Three Graces Dairy North Carolina
50 States of Cheese
North Carolina has a proud farming heritage. Finding a local goat cheese is pretty easy now artisan cheese making is taking hold. Farmers in the region tend to have a favorite animal to work with. Some people just love goats. Some people love working with cows. Others find having sheep to be the most fun. A very rare type of person takes on all three. Roberta Ferguson sure loves a challenge.
Roberta Ferguson doesn’t come from North Carolina. She doesn’t come from an agricultural background. She didn’t have a husband too eager to get into farming. But none of that meant Roberta wasn’t about to take a risk. With her husband, Larry, a visit to North Carolina quickly turned a vacation into seeking out a new life on the farm. “My husband and I were visiting a beautiful place called Grove Park Inn. There were rocking chairs outside and we sat down to relax. There was building work going on and all the banging wasn’t very peaceful, so we left to go take a look around. I’m glad we did.”
They drove around and once they hit Madison County, something clicked for Roberta. “We had visited Scotland and fallen in love with the place- the light, the plants, the wild spaces. When we crossed the border into Madison County it immediately took me back to Scotland, the scenery was similar and it was such a beautiful place. I started to picture animals for that perfect hobby farm in my mind, roaming the North Carolina hills we were driving through. I turned to Larry and told him this was the place. He said ‘No, no, no!’ He wasn’t ready for a farm but just twenty-four hours later we were with the realtor!”
The leap from Illinois to North Carolina didn’t scare Roberta. “I was actually a ballroom dance teacher but around ten years ago I wanted a change. I firmly believe people should reinvent themselves.” They identified the spot they wanted to settle in the town of Marshall, a one hundred and fifty acre farmstead nestled in between the southern stretch of Appalachian Mountains and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “There was an eighty year old lady living on the property so we gave her life estate. However, we didn’t have anywhere to live when we first moved there, so it was a big challenge for us.” The name was inspired by the choice to use all three animals in cheese making- goats, sheep and cows- and ‘The Three Graces Dairy’ was born. Fittingly, the “Three Graces”, as daughters of Zeus (in Greek mythology) are stewards of nature.
Roberta’s original plan was to buy some Angora goats and buy a loom to work with wool. A visit to a farmers’ market changed her mind. “We met a cheese maker and they told us dairy goats have better personalities. They have been bred for thousands of years to be handled by humans, Angora goats are much harder to work with. That persuaded me to think about cheese making instead so we bought some Nubians and began to build the herd.” With the help of daughter Sacha, they added Nigerian Dwarf goats for the high butterfat content and some Saanens for helping maintain steady milk supplies. Sadly Larry has passed away but Roberta’s son, Bill, has returned to the farm to help manage the livestock and they now have a healthy herd of around a hundred milkers right now.
Three Graces Dairy is also home to four Guernsey and two Jersey cows. “We started out with the Guernsey but we’re transitioning to Jersey over time. The issue we had with the Guernsey was they ate like Holsteins, milked like Jerseys and were hard to breed. So we now know it will suit us better to work with Jerseys.” One thing the Guernsey cows did produce was very yellow milk, something that caused an unexpected problem. “Our summer cheeses were bright yellow. We entered a cows’ milk Gouda into a local competition and got a note back: ‘Too much food coloring!’”
They also have a strong herd of East Fresian sheep to make up the ‘Three Graces’. They graze side-by-side with the cows whilst the goats are kept separate (due to their different feeding requirements). They have around one hundred and twenty sheep with around forty milkers this year. Roberta said: “We’ve just dried them off but of the three, the sheep are the most expensive to keep. Their yields are low- yes the milk is wonderful- but they eat too much and can be unruly to manage. To be fair they have got a little tamer over time and it does give us so much versatility with our cheese making. Having the three types of milk gives us an important identity.”
Their training started in France. “Years ago there were hardly any cheese making courses here in America. Larry and I visited the Burgundy region France so that certainly inspired us and give us the training for making French style cheeses.” Learning how to work with three different milks, a variety of aging methods and growing customer demand has made the farm a vibrant business, becoming an important contributor to the local food scene.
The versatility and range of complex cheeses has proven a boon now nearby Asheville has taken off as a hotspot for delicious local food. “This is a big tourist area so our demand really shoots up in the summer months. The Asheville scene is really interesting and the people like variety- that influences how we make our cheeses. We have moved away from ‘pristine’ and more towards more natural finishes. It makes for more creative results and our customers love it.” Now the farm and its cheeses have become established Roberta is looking to expand beyond her local patch. “We are now considering expanding into bigger cities like Charlotte. We are also looking at Knoxville and other towns in Tennessee as we aren’t far from the state border.”
The cheeses being produced include some prize winners. The farm is producing a wide range of sweet and savory chèvre cheeses. The American Cheese Society has given awards to their Turkish Delight (made with Lebanese rose water) and Plain Jane chèvres. The Goat Feta also picked up an award. For more complex flavors, Roberta has three different milk styles at her disposal. The Pas de Trois is a Tomme style. “Each milk gives it a unique flavor or texture. The cow milk gives it buttery notes, the slight tanginess comes from the goat milk and the sheep milk gives it density. The sheep milk helps mellow the cheese more slowly. We have only been making it a few months but we are really improving it over time.”
Their Mélange Brie is another three milk blend and is aged more slowly than the standard cow milk Brie, creating a more complex cheese. They also make a farmhouse raw sheep milk cheese, sometimes aged longer to develop a taste and texture similar to a Pecorino. They also make some wonderful washed-rind cheeses but this meant spening a lot of time separating out their cave to allow for the different cheeses to age properly. The ‘Chloe’ is a washed-rind cumin Saint-Paulin style cheese that is moist with a very sticky rind. The farm also produces a Manchego, a blend of cow and sheep milk.
The demand for more output is always there. “My son’s job is to keep things to budget- we don’t want to grow too fast. The problem is that’s hard because we keep having people calling in saying they need more cheese!” The increasing demand has brought up the issue of how far they can go as a purely farmstead operation. “That’s a big decision we might have to face up to soon. The next level is to look into buying in milk from local sources. However, at the moment it’s still just a big adventure. Right now we are exclusively farmstead and loving making beautiful, natural cheeses.”
Three Graces Dairy cheeses are sold throughout the region through local restaurants, supermarkets and co-ops, or you’ll find Roberta hard at work at many of the tail-gate markets in the area. To learn more, visit www.3gracesdairy.com.Ask A Question Submit a Recipe Visit the Cheese Making Shop