The history and future of Consider Bardwell Farm, according to Chris Gray

The farm itself goes back to the early 1800’s and the Bardwells were the family that farmsteaded the land. Consider Bardwell was their son. He was a real entrepreneur of the time and started making cheese on the family property in the early 1860s.  That makes this property the earliest cheese making co-op in Vermont’s history.

The Bardwells were of British decent and so they made English style cheeses: Cheddar and Colby mainly then moved on to some German, but they were mostly on the Cheddar side.

Consider Bardwell is a very interesting person of historical importance. He had a foundry were he made hard, sharp tools which are actually highly collectible now. He had a plate quarry and a marble quarry, so this farm was a real center of industry for this remote little pocket of south-western Vermont.

The Bardwell family operated the farm and made cheese up until the 1930s when they lost everything in the depression. The farm changed hands to the Nelsons, who continued manufacturing cheese here under the name The Nelsonville Cheese Company. From what we can tell, they probably manufactured here until the 1960’s and then they just sold fluid milk. That incantation of the farm ran until 1991 when old man Nelson died. For about ten years the farm was just down and out, not working and falling into disrepair.

Angela Miller and Russell Glover (the current owners of Consider Bardwell) purchased the property in 2001 while they were visiting friends up in the area around Thanksgiving. The day after Thanksgiving they were going around and looking at places they were asking one of the local real estate people about farms that were available. The real estate broker said to them “there’s this other old place up far out of the way in West Pawlet, but you don’t want to see that place because it’s a total mess. I’m not even going to bring you there because it’s such a disaster.” Angela and Russ insisted on seeing it, fell in love and made an offer the very next day.

It’s really great old property on 300 hundred acres and there aren’t too many properties like this left in this region of the world. In 2001, the Millers purchased the property and by 2004 they were licensed for cheese making. I joined them in 2006 when they had just got things going, with a few goats making some basic fresh goat cheese and feta for our local market, the same way that most small goat dairies start. We brought on a consultant named Peter Dixon who’s an excellent regional cheese maker here. He helped us develop the recipes and put in the foundation for the business we have today.

This is a good, funny story that shows the pragmatism of “being Vermont”. Ms. Nelson (the former owner) had been carrying the farms for years and it wasn’t a working farm and was losing money. There’s the original old cheese making factory you will see on our property right behind a big pond. That water from the pond was driven through a steel way and a water wheel that powered the mechanisms of the original cheese factory. The factory was evidently in disrepair and falling apart. The story goes that Ms. Nelson one day decided that she couldn’t pay the tax burden on the property so she burned downed the plant because less buildings meant lower taxes. Why burn down Vermont’s oldest cheese factory? To save money on taxes of course.

So we have taken the farm over with a bit of different goals in mind. What we want to do is restore the history here. Bring back the cheese making and the network of farms. We developed our farm as the dairy source in a network of local farms that supply us cow and goat milk.  We recreate that co-op atmosphere where local farms bring milk to our site to be processed in cheeses. Our goal is to develop that in a sustainable way so that cheese is being made here for another 100 years as it was originally.

When I started in 2006 we were making about ten thousand pounds of cheese. This past year, we made around 75,000 pounds. So we’ve been really growing every year, quite quickly for this type of business. This year we plan to make about 80,000 pounds of cheese and that’s a nice level at which we can sustain our set of highly trained employees and operate a business rationally and economically. We’ve built our system, we’ve built our creamery, we’ve built our aging rooms, we’ve built our herds of animals. We feel that our quality has gotten better and better over the years. It’s at a very high level now. Now that we have our systems in place we will just continue the focus on quality and make those minute changes in our systems that can really differentiate our cheese from all the cheeses out there, of which are an ever growing number.

And this also relates to sustainability. We’re looking to grow in a pace and consistent way that is sustainable over time. Our animals are well-cared for, and they’re not over-grazing our pastures, and the milk continues to be quality. We’ve created a great internal team, the farmers who supply the milk, the creamery crew who processes it. With all those people together, the stronger we can make them, the better cheese we make. So that’s what we’re focusing on now. Our goal, as I said, is to create a system here that will produce high quality cheese in a sustainable way over time, that will be here long after all of us are gone.

We’re very realistic about our business in terms of we’re not over speculating financially. We do things in real time. If we need a new piece of equipment, or another part of the operation built, we build it ourselves. Or we buy used equipment, recondition it, and get it working instead of going out and buying every new thing that’s out there. All those things do impact sustainability over time. If we have a giant debt-load, we’re not going to be here in five years. So we’re really conscious of that as we build the business.

Our goal is to increase, over time, to about 100,000 pounds of cheese a year. And that’s a level at which we’ve modeled things where we feel we can assure quality, top level animal care and also be financially viable. We want to work with our partner farms to make them stronger, help them increase their volume in a sustainable way so that they’re more independently viable. In this very remote rural area here, there’s not a lot of jobs, not a lot of economy. We want to create something here that spurs industry for this region, supplies jobs, maintains working landscapes, and keeps the farms here working instead of being turned into summer homes. Dairy is in decline in this state and region, and we’re trying to push that rock back up the hill. We’re recreating what Consider Bardwell was in the 19th Century, an important piece of the local economy.

I think that we have seen a lot of growth in the U.S. cheese industry. And in that rush, not everyone has paid as much attention to food safety as they need to. There hasn’t been, necessarily, clear regulation in place from the federal or the state level. In Vermont, we’re very lucky. We have incredible support from the state in the Department of Agriculture. They’re effective, they’re amazing, and they really help us problem solve and increase our quality. It’s a challenge to the industry, because not every state has that same level of knowledge or dedication. What we’ve done for our business is we’ve created a HACCP plan, hazard analysis and critical control point plan, basically the top tier of food production protocol that ensures safe food production. But I do think that food safety is really going to impact a lot of American cheesemakers in terms of economy. It is expensive to create and run this type of system, but it’s very important. What we’ve found it that our HAACP definitely helps us make safe food, but it’s also really helps us increase our quality. Cheese has gotten better since we’ve engaged this process. We’re always thinking about food safety, codifying everything we do, logging all our temperatures and our process. It’s a mindset that you get into.

I think that as the trend continues towards more food safety, that’s actually going to increase cheese quality overall. There’s a lot of really great cheese being made in the U.S., but it has even gotten better in the last few years.  I think that the industry can standardize and increase the quality of their practices over time. The public will start to take trust in the products we’ve produced, and I think that will help the whole industry collectively over time.

There’s a big movement of going back to old ways of doing things. Local and regional production of food is gaining in popularity, which is fantastic. People care more and more about where their food comes from. And we often get asked by customers if we’re a family farm, and we’re not a family farm in the traditional sense. I think that people have a romantic notion of what a family farm is and that family farms produce better quality food. I think in the past that was held to be true, but I don’t think it’s necessarily true presently. Our whole system we’ve created here is based on a family ethic, all different people from different backgrounds, from different places in the world, locally, far away. We’re all cheese lovers on some level, and we’ve all come together to create this project. And although it’s not a family farm, it feels like we’re all related, you know? We’re related through cheese and that is what we care about.  ©