Valley Shepherd Creamery
In the pastures of Long Valley, near the Raritan River in Morris County, Eran Wajswol’s 460 sheep graze and bleat as sheep have done for thousands of years. Using all-natural ingredients, Old World recipes, and traditional cave aging, Wajswol makes splendid artisan cheeses from their milk.
But he gladly lets technology lend a hand. Twice a day, in the “milking parlor,” a computerized lactation carousel that handles 60 sheep at once—the only one in the U.S. for sheep, Wajswol claims—milks 300 ewes per hour. In the cheese room, vats of milk are heated to the precise temperatures required to activate specific strains of bacteria to produce just the right texture of curd.
“Machinery helps you pay attention to what’s important,” Wajswol says. “In cheese making, there are a couple of things you need to focus on. If you can eliminate the nonsense—the mundane, nonskilled steps, like feeding the animals or warming milk correctly—you can spend more time focusing on the texture of the curd and making sure the product comes out good.”
A former life as a mechanical engineer accounts for Wajswol’s appreciation of technology. (He and his wife, Debra, also a former engineer, met at Stevens Institute of Technology.) An overlapping career as a real estate developer in New Jersey accounts for the deep pockets that enabled Wajswol to invest millions—mostly from his own funds, plus one loan—to create Valley Shepherd Creamery, which opened in 2005.
Wajswol, 53, was born in Israel and raised largely in Belgium before coming to the U.S. at age 13. He has no shepherds or cheese makers in his family tree. The only explanation he gives for his vocational transition is that he liked cheese making. “It was hard,” he says. “I like hard things.”
For ten years before he built Valley Shepherd, Wajswol put himself through a self-styled, part-time apprenticeship, studying with experts in Europe, then practicing on small batches in his and Debra’s home in Tewksbury. By the late ’90s, he was selling his cheeses at farmers’ markets.
From the outset, Valley Shepherd was conceived not just as a dairy but as a pilot for a new kind of agritourism.
“Some places offer corn mazes and bales of hay for kids to jump on,” says Wajswol, who teaches monthly classes in cheese making. “That’s fine. But I don’t know what people are absorbing in these places other than fresh air. Instead of helping people kill a few hours’ time, I am offering a real education here.” Wajswol says that more than 25,000 people have visited the farm this year alone.
Information-packed tours lead visitors through the process. Tours begin with three films that in ten minutes explain the basics of milking, cheese making, and sheep shearing. (The Wajswols sell wool blankets and sheepskins in their Sheep Shoppe, along with cheeses and farm- and sheep-related gifts.) Next, visitors move toward the barn, where the first of several glass-walled observation areas allows them to watch the stages of cheese making without compromising stringent hygiene standards.
“See that conveyor belt?” Wajswol says, pointing. “It can carry hay to 600 animals in 45 minutes.” The conveyor belt is nothing compared to the milking parlor, where each sheep has her health statistics displayed on a computer screen before getting hooked up to the automated milker. Next stop is the cheese making room, with its fermented milk, curds, cheese presses, and whey.
Valley Shepherd’s Fall Harvest Tour, which runs through mid-November, culminates in a wagon ride about a mile up the road to the aging cave, which Wajswol built by blasting 150 feet into a mountainside. He says a cave is mandatory, not just for its year-round temperature in the 50s, but for the constant 80 percent humidity that cheese likes. Visitors can walk along a corridor and view, again behind glass, rooms where thousands of wheels mature to full beauty.
“When people see how much skill and resources it takes to make cheese—say, 1,300 pounds of milk to produce a mere six 20-poundwheels—they really appreciate it and become lifelong customers,” he says. “Six or seven years ago, this kind of cheese didn’t exist around here. Now I can’t keep enough of it in stock.”
Sheep’s milk has higher butterfat, protein and minerals than cow’s or goat’s milk and forms a tighter, thicker curd. It also matures in half the time of cow’s milk cheese—a cheese maker’s dream. That said, you need lighter milks to make a variety of cheeses, so Valley Shepherd also brings in cow’s milk from a small farm in Sussex County.
