Bobolink Dairy and Bakehouse – New Jersey
He is the most interesting man in the world… “I don’t always eat cheese…but when I do, I prefer Bobolink.”
People like Jonathan White are the reason artisan cheese made it in America. A passion for science, history and creativity, this ex-engineer has forged a thriving family business at their new home in Milford, New Jersey, just on the eastern side of the great Delaware River. Working with his wife, Nina, their story is a fascinating journey that recounts a rich history working with jazz poets, pioneering French chefs, Amish collaborations and selling cheese back to the Dutch, who promptly asked them if they could also supply them wooden clogs. Yes. He’s that good. It makes those Dos Equis television commercials look like a night in watching paint dry.
Jonathan also possesses that quality that seems so common in many artisan cheese makers that ‘made’ it during the recent growth of the industry- faith in their intuition. Together with his wife, the blend of art and science was in place. “I was working in engineering and my wife was dancing- ballet and modern dance. Fortunately neither of us went to agricultural school, otherwise we would have been taught everything we knew was wrong!” Their farmstead at Bobolink Dairy is as in-tune with the environment as possible, Jonathan tasting, testing and refining every single batch depending on the variations in the daily milk. The journey started, as it often does, with milk unexpectedly crossing the path of the future cheese maker.
“One of Nina’s ballet students had a wonderful father, the jazz poet and classical composer David Amram. They were milking goats but had a surplus, so I started playing around with it. That’s why one of our cheeses is called Amram today, in thanks to him. He’s eighty-three and still going strong.” When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait it created a ripple effect on the American economy, leading to Jonathan’s engineering projects drying up. “The economy held its breath…and so did the engineering business. We had a baby, some savings, so it was the right time to get into farming and producing food.”
The hobby had become a job, and from 1993 to 2000 the White family ran a successful cheese business in Peekskill in the Hudson Valley, New York. The milk was coming from fairly conventional local farms but soon Jonathan figured out the path to success was grass-fed cows, thanks to an education provided by pioneering farm-to-table chef Jean Louis Palladin. “I learned one very valuable thing from him. The flavor comes from the soil, not the sauce. He’s sadly no longer with us but we named a cheese after him too.”
The business developed a successful export business, attracting venture capital. They were breaking new ground because they were the first to be exporting back to Europe after a brief trading period collapsed at the end of the nineteenth century. Jonathan explained: “New York State was famous for its white cheddar, tons of it was being sent back to England as a premium product. Then a famine in Scandinavia saw Wisconsin and Minnesota open up to these immigrant farmers from Europe, offered forty acres each in return for supplying milk to the cheese industry. Wisconsin wanted to dominate the export market to Europe, so started adding annatto coloring to their cheese. This differentiated it from the New York Cheddar but also crashed the export market, for both states. It never recovered… until we started it up again a century later!”
In fact this component of the business was so successful the venture capitalists decided to run things alone, and Jonathan and Nina, as founders, were forced out. The business promptly went bust a year later without them. “Maybe there is a God! Anyway, we decided that moving forward we wanted cows, not investors- they give you less s**t!” Having managed to sell cheese to the Dutch, their reputation as artisan cheese makers was enshrined and they took the philosophy of grass-fed cows’ milk to New Jersey.
The family set up independently in Sussex County, renting a farm in 2002 and implementing what they had learned over the border in New York. The one breed they developed and cross-bred was the Kerry, a rare breed native to Ireland. “These cows were producing wonderful milk. We introduced Jersey, Guernsey, Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Dutch Belted…We avoided Holstein, they’ve not developed the genetics for grazing, their modern corn diets are not what we look for.”
Here Jonathan’s cheese making abilities evolved further. “I would adapt the cheese making process depending on each batch of milk. It depended on the weather, the diet, the state of the herd, it varied pasture to pasture, day to day. I had to become illiterate and learn to use my senses. The changes are so subtle you can’t use instruments. For example, at this time of year as the summer is cooling off, the yield goes up, as does the protein and fats, the flavor gets richer. It’s perfect for soft-rind cheeses. I make aged, firmer cheeses with milk from the hotter months.”
After an exhaustive search looking at forty farms, they finally found the perfect site in Milford, down towards the center of the state and tucked up against the Pennsylvanian border. “The farm was perfect so we bought the place and moved in there in 2010. We were able to show the young loan officer our financials from our previous business that we ran making a profit. An important part missed in sustainability is a sustainable economic model. We could prove we wanted to run- and could run- a profitable business. The loan was approved and we bought the farm.”
The land previously had been used growing subsidized crops like soya and corn, heavily eroding the soil. As part of the Marcellus Shale region now being opened up to fracking, the rocky and clay soils required expert handling. By careful management practicing herd rotation, the land quickly recovered. The forty-two milking cows have replenished the land. “Today the soil is extremely fertile. This was the way illiterate Normandy farmers used to do it- it worked. This is the proper way to manage the land and we have made such quick improvements the farm could now cope with a hundred cows. In fact we reached capacity in our ripening room five years earlier than expected. Our sales are up thirty per cent and our production is up forty per cent. With higher quality milk we can age cheeses longer and build up grand reserves.”
The management philosophy is cow-centric, not profit-centric. “The government says the life expectancy of a cow is approximately three to five years. We have a fourteen year old and she’s a great milker. We also have a Kerry female who’s turning twenty-five. She has a bit of arthritis but she’s a majestic animal. We don’t milk our animals twice a day, we don’t force over production. We milk once a day and ensure the health of each animal.” While Jonathan is managing the herd and making cheese, Nina has developed a successful baking business at the farm and handles all the farmers’ markets, where about a third of their cheese is sold. Around another third is sold straight from the farm and the rest via distributors and mail order.
Just a stone’s throw away, raw milk is legal over the Delaware River. Here at Bobolink, all cheeses are therefore aged over sixty days, made from raw milk and with a natural rind. They make cheese making once every day, just as they milk. “Farming is a daily activity, a twenty-four hour step. Each step takes a day, whether it’s milking and then setting the curd in the forms, or the next day with air-drying, and so on.”
The Amram cheese is a small, four inch buttery cheese with a hint of onion. The Baudolino is a delicious, soft-ripened Brie style with a fruity flavor. The name was inspired by a novel written by Umberto Eco. The Drumm is a semi-firm cheese made in roughly ten pound wheels and aged from four to twelve months. The Jean-Louis is made even larger and aged longer, with wheels made around twenty pounds, standing around a foot high. The slight lemony flavors develop due to its size- the interior of the cheese remains warm from the milk for several days, creating rapid fermentation and builds acidity. The Tower Of Babel is a new pyramid cheese made using wine pressing. The must from the pressing imparts a delicious flavor in the small cheese.
The farm is developing charcuterie alongside their cheese and bread making- and now adding butter to the range. “We partnered with an Amish farm down in Lancaster County who helped make cheese for us starting out. They produced a Cheddar and also a mild Alpine style called ‘Frolic’. From there I now work with another Amish farm that make non-fat yogurt. I visit once a month and use the cream left over to make a delicious butter and buttermilk to sell. Actually I just ‘delisted’ my blue Jean Louis- their version was better than mine!”
The mentoring and teaching side is where Jonathan thinks the business will be heading. “We really benefited from mentoring so now we are doing the same- spreading around this knowledge for the benefit of others.” Visitors from far afield clearly agree as the tours and classes are frequently booked up. Visitors looking to learn more about the Bobolink Dairy and Bakehouse should visit www.cowsoutside.com.