Couple bets farm to make artisan cheeses in Perry

Betty and Gary Burley found themselves at a crossroads. Dairy farmers for 35 years, they had started their farm with 18 cows and grew it to 1,300, divided between two farms, where their herd grazed on a total of 2,000 acres of land. Gary Burley estimates that they had — and the family still has — the largest grazing herd in the Northeast.

During that time, they raised a family, and as adults, four of their five children wanted to work on the farm.

“We wanted them to stay on the farm and be happy,” Gary Burley said. And the way they saw it, the way to make that work would be for the parents to leave the day-to-day operation and pass the responsibility to the next generation. Adept at business as well as farming, the Burleys invested in mediators to help with goal-setting. When the transition was complete, a son and a daughter each ran their two farms, East Hill Farms in Warsaw and Graceland Dairy in Dansville.

At the same time, the couple, in their late 50s, was far from ready to be put out to pasture themselves.

“What else do you do in life?,” Gary said. “You spend money or you make money.”

Their next step was a major one. After a "wow" moment at a seminar on Alpine cheeses, they started East Hill Creamery, an 18,000-square-foot operation that cost $6.5 million to build. It has a state-of-the-art facility for making artisan cheeses the way they are made in the French Alps. In addition, it has a small retail shop, which has the pleasant, comforting smell of warm milk as you enter the building at 346 South Main St. in Perry. The shop sells not only the Burleys' cheeses, but also other locally produced foods. Glass windows in the store enable visitors to watch cheese makers at work.

When construction is complete this summer, the second floor will have a museum that celebrates the area’s dairy industry. It will also have a lofty events space for hosting tastings, cooking demonstrations, weddings and more. The interior features beautiful post-and-beam construction, made from 40 red oak trees cut from the family’s farms.

Wyoming County may seem like an unlikely spot to build such a high-end operation, as it has a total population of 41,446, according to the 2015 U.S. Census. The average per capita income of the county is just under $24,000, which is less than state and national averages. While the percentage of people who graduated from high school is about average, the percentage who have earned at least a bachelor’s degree is just over 15 percent, about half the national average.

In other ways, Perry is the perfect location; the Burley family’s East Hill Farms is just 7 miles away from the creamery. In Wyoming County, the cows outnumber the people; the county had 47,500 dairy cows in 2016, according to the New York Agricultural Statistics Service. It is the highest milk producing county in New York state, with more than 120 million pounds of milk produced each year.

For the Burleys, building the facility was another step in a cycle, familiar to many farmers, that they have repeated often: save money to invest in land, animals and equipment. They use the income from what they produce to pay down the debt. Next, they "bet the farm," so to speak, by using the equity to borrow more money to reinvest in more land, more animals and more equipment.

“I always looked at (debt) as an opportunity,” Gary Burley said. “That’s business. Farming is risky.”

Jump from milk to cheese

Betty and Gary Burley have both been around farming for most of their lives.

She grew up on a dairy farm in Sheldon, in the western part of Wyoming County, and came from a long line of dairy farmers who emigrated from Alsace-Lorraine in 1845.

As a boy, Gary worked after school on a dairy farm, beginning at 50 cents an hour, then earning up to $1 an hour.

“I really liked farming,” Gary Burley said. “I learned to like the possession of money.”

He says he possesses qualities that make for a successful farmer: he is mechanically inclined and has a nose for business and a feel for animals. His grandfather was known for being something of a horse whisperer; he broke horses at a farm on Scio and Ontario streets in Rochester (near the current Lewis Street YMCA).

“I’m very similar around animals,” Gary said. “I can tell you what their needs are.”

Gary served in the Army from 1976 to 1980, and then he and Betty bought a run-down dairy farm in Warsaw, starting with 18 cows in 1981.

“It was a lot of hand labor back in those days — real character-building stuff,” Betty Burley said.

With that, the cycle of debt and reinvesting began. By 1983 their herd grew to 40 cows. They netted $1,000 per cow, which they considered to be a nice living. They did most of the labor themselves, with the help of a high school boy after school.

In 1990 they realized they needed to expand in order to survive; they increased their herd from 40 to 200 cows in one year, and continued to grow until they reached 1,300 cows on two different farms.

Taking their milk to the next level

When it came time for them to leave the day-to-day operation of the farms, they explored ideas that incorporated the milk from the dairy’s cows.