The result is 20 delightful and interesting cheeses—some pure sheep, others “mixed milk.” A Brie-style wheel is wonderfully rich and melty. A mild, smooth Gouda is accented with the earthy zing of nettles. The pecorinos are tangy and intense. Oldwick, a pecorino, modeled on berbis from the French Pyrenees, is nutty and rich. Prices range from $17.50 to $23 a pound.
Even with automation, cheese making is a hard life. The Wajswols work seven days a week for eight months a year, and their two teenage children constantly help. The family doesn’t rest until December, when cheese making winds down for the season. “It’s crazy here,” he says. “On the weekend, I’m sending cheese to a dozen farmers’ markets. The phone is always ringing.”
Still, he has no plans for expansion, even as demand threatens to outpace capacity. “I can only be in so many places—I need to always be within shouting distance of the cheese room. You can destroy a vat just by walking out for five minutes. We’ll add some more sheep, but not too many,” he says, with a shake of his head. “Big is bad. If you grow big, you’ll screw up your cheese.”
Why does Wajswol consider that inevitable? Why can’t artisan cheeses be made on a large scale, especially when assisted by the kind of technology Valley Shepherd employs?
“The process starts with grass in the fields and ends up with a hygienic, state-controlled product delivered to a customer at a farmers’ market,” Waj-swol explains. “In between, the process is complex. Animals produce milk that goes into storage that gets heated that gets formed that gets put into caves to age. If you screw up any of these stages, you screw up the whole thing.
“In today’s society, those responsibilities are usually divided between several large-scale farming operations. One guy just does milk. The milk goes to a factory where it is held in silos until it’s ready to be made into cheese. Then a distributor comes and brings it to the retail shop. Here we combine all those jobs in one.
“That is the killer. You can’t do any one of those things on a small scale and survive. Farmers’ markets allow us small guys to sell at retail. Without it we’re going under. One of the reasons we’re forced to do this is what it costs us to buy land. If land was supported by the state, if farmers got a subsidy for preserving farmland—well, that could save small farms. Otherwise, what beginning farmer can start from a million-dollar piece of land?”
For all these reasons, Wajswol says, the rewards of artisanship come from producing delicious rare cheeses that make customers happy, not from anything financial—the cost of doing things right is too high.
“Real estate,” he adds, with the tone of a guy who’s seen it all, “now that was real money.”
Valley Shepherd Creamery
50 Fairmount Road Long Valley
Shop hours: Thursday to Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm.
Tours: 90 minutes each, Saturday and Sunday, 1 and 4 pm. (Milking on 4 pm tour only.)
Price: Tours, $8.50 per adult, $6.50 per child.
Flying Fish Brewery
More than fifteen years ago, when Gene Muller worked in advertising, he thought he’d like to learn how to make wine as a hobby.
But when he realized he’d have to wait a year to drink his product, well, that was the end of that. He switched his sights to home beer-making, because “with beer you only have to wait two weeks,” he explains.
Though Muller claims he never really wanted to own and run a business, he knew he wanted to do something different with his life than produce advertising. One thing led to another, and his entrepreneurial spirit emerged.
It was 1995 and the Internet was in its infancy. Muller got to the front of the pack and launched a website on which he laid out his philosophy and plan for building a high-quality, locally focused, artisanal beer-making operation (or craft brewery, in industry parlance). He won the support of investors and bankers before he had even made a single six-pack. By 1996, Flying Fish Brewery had opened its doors in Cherry Hill. Today, Muller and his staff of twelve produce 140,000 cases a year.
“We only sell our beer within 100 miles of the brewery,” says Muller, 53. “Our whole point is to be intensely local. We have home field advantage here. Our beer stays fresh. And it lowers our carbon footprint.”
For those interested in learning how barley and hops get turned into a clear and crisp glass of beer or ale, Flying Fish offers informal but fascinating tours. “We don’t hire tour guides,” says Muller. “When you come, you’ll talk to a brewer or the owner.”
In a 30-minute session, visitors get an overview of the beer-making process and a walk through the brewery, which is at rest on Saturday.
