Oklahoma’s history is nothing without the story of the cow. Back in the late 1800s, literally millions of cows passed through the state from Texas, heading north and west to feed the growing demands for beef. Settlers and cowboys, short on cash, knew their cows would fetch considerably more if they could lead the animals on the now legendary ‘cattle drives’ along Oklahoma’s trails up to Kansas and beyond. While millions of hooves have kicked up the Oklahoma dirt, it might surprise you to know that just a lone cow helped kickstart a business that still stands today. Founded in 1923, the modern Swan Brothers Dairy in Claremore has managed to keep the spirit of the cow alive through a thriving milk and cheese business. At its core today is the Swan family and a passion to maintain the proud heritage all started by milking just one, solitary animal.
Diane Swan (now Williamson), granddaughter to founders Harley Sr. and Ruby, has always been a part of the family business but it took some dramatic events to turn her into a very, very rare commodity- an Oklahoma cheese maker. “We are a raw milk business- there are only two of us licensed in the state. During the 1980s the federal government downgraded our raw milk from Grade A to Grade C and it really hurt the business. We had to try something else quickly. My dad said to me, ‘This is what you need to do.’ I was told I was a good cook, I enjoy it and I’ve been making cheese ever since.”
That ‘dad’ is Harley Jr., a sprightly 83 year-old and local legend who is, incredibly, still helping milk the herd of around 80 Brown Swiss and Holsteins. Harley Jr. bought the farm with his brother Larry back in the 1960’s but is now under his ownership. Dorthy and Harley Jr. have been married well over fifty years and have plenty of younger family members to support Diane in the future. Diane’s son Jason helps with bottling and cheese making and daughter Ashley, with her husband Zach, are also involved. Diane said “They will keep the business going when the older generation retires. We’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
Talking to Diane might leave you with the impression running a cheese and milk business is easy. She matter-of-factly describes the daily work schedule, the cheese production methods and the long line of customers out the door. What she neglects to mention are the summer temperatures regularly topping 100°F, snow in the winter, cycles of drought that can cause milk shortages and state laws that prevent raw milk– still a major stream of revenue- being sold off the premises, meaning their customers must travel many miles to come to them. And travel they do, from far and wide. “People want raw milk and cheese and keep coming to see us.”
The Swan family approach is about quality, high flavor milk and simple, nutritious and delicious cheeses. Diane, who attended a cheese making course at Washington State University and visited several dairies to hone her craft, sticks to just a handful of recipes and her customers keep on leaving her sold out. “We can’t keep up with demand but we deliberately stay small. This way we can control everything, we can care properly for our cows.”
Keeping a close control of the herd has been crucial in recent years with drought conditions that have created hay shortages, milk shortages and affected the stability of the herd. In fact, despite this year having plenty of rainfall and left green pastures right up to September, the farm is still feeling the effects of a bad summer in 2012. If there’s no surplus milk, Diane has little to work with in the cheese parlor- as a farmstead business livestock management is everything. It doesn’t take much to alter the carefully controlled breeding schedules that are typically staggered over the year to limit ‘dry’ periods, causing a drop in cheese production. Diane takes it all in her stride. “We are still getting our cows back to the right milking cycles but this year we’ve had three to four cuttings of hay already and still selling plenty of our raw milk and aged cheeses.”
Diane knows the demands of her customers and sticks to four main products- Colby, Cheddar, mozzarella and Cheddar curds, under the Oklahoma Premium Cheese brand. The Brown Swiss were introduced to increase the butterfat for their original raw milk customers but this has meant a positive knock-on effect for their cheese production. Their summer milk is rich and yellow. It is hard to overstate the loyalty Swan Brothers Dairy has acquired over the years but many customers who are lactose intolerant simply love the farm because they can drink their raw milk, unlike store-bought milk. Diane echoes her father, and her grandfather’s philosophy. “No hormones, no preservatives, no antibiotics, that’s how we did it and continue to do it.”
Cheddar is the best seller, accounting for most of the 600lb a week that leaves the farm. They also produce an aged one year sharp Cheddar, pepper Cheddars and even a smoked. The Colby is a raw milk cheese aged for 60 days, the pasteurized version just a couple of weeks. Diane said, “Some people are still afraid of raw milk but people now know more about these types of cheeses than when we started thirty years ago. But honestly, we haven’t really had to change in all that time because we haven’t had to.” The mozzarella is made using a stirred curd method and part skimmed milk. The Cheddar curds are sold in packs and a line of regulars top up when buying their raw milk.
For now, this small dairy in the north east of Oklahoma continues to supply their long-term supporters in the town of Claremore, or their friends just down Interstate 44 in Tulsa, or even customers as far away as Oklahoma City who make the long drive. The Swan family now has a fourth generation to keep the milk and cheese flowing and the customers happy. To catch the Swan family in action swing by the dairy or to read more log onto https://www.facebook.com/SwanBrosDairyInc.Ask A Question Submit a Recipe Visit the Cheese Making Shop