When you pick up a wedge of cheese at your grocery store, the milk-type or age might catch your attention, but what about the people behind the cheese? Cheesy Personalities is a series of Q&As with some of the dairy industry’s finest that sheds light on the hardworking folks that dedicate their lives to producing the highest-quality products, from farm to fridge.
First up is Nat Bacon, the creamery manager at Jasper Hill Farm.
At Jasper Hill Farm, over forty Ayrshire cows graze on the silky green grass of Greensboro with a view of the rolling hills of the Vermont countryside. Since 2003, Mateo and Andy Kehler have helped bring award-winning dairy products to New England, catching the attention of New York Magazine, NPR, the New York Times, and Martha Stewart along the way.
But the Kehler brothers don’t dominate the New England cheese scene alone. They have a team of 80 people behind their operation, staffing two dairy farms, two creameries, the cellars, and their most recent addition to their network, a spot at the Boston Public Market. Among these cheese connoisseurs is Nat Bacon, the manager of Jasper Hill Farm Creamery.
After growing up in Boston during the rise of ’80s environmentalism, Nat decided the city just wasn’t right for him. At age 18, he decided to begin working in a place where he could do work that was both hands-on and environmentally conscious: a farm. Since the mid-’90s, Nat has worked as a dairy farm consultant helping farmers transition to organic crops,and as a crop consultant, helping farmers identify and take care of weeds in their fields.
While working at Shelburne Farms, Nat was involved in the production of some batches of clothbound cheddar, which he brought to Jasper Hill to age in their vaults. Until this point, he had mostly made cheddar cheeses, but when he saw the bloomy rinds, blues, and washed-rind cheeses at Jasper Hill, he became interested in expanding his knowledge in cheesemaking. It turned out that Jasper Hill had an open position in their creamery at the time, and Nat took the opportunity to join the team and learn the nuances of different cheesemaking and aging processes. He’s been at Jasper Hill for two years now, and brings his passion for sustainability and education into all the work he does.
What do you do at Jasper Hill?
I’m right in the middle of the farm. We milk 40 cows here, and the barn is connected to the actual cheese house, so we pipe in the milk from the barn house next door on the barn side and turn it into cheese. I’m very involved with cheesemaking, and the cheesemaking staff, and making sure cheese is turning out right. And also interacting with the barn about the milk—since that’s obviously so important—and how that’s changing seasonally. And then I walk right over to the cellars where the cheese is being aged and check on the quality of the cheese, our production schedule, and things like that, with the folks who are working in the vault. I have a really neat job in that I’m involved all the way down the line of cheese, from milk to cheesemaking to aging and sales.
How did you first become interested in environmental issues?
I’m originally from the city, I actually grew up in Boston, and when I was in high school in the late ’80s the environmental movement was very big. I was president of my high school environmental club, trying to get people to turn out the lights, and recycle, and all that stuff. It didn’t seem very tangible. Yeah, someone would throw something in the recycling bin, but how was that actually connected with the earth and the land? It all seemed a little foggy. So I thought that getting a job on the farm—keep in mind, I was 18 years old and didn’t know very much, and I still don’t—I thought that would be a good way to get hands-on about environmental issues.
So how did you wind up working in cheese?
I ended up working on a number of vegetable farms in the Northeast. One of them was right next to a little dairy farm, so I started getting interested in the cows and milking the cows and that was really cool. I didn’t know anything about cows coming from the city, but I fell in love with them. I really liked the routine of milking and taking the cows out to pasture, so I started getting a degree in sustainable dairy at the University of Vermont and working on some farms. But I was milking these cows and the milk was going into a bulk tank and some truck would come pick it up—tis was commercial, conventional dairy. That also seemed a little strange. We’re making tons and tons of milk a day, we have no idea who drank it, or even which plants this milk was going to, and what it was being made into. We were also being paid terribly for the milk, so it was unsustainable financially. So in 1995, I got a cheesemaking apprenticeship at Shelburne Farms in Vermont, and that started my cheese career.
How do you incorporate environmentally friendly practices into your work?
I ended up working at Shelburne Farms for a long time, almost 14 years, and they had a real environmental mission, an educational mission … And at Jasper Hill, even though I’m not directly involved with the cows and the land, I feel that here, we’re also trying to turn the milk—that we get from our herd of cows that I can see right outside my window going out to pasture—into cheese, and trying to do that in an environmentally responsible way as much as we can through grazing, through renewable energy, and trying to be conscious of our impact.
What kinds of relationships do you form working in the dairy industry?
Dairy farmers are incredible people. They are incredibly devoted to their animals, and their ranches have often been in their families for generations. They have a real sense of history. Coming from more of an urban background, it was really interesting to get to know dairy farmers who were doing this kind of… very challenging and difficult [work], and early in the morning, and impossible to take a vacation [from]. They’re the ones who are very committed to what they’re doing, and great people, with a tremendous amount to teach. Everybody should make acquaintance with a dairy farmer. That’s where it all comes from. There would be no cheese sales without the farmers. Understanding that side of it and the challenges that dairy farmers face is crucial to our industry. Farmers are in a very tough time right now with milk prices, so supporting them is, I feel, very important for our industry.
On the other side, working at Jasper Hill more it’s been great to meet cheesemongers. Those who are working here in the vaults and who are coming to visit us kind of have a pulse of what consumers are liking and eating, go[ing] back to my original goal of knowing what happens to this milk we’re producing. As a dairy farmer or a cheesemaker, you can get very isolated in a way, milking your cows and making your cheese every day. It’s hard to get out and connect with the people who are eating your cheese, so make friends with some cheesemongers. Getting to interact with folks who are really knowledgeable about all different kinds of cheeses and can complete that loop, for me, has been really fun.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
You have this physical cheese you make every day, and the cool thing about cheesemaking is you get a grade every day. At Jasper Hill, we care a lot about testing our cheese for specifications, for moisture content, for pH, and you can tell a lot about the cheese you made the day before by how well you hit your specs. Ultimately, it’s going to be about how great that cheese tastes. But the day after, you give yourself a little grade. Was I right on for moisture, or was the cheese a little dry, or a little wet, or a little acidic? In a lot of jobs, you don’t necessarily know how well you’re doing day to day, and it’s hard to get that perspective. But I think it’s very cool in cheesemaking that you get a grade every day, and you can try to improve and do better, and you don’t have a great day every day necessarily, but there’s always tomorrow and always a new cheese to make.
What’s your favorite pairing at the moment?
I’ve got to go with Bayley. Bayley Hazen Blue has been tasting great lately. Summertime is a good salad time, since you want to eat cool foods. My wife is an awesome salad maker, and we get these really great greens from the farm here, and throw in some tomatoes, and cucumbers, and some berries. We’re actually getting really good raspberries right now, so we’ve been putting those in salads. And having a little creamy Bayley Hazen Blue sprinkled on the salad for dinner, you get your vegetables, you get some protein, it just tastes super together.
Jasper Hill Farm
884 Garven Hill Road
Greensboro Bend, VT
Jasper Hill Farm at Boston Public Market
100 Hanover Street
Open Wednesday–Sunday 8 a.m.–8 p.m.
Feature Photo Credit: Jasper Hill Farm