They learn how malt (barley that has been soaked, germinated, and roasted in a kiln) is crushed (somewhat in the manner of coffee beans) and mixed with 150-degree water to extract a sweet liquid that is then mixed with specific varieties of hops, added at particular moments, to achieve the desired result—whether pleasantly bitter, herbal, or spicy.
Visitors are welcome to peer inside the brewing kettles, then it is on to the fermentation tank, where yeast is added to turn sugars to alcohol. This, says Muller, is where the real magic occurs. “Some say that the biggest secret to beer is where the water comes from. Don’t believe it,” he says. “Water is the least important. The yeast is the biggest factor in what the finished beer will taste like.”
According to Muller, hundreds of different varieties of yeast are sold by laboratories—many wildly different. Some contribute fruity flavors, others spiciness.
“We use a Belgian strain for our Abbey Dubbel and our Grand Cru, which is a winter reserve. Our October Fish uses a German strain, and our house yeast is an English ale variety.
“Generally the major American breweries use a lager yeast for a very light pilsner-style beer. Most craft breweries use ale yeasts that give a lot more character. It’s kind of like having a supermarket tomato versus an heirloom you plucked off the vine.”
That said, Flying Fish beers are designed to be balanced enough to go well with food, and the alcohol punch is not overwhelming. But you can judge for yourself, because each tour ends with a small tasting, after which visitors are allowed by law to purchase no more than two six-packs.
Yes, children are allowed to take the tour, but of course are not allowed to taste. Muller has a reasonable hypothesis for why the tour is popular with families who have youngsters in tow. “There’s a shoe outlet and a children’s museum across the street,” he says, “so we’ve found that there’s something here for everyone.”
Flying Fish Brewing Company
1940 Olney Avenue
Tours: Saturday and Sunday, no appointment needed between 1 and 3:30 pm.
Readington River Buffalo Farm
Buffalo in Jersey? It sounds odd, even ridiculous. But when you start talking to Erick Doyle, 37, whose family owns 130 bison that graze on 250 acres in Flemington, the idea soon begins to make sense.
It turns out that buffalo—or bison, to use the scientifically correct name—are, according to Doyle, quite adaptable to different environments and happen to like New Jersey just fine.
Readington River Buffalo Farm offers its annual harvest tours beginning September 28 and continuing through the end of October. These include a hayride, pumpkin picking, and a view of the herd. Plus there’s a shop where you can buy buffalo steaks and burgers as well as fresh local produce.
The season’s unique event occurs November 2—“Round Up Day,” when handlers (many of whom are volunteers) gather the animals and pull them in for counting, sorting, ear tagging, and inoculation. Visitors can get a close look at the process, which includes a bit of cowboyish wrangling. Brave guests are welcome to pitch in and help herd the hulking creatures (from a safe distance) to their winter pastures. Doyle describes the event as “intense.”
You take him at his word. Adult female bison weigh up to 1,000 pounds, males up to 2,000, and calves a solid 300 to 400 pounds. The animals are not accustomed to being confined in small areas—however temporary—and don’t take to it kindly. Bison are fast and agile, with a top speed of about 35 miles per hour. “It’s their nimble, evasive maneuvering that makes them so hard to catch,” explains Doyle.
Such exhibitions were not part of the original plan. The Readington Buffalo Farm was hatched as a retirement project for Doyle’s parents. His father, a chemist by trade, had for decades enjoyed a sideline business as a cattle farmer at the family’s 97-acre home in Bedminster. Doyle’s mother, Scarlett, is a mystery writer and has a master’s in city and regional planning from Rutgers. In retirement, the couple wanted to continue looking after a spread with a certain number of cattle.
“They’d been what you call gentleman farmers,” says Doyle.
This was back in the mid-’90s, when Doyle was in Colorado, just out of college and working as a cook, trying to find his way. When his parents came to see him, they visited a bison farm. Light bulbs lit up.
Bison meat was a promising product with a growing niche market. Its low fat content made it popular with the health-conscious crowd, and it fetched about 50 percent more in price than beef—no small consideration.
