Argyle Cheese Farmer New York – 50 States of Cheese
One step ahead. In a tough industry like the dairy business, you need to keep your finger on the pulse and your eyes wide open. In just seven years the Argyle Cheese Farmer has converted from a dairy farm into a leading cheese and yogurt producer, purchased a huge new property and are ready to scale up their business to create jobs for the community. The origin of Marge and David Randles’ success is seeing the big picture in the dairy food industry while keeping close to their customers’ changing tastes. This ability has seen their leap of faith, started in October 2007, develop rapidly into today’s exciting new expansion plans for the town of Argyle, about an hour north of Albany on the eastern side of New York State.
As with so many in this new wave of artisan cheese making, Argyle Cheese Farmers started out as a dairy business, with Dave’s family moving to the location in 1971 to raise Holsteins. Marge had an extensive career in tax and finance and this gave her a unique perspective to help reposition the business. “I had a lot of farmers’ accounts I was working with so I could see up close what was happening. It was obvious the smaller farms had to sell out and the bigger farms got bigger to remain competitive. We only had fifty animals so the writing was on the wall. I was determined to change the business but David is a typical New Englander- change is hard!”
Two events helped compel the family to make the shift. First, Marge decided to enroll on a cheese making course but the lady running the event didn’t seem keen. “She asked me what I did and I said I was a farmer’s wife. She replied they didn’t usually take on farmer’s wives because they didn’t usually follow through. Well, that was her mistake because people who know me know not to tell me I shouldn’t do something. It’s why I get into trouble and we have so many adventures.” Second, their youngest son was deployed in Iraq in 2004, something that deeply affected Marge. “David knew he had to distract me and give me something positive to focus on and cheese making was just the thing.”
The David’s brother Will now runs the dairy side of the business, leaving him and Marge the task of cheese and yogurt making. It took three years of planning and construction and finally the new cheese making facility was ready. Marge spent the time perfecting recipes in her kitchen and consultants helped fine-tune the design of the facility, aging room and products. Marge said: “Using consultants massively sped up the process. In fact it was a British consultant who tasted our milk and said it was perfect for Caerphilly- so that’s how we started with that cheese.” The cheese isn’t as crumbly as traditional Caerphilly because it is pressed more as Marge prefers to age it longer.
The farm produces two Cheddars, each with a distinctive texture. The ‘Revival’ is based on the Dunlop cheese style from Scotland. The name ‘Revival’ comes in recognition of the cheese making plant that operated down the road in the 1800’s that were well known for making great Cheddar. One reason for the expansion plans for the farm is Marge’s desire to improve her community and bring back jobs. “I believe this country needs a spiritual revival too- we want to get this country on a better path. That’s why, locally and nationally, we want to see a revival. We came upon the perfect blend of cultures but you don’t get the full flavor from them unless it ages at least six to nine months- we age it at least a year. Then it forms the delicious crystals to give that crunch, the sharp and dry taste is David’s favorite.”
Marge’s favorite is her creamy Cheddar called ‘Mercy’, inspired by her Caerphilly recipe. “I call it a cousin to our Caerphilly, only our Cheddars are made with raw milk. We don’t heat this as much as the ‘Revival’ which leaves more whey in the curd, so it doesn’t come out as dry. It’s a medium strength cheese.” Both cheeses come in twelve to fifteen pound wheels.
Another fabulous raw milk cheese is called ‘Grace’ and is a cross between Gouda and Saint Paulin. “It started when I found some Taleggio molds that leave a beautiful weave pattern in the cheese. I worked on the recipe and use an apple vinegar washed rind. Because we wash the curd its sweet and buttery- it melts wonderfully.” These semi-soft cheeses are aged for around six months but if left for a year dry to a similar texture of Parmesan. The name of the extra sharp aged ‘Grace’? Yes, it’s ‘Amazing Grace’!
The farm also produces a Havarti (sometimes with caraway seeds added) and cheese curds. “Our curds sell so well at farmers’ markets, they are extremely popular- especially with beer.” Quark is another product they have sold successfully. The biggest surprise has been the success of their rich buttermilk. “A chef in New York asked us for some buttermilk so we made him a gallon or two. It just flies off the shelves, people are cooking with it or just drinking it as people have always done traditionally. We make around a hundred and fifty gallons a week.”
While the cheese business has steadily grown, incredibly this only accounts for around a fifth of their sales. The rest is thanks to the boom in yogurt. “We could not be better placed here in New York State. We have fabulous milk and we put a lot of labor into making right.” With the recent Greek yogurt explosion being driven by the major New York based brands, hearing you are the best Greek yogurt maker in the state is quite an accolade. “We are told regularly by experts and customers that this is the best Greek yogurt in the state. There’s a reason for that. The big boys use separators, homogenization, they put stabilizers in it. We do none of that. We strain it the old fashioned way.”
Clearly Marge and David are doing something right. Their traditional and Greek styles have been so popular Marge can make three promises she wants all her customers to know. “One is its milk and a blend of five cultures, that’s it. No stabilizers, no sugars. The second thing is we don’t homogenize the milk so there will be a cream line and some whey- that’s because this is how proper yogurt should be. Thirdly, you’ll never go back to store milk. We tell this to customers at the farmers’ markets and they say ‘Yeah, right,’ but they have all come back and said they’ll never buy a name brand from the store again. There’s no comparison.” Both their traditional and Greek styles come in plain, vanilla and maple. “We buy our maple syrup from our next door neighbors- so that’s from the same soil too.”
So how did dairy farmers who were practicing cheese end up with such a vibrant yogurt business? Marge explains the history: “Actually it was a state inspector that started it. He came round and asked us we weren’t making yogurt, he said it was the safest product you could make. We didn’t know we could make a sellable product but I made some and didn’t have enough pots. I was brought up to be frugal and never throw anything away and a cheese maker friend told us we just had to drain it and whip it up. We took it to the market and it sold out immediately. We knew then we had a great product.”
Thanks to the boom in yogurt sales they have now purchased a vacant medical plant down the road to begin their expansion plans into other states. They want to create jobs and, with an FDA license, start to sell over the border into major cities like Montreal and Boston. Marge said: “Coming from New York helps our reputation as a top yogurt maker. The plant we have just bought shut down and cost the area a lot of jobs. It’s so sad to see so many plants in our town closed and the jobs outsourced abroad. We want to build business back up here in America.”
For now, David and Marge continue to sell at farmers’ markets in Troy, Saratoga Springs and Glens Falls. “We get wonderful feedback from our customers at the markets. One lady brought us a glass jar that we now put our yogurts in. It’s wonderful packaging- and that’s all thanks to having those relationships with our customers. That connection has always been key to our business.”
To learn more about progress at Argyle Cheese Farmer or to find where you can buy their cheese and yogurt range, you can find out more at www.cheesefarmer.com.Ask A Question Submit a Recipe Visit the Cheese Making Shop