really beautiful, consistent products. But with farmstead cheesemakers, you have animal emergencies and all kinds of variables. I’ve had to stop ladling because goats escaped the electric fence.


“We definitely take a lot of time for the goats,” she said. “I have a small staff, and it can take away from the cheesemaking. As much as you want to be spot-on with everything, I’ve had to learn not to expect perfection.”


But the vagaries of daily farm life don’t seem to have hurt the popularity of Ardith Mae’s cheese, which is sold at farmers markets and specialty shops from Columbia County to New York City – and to restaurants from Brooklyn to the Grazin’ diner in Hudson.


“We sell our cheese to Michelin-star restaurants and beautiful cheese shops,” Alinaghian said. “We have a wonderful following and are so grateful for it.”


She said she loves the Hudson Valley’s community of fellow farmers, growers, food makers and even kindly veterinarians who make her nonstop labor a little easier.


“Hudson Valley neighbors are very supportive, and there’s a high concentration of female farmers,” she added.


Raven and Boar Farm in New Lebanon, which raises pigs for artisan charcuterie, gets Ardith Mae’s whey for its heritage pigs, and the two farms sometimes collaborate on deliveries.
During winter months when her goats aren’t milking, Alinaghian buys organic milk from Hawthorne Valley, the biodynamic farm in Ghent, so she can make mixed milk cheeses throughout the winter.


“It’s slower for us in the winter — we have hardly any milk,” she explained. “Hawthorne Valley also makes our goat yogurt for us. And MX Morningstar Farm in Hudson sells our cheese.”
Now that she’s finally settled in a bucolic spot in Stockport, Alinaghian said she feels Ardith Mae is hitting its stride.


“It’s been a nice transition since moving here,” she said. “On our previous farm, the infrastructure was failing and it was mentally and emotionally exhausting. Now, it’s great to be able to put my time into just the business.”


She hopes to make enough of a profit to hire more employees and even take some long overdue time off to visit her mother in California.


“Once I get over the hump, I hope I can have a life again,” Alinaghian said. “As much as farming has given me, it has taken some away. But that’s how it is when you commit to something.”
But there are undeniable perks, she added, including being in the best shape of her life from the constant activity. Her favorite upside by far, however, is the goats.


“Most people don’t get to hold baby goats every day,” Alinaghian said with a smile.

Visit www.ardithmae.com for more information about Ardith Mae Farm.