“It’s extremely hard to make a living in conventional farming; you have to be clever,” comments Doyle, who says he knows of a dozen other cattle farmers in his immediate area, but none with bison. In short, to succeed you need an alternate angle. Doyle’s parents decided to go for it.
Doyle gave up cooking in Colorado and returned to New Jersey to help his parents and take up farming as his career. As farm manager, he noticed early on that New Jerseyans were intrigued and curious about the buffalo. That’s when he decided to add hayrides and the pumpkin patch. It helped increase income and also built a market for his products.
“The tourism doesn’t bother me,” says Doyle from atop a tractor on a break from mowing pasture. “There are definitely farms out there that mainly focus on it. But we are a productive farm. Everything here ends up going to the market—about 60 to 70 head per year.”
For Doyle’s parents, bison farming has worked out well. “My dad is 69, and he works on the farm every day,” Doyle says. “That’s how he gets his exercise. He likes to spend his leisure time doing farm stuff. My mom is 63. She’s at the farmers’ market right now, selling our meat.”
Despite the unique angle and the draw of agritourism, the business model leaves something to be desired. When you ask Doyle if buffalo farming is profitable, he replies, “Let’s put it this way…I’m happy my wife works.”
Readington River Buffalo Farm
937 County Road 523
Readington Twp. (for GPS directions, use Flemington 08822)
Store hours: Saturday and Sunday, 9 am to 5 pm
Hayride Tours: Saturday and Sunday, 10 am to 4 pm (through Oct 26). Bison burger lunch available.
Round-Up Day: Nov 2, beginning 8 am.
Cherry Grove Farm
Kelly Harding, manager of Cherry Grove Farm, says his first priority is raising quality livestock and producing fresh meat, eggs, and cheese.
“We’re interested in tourism, but we want to do it in a way that is real,” he says. “We know that people want to come to the farm and see where their food comes from. Our goal is to raise good food and sell it to the people who live locally.”
It’s no wonder he’s cautious, with a big operation to run. He’s got 90 head of cattle, 100 hogs, 100 sheep, and 1,000 chickens. There’s the breeding and health of the animals to manage, the milking, the care of over 200 acres of pastures, the gathering of eggs, and the making of cheese.
Cherry Grove—located halfway between Princeton and Lawrenceville—has been owned by the Hamill family for generations. The land, sometimes leased to outside farmers, has produced many different crops.
Six years ago, however, the owners decided to shift their focus to organic grass-fed beef, lamb, heirloom pork, free-range chickens, and cheese making, with a store on the premises open six days a week. That’s when Harding, a longtime farmer, was brought on-board as manager.
Visitors are welcome to stroll the grounds, as well as observe cheese making through a window. Each day at 4 pm (except Sunday), the barn is open for milking.
Once a year, Cherry Grove hosts its popular Pasture Party—essentially a one-price, all-you-can eat feast. The big event, to be held November 1, showcases Cherry Grove’s own cheeses and meats, prepared by local chefs, as well as ice cream, breads, salads, beer, and wine. Three bands play, and visitors can take a hayride tour of the farm. Last year, 300 people came. It’s a good thing there are 230 acres to accommodate them all.
Cherry Grove Farm
3200 Lawrenceville Road
Milking: 4 pm every day but Sunday.
Cheese making: Monday, Tuesday, and Friday (call first to check).
Store Hours: Monday to Friday, 11 am to 6 pm. Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm.
PASTURE PARTY: November 1, noon to 5 pm.
Price: Festival is $30 in advance, $35 on day of event. Tickets available in advance at the farm store or the Village Bakery in Lawrenceville.
Tree Licious Orchards
“It’s so hard for people to understand today that there is a time and a season for things, they’re so used to supermarkets,” says Carol Kesler. “Someone called me in August wanting to know why we didn’t have cherries. Well, cherries are May and June. But she just couldn’t understand this because she’d seen them at the supermarket. Hopefully, by people coming out to the farm and actually seeing fruit on the vine, they’ll learn about local produce. Also, with the high prices of gas, they should be looking at things grown here, not Argentina.”