“We think our milk is special because we’ve been grazing our cows for 20 years,” Gary Burley said. The cows eat grasses, herbs and flowers from the pasture from about April to November, and are fed hay and supplemental grains during the winter.

They were intrigued by friends who had started successful cheese operations but wanted to avoid the more common cheeses like cheddar. They found their answer while attending a session on French cheeses at a seminar by the American Cheese Society.

“We had one of those 'wow' moments,” Betty Burley said. The concept of French Alpine cheeses seemed to be a perfect fit, because the Burleys’ cows graze the way cows do in the French Alps.

Like wines, cheeses are affected by terroir, a term used for the flavor imparted by the environment in which it is produced. The flavor of cheese is affected by the grass the animal eats, by the soil in which the grass grows, by the climate and even by the building in which the cheese is made.

The challenge: these cheeses are difficult to make.

“There’s a lot of pitfalls you want to bypass,” Gary said. “You need to have good equipment or the maker has to overcome the equipment.”

Enter Alexandre Pellicier, a dairy consultant who also is a French national team ski mountaineering racer. The Burleys hired the Frenchman to help design the facility and select the state-of-the-art equipment.

“There was no sense in trying to reinvent the wheel,” Gary said. They started construction in the spring of 2015.

When it came time to hire cheese makers, they placed an ad in the area Pennysaver; they received 180 applicants for the three positions. Gary said the pay of $15 per hour, which is a good wage for Wyoming County, and the curiosity about the new facility, both attracted attention.

Pellicier, the Frenchman, visited the plant to teach the cheese makers how to make the raw milk cheeses. Made in Europe for hundreds of years, raw milk cheeses are said to have a better flavor than cheeses made from pasteurized milk. These cheeses may be made in the United States provided they are aged for at least 60 days at specific temperatures. That is not a fail-safe requirement; as a result, the facility does an intensive voluntary swabbing program to check for listeria, and the state checks for E. coli monthly.

To make the cheese, milk is brought in fresh from their Warsaw farm. The milk used by the creamery represents just 3 to 4 percent of the family farm’s dairy production; the rest is sold to the Dairy Farmers of America, a dairy marketing cooperative. The hope is that over time, the percentage will grow, enabling the family to get a greater return for the milk.

The cheeses are made with open copper vats that were imported from France. The theory is that as the milk and the curds bounce off the copper, microscopic pieces of the copper flavor the cheese.

The wheels of cheese are aged in caves that are covered by 40 inches of dirt. The caves are lined by basswood shelves made from trees cut from the Burleys’ property; the boards are considered an important part of the environment in the caves. The idea is that good organisms get into the wood and perpetuate to the next wheels of cheese as they age. (They are washed between uses.)

The $250,000 HVAC system, imported from France, maintains the critically important temperature and humidity in the caves. The environment is damp and almost foggy, with a temperature of 50 degrees with 92 percent humidity.

Twice a week, each of the hundreds of wheels of cheese is rubbed with salt and then flipped. Given that some of the wheels weigh roughly 80 pounds, flipping them is a physical task.

The younger cheeses are also rubbed with a substance called morge, which is a combination of yeast, whey and cultures. This process breaks up the surface of the cheese so that it can develop a rind, which turns the wheels from white to golden in color.

When they are ready, wheels are cut by hand with a two-handled knife; a half-pound wedge is the most common size packaged and sold. Every wheel of cheese is tasted before it’s sold. All told, making the cheeses is a labor-intensive process that results in higher prices.

East Hill Creamery makes two styles of cheese. Underpass is a semi-hard cheese, made in 10- to 12-pound wheels and aged 60 days or more. It melts beautifully and has a mild, nutty flavor and a creamy, buttery texture. It is similar to Raclette, known for a Swiss dish in which the wheel is heated and the melted part is scraped off and served with potatoes, other vegetables and charcuterie. The Underpass Reserve is the same cheese, aged for 100 days or more, resulting in a richer, saltier and more robust cheese flavor and a firmer texture.

The Underpass name is a playful nod to a significant event in the farm’s history. The Burleys’ cows would snarl traffic as they went out to pasture and returned to the barn each day. It was a big event when an underpass was built for the cows to pass under the road.

The other cheese is called Silver Lake, after a nearby lake. The Gruyere-style cheese is made in larger wheels, about 80 pounds each. It's aged for nine to 12 months, giving it a firmer texture.

