The Estrella family builds a life around farmstead cheesemaking
Written by Laurel Miller & Photography by Wil Edwards
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Man has always been conflicted about caves. On the one hand, caves represent shelter and community; on the other, they harbor associations with isolation, fear, and death. But for the Estrella family, which operates a 164-acre dairy farm and creamery on Washington State’s stunning Olympic Peninsula, the cave carries Christian symbolism of resurrection and hope. It was fitting then, in 2007, when the Estrellas’ pastor, while christening their newly constructed cheese cave, said, “Welcome to Cave Beulah, a place where rich things, fruitful things, and blessed things will come forth.”
The pastor’s prophecy reflected more than faith. No doubt he knew that Anthony and Kelli Estrella and their six children — Ruth, 19; Patience, 16; Samuel, 15; Ernest, 15; Melody, 11; and Faith, 11 — possessed the will to make “rich” things happen. Although the family is deeply guided by their Christian beliefs, it is unflinchingly hard work, integrity, perseverance, and innate talent that have made Estrella Family Creamery, in the words of one Seattle chef, “an inspiration to every cheesemaker in the state.”
Read more about the Estrella children below:
Each of the Estrella children has a distinct personality, but all echo the same sentiment: Life on a working dairy is hard work, but it’s providing them with a set of skills most people don’t have access to - and a lifestyle they are profoundly grateful to have.
Of the younger children, Melody is slender, with enormous, expressive eyes, and a quiet, observant manner, while Faith is petite and impish, with a head full of fuzzy braids. She is clearly the girl most tied to the life of the farm; when not sneaking raspberries out of her mother’s collection pail, she is a bundle of energy, alternately cradling newborn kids, lugging feed buckets, putting the horses back to pasture for the night, or literally rolling in the dirt in the vegetable garden, “I love dirt!” she cries out, with the unselfconscious enthusiasm only an 11-year-old caked in soil can muster.
Ruth is shy and polite, her vivaciousness emerging as she teases her parents and siblings. She and Patience spend their time helping Kelli in the cheese and aging rooms, where Ruth has discovered her passion for the more technical aspects of cheesemaking.
“When I came here, I had no clue about cheese; I had to beg Kelli to get in there. But once she started training me, I realized I love the process of turning raw milk into cheese, playing with the curds, pouring them into the molds, the way your brain has to be fully engaged in the process. It’s an amazing transformation. I also work at the markets, and it’s so nice to be able to talk to our customers, to hear how much they appreciate what we’re doing.”
While Samuel was born into the logging and farming life, Ernest took to dairying immediately. By the end of his first day on the farm, the boy that Anthony described as “not even being able to lift the hat off his own head” was milking cows. Now a handsome, strapping fifteen year-old in charge of the cow milking operation, Ernest radiates confidence, geniality, and a ready smile. Like his siblings, he doesn’t sugarcoat the hard work that farm life entails, but it has provided him with both a life he loves and a trade. “I didn’t know it would be this hard when I got here, but I like my life. I want to ranch one day because I love being outdoors, but I still have a bond with the dairy cows, know all of their names and different personalities. When 'Lover' first freshened, she kicked a lot and was problematic, but I didn’t give up on her, and now she’s my favorite.”
Although only 16, Samuel perhaps best articulates his parents’ dream. Astute, with a determined entrepreneurial streak, he is, like Ernest, a good looking, muscular young man with a generous, outspoken, nature. He is deeply connected to the farm, and he is well on his way to developing a business plan to complement the family business. He and Ernest have discussed starting a fluid milk operation with Anthony’s assistance, but Samuel’s true passion, aside from his goats, is microbrewing. After receiving raves from one of the region’s top distillers for his non-alcoholic ginger beers enhanced with molasses, grapefruit, and orange, he has developed an interest in distilling, as well. His hope is to build a distillery on a potential grange site across the road from the farm." Distilling is an art and science, just like cheesemaking,” he points out.
He adds, “I’m very aware that we’re getting an advanced education about food, and I love everything about the culinary aspect. You can’t read a book and know how to farm or make cheese. You just have to do it. I’ve been at this since I was 7, making cheese, affinage, bucking hay, gardening, milking. My heart is definitely in the preservation of this place. ... My parents sacrificed a lot to have this farm, and I believe we have a responsibility to take the good milk we receive from our animals and make even better cheese with it. If Ma and Pa hadn’t adopted us, they could have had more money and less stress, but there’s more to life than that. All the kids my age, they want to be engineers and accountants. But, who’s going to feed all those people?”
Anthony attributes his children’s maturity and work ethic to interaction with and working alongside their parents - something he was deprived of as a child. “The kids have really taught me a lot, and ultimately, I want them to do whatever they want in life. Even if they don’t farm, they’re equipped with the skills to do anything. They’re very self-sufficient. And they see and hear the gratitude from our customers, see them smell, and savor the cheese, the look on their faces after they taste. That’s how we know we’re doing a good job.”