The Kesler family bought their Port Murray farm 25 years ago as a kind of roll-up-the-sleeves retirement plan. Carol was working as a teacher. Her husband, James, an engineer, had grown up on a farm in West Virginia. Six generations of his family before him were farmers. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he admits of working his 133 acres. This from a man who sold corn and tomatoes out of a cart to buy his own school books as a child.
Because supermarkets generally don’t take small quantities from local farmers, the Keslers—like most small farmers in New Jersey—have built a business heavily focused on serving farmers’ markets all over the metropolitan area, including New York. Carol bakes 150 pies a week, plus cookies and doughnuts and muffins, all of which go to farm stands, along with hybrid and heirloom apples like Stayman winesap, Jersey red, opalescent, and Carol’s favorite, Molly’s delicious.
“We like to re-create old varieties that nobody has,” Carol says. “It’s a shame to see them be forgotten. We like to keep the old flavors and textures that our grandparents grew up with.”
Tree Licious offers regular pick-your-own weekends each fall. But Apple Fest day is something special, with live music and a low-key picnic of hamburgers, hot dogs, fresh corn, and apple crisp. Depending on how the autumn weather progresses, visitors can expect to find McIntosh, macoun, golden delicious, and Stayman winesap on the trees—maybe even the large green Matsu.
Carol Kesler is reluctant to offer too much entertainment, because “that’s not taking people to the farm.”
On a gorgeous fall day, it is surely a joy to walk between the rows of fruit trees on the farm, filling up a bag with small crunchy apples weeks fresher than what you will find at the supermarket. “We want people to come and see what a farm really is,” she says. “We invite them to ask questions.
“In some ways, it’s been a good retirement for us, even if it’s been a bit wacky,” she says while icing a cake in her bakery. “I think that the farm has kept us alive and healthier because we’re so active.” She is in her sixties. James is 74. “It’s not an easy life. But it keeps the blood flowing.”
Tree Licious Orchards
135 Karrville Road
Pick Your Own: Saturdays and Sundays, 9 am to 6 pm, until the end of October.
Apple Fest: October 12
Price: Picnic, $5 per person.
For those who want a bit more active entertainment, Terhune Orchards offers its annual Fall Family Fun festival every weekend from September 27 through October 26, with live music, pony rides, games, a tractor ride, a corn maze, and a “fun barn,” where kids are given a lesson about apples. There’s also a nature trail and acres of pick-your-own apples, pumpkins, and gourds.
“To be a successful small family farm, you have to try a little bit of everything,” says Pamela Mount, whose family has owned the orchard for 33 years. “People come for all different reasons. Our farm store sells produce, baked goods, jams, jellies, and specialty meats and dairy. Others want a safe, fun place to visit with their kids. We have people coming here for generations.”
330 Cold Soil Road
Store Hours: Monday through Friday, 9 am to 7 pm; Saturday and Sunday, 9 am to 5 pm
Family Fun Festival: Saturdays and Sundays, Sept. 27 to Oct. 26.
Prices: Free admission; many events are free, others carry a modest fee.
Griggstown Farm Market
Griggstown doesn’t give tours or hold festivals, but if you are in the area, a trip to the 65-acre farm’s store is essential. Griggstown poultry is distributed by the admired, Newark-based D’Artagnan company and is highly sought by chefs at elite New York and New Jersey restaurants.
Depending on season you will find quail, duck, chicken, poussain, turkey, pheasant, chicken sausages, and specialty pot pies. Heritage red bourbon turkeys can be pre-ordered for Thanksgiving.
Griggstown Farm Market
986 Canal Road
Store Hours: Monday to Friday, 10 am to 6 pm. Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm; Sunday, Noon to 5 pm.
Contributing writer Laura Schenone wrote about the growth in backyard beekeeping in the August issue.
Photos by Rebecca McAlpin.
If you enjoyed this article, you also might like this story about wine in New Jersey. Click here to read: Vintage Jersey.
Or, check out this story about an ex-engineer who eschews technology to make cheese that "expresses the nature of the grass and the cow." Click here to read: The Curd Nerd.