A cheese called Happy Accident came from a mistake in the feeding of the cows. It truly was a happy accident, as it had a tangy flavor that people have enjoyed.

Chefs are enthusiasts

Matt Hudson groaned to himself when he saw Betty and Gary Burley walk in the door of his restaurant, a platter of cheese samples in hand. It was 4 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon — one of the worst times to call on a restaurant chef.

“It’s when you realize it’s a time crunch,” Hudson said. The owner of the venerable Richardson's Canal House, on the Erie Canal in Pittsford, recalls he was carrying a tray of raw meat, and had a long prep list to complete before service started at 5 p.m.

Gary Burley introduced himself and "pretty much insisted" that Hudson try his samples. He reluctantly washed his hands and politely tasted.

"I was really blown away by it," Hudson said. He ended up talking with the couple for an hour.

“If the cheese wasn’t good, I wouldn’t have given them that much time,” Hudson said. The Silver Lake cheese is now the stringy melted cheese that crowns the restaurant’s French onion soup.

Since the Burleys started selling their cheeses in July 2016, many area chefs have responded with enthusiasm.

For Asa Mott, chef and owner of the ButaPub, a quirky restaurant and pub with inventive Asian-inspired fare, the effect was also immediate.

“They dropped off a sample one day,” Mott said. “I tried it. I loved it. I immediately changed the menu so we could use it.”

It now uses the Underpass cheese on the pub’s signature burger because it melts well and for a flavor that Mott describes as nutty and delicious, almost grassy. He also has used the Happy Accident cheese in a potato soup.

At farm-to-table restaurant Lento, Art Rogers changes his menu roughly three times a week. He has made a cheese sauce with the Underpass cheese and drizzled it over vegetables and fingerling potatoes. He used the Silver Lake cheese in a lasagna with braised beef.

“It melts nicely,” Rogers said of the Underpass cheese. “It’s mild. It’s the kind of cheese that people are used to. It’s really well made.”

At the Hole in the Wall restaurant, a mainstay in the village of Perry and town of Castile, chef Travis Barlow shows off the local cheese maker in myriad ways.

In one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, a high-end riff on mozzarella sticks, Barlow hand cuts the 12-pound wheels of Underpass cheese into baton-shaped pieces, batters them and briefly fries them and finishes the dish with a drizzle of chili-infused honey. His poutine tops french fries with shredded Underpass cheese, duck meat, a duck demiglace and preserves. And, on a good old turkey melt, the Silver Lake cheese is nestled with bacon, turkey and pickles between two pieces of rye bread.

But the relationship between the Burleys and the Barlows is more than that of supplier and customer; they also are allies in fostering a fledgling food scene in Perry. Whereas the area’s demographics can represent a challenge, the couples both see promise. They are situated between the spectacular Letchworth State Park in Castile, which draws more than a half-million visitors each year, and Silver Lake, which has hundreds of vacation cottages and is known for its fishing.

In addition, the Silver Lake Brewing Project, a brewery in the heart of downtown Perry, opened in March. East Hill Creamery supplies the brewery with the cheeses for its cheese and meat plates. It’s an example of the way the local businesses support each other.

“That’s what community is about,” Gary Burley said.

Matching the market with the make

The biggest challenge for the Burleys? “Getting it sold,” Gary Burley says simply.

He describes it as a chicken-and-egg situation. They need enough cheese on hand to fulfill a large-scale order, as there is a two-month window for making more. The caves also need to be full in order to maintain the proper environment.

The “market and the make,” as Gary Burley calls them, need to balance. They make roughly 1,000 pounds of cheese a week, and their production is currently pacing ahead of their sales. The cheeses are sold in small retailers and served in restaurants in Syracuse, Ithaca, Rochester, Buffalo and the Finger Lakes region.

“People have to have a reason to buy them,” said Gary Burley. “Once they taste it we hope they like it well enough to continue on a regular basis.”

Far from coasting to retirement, Betty and Gary Burley now work at the creamery 70 to 80 hours per week, and their new venture is never far from their minds.

They have also fulfilled their goal of leaving their kids to run the dairy farms.

“I think at first they thought we were nuts,” Betty Burley said.

TRACYS@Gannett.com

Here is where you can find East Hill Creamery cheeses: http://www.easthillcreamery.com/find-us/

 

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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