Last week, I wrote an article for the Northern Kentucky Tribune on Ed-Mar Dairy Farm in Walton, Kentucky. Although rural Northern Kentucky may not be where most people expect to find artisanal, handcrafted cheeses, Ed-Mar defies expectations. Their aged, raw milk cheeses can be found in some of the best restaurants and stores throughout the Cincinnati metro, and it all starts with quality milk from happy cows.
Eddie, the owner of Ed-Mar (named for Eddie and his wife Marcy), comes from a long line of dairy farmers. Until quite recently, Eddie ran the farm in the traditional way, milking each of his 50 cows by hand twice a day. Although his cows still enjoy grazing in fields of clover and eating corn grow on-site, a milking robot named Pearl has brought technology to the farm in a dramatic way.
In documentaries and photographs that I have seen of most milking machines, the cows don’t get treated with dignity and respect. Farmhands manually attach large suctioned tubes to each utter, whether the cow wants it or not, and she is milked dry like an assembly line process. At Ed-Mar, this image couldn’t be further from the truth.
Most importantly, Eddie’s cows decide when they want to be milked. Whenever she wants, day or night, a cow can walk up to the machine, grab a tasty snack from the feeding trough and wait for Pearl to do its magic. According to Eddie, the cows mainly come for the feed, which is tastier than their normal fare and more like dessert.
During the actual milking process, Pearl continues to treat the cow with respect and gentleness. I was lucky enough to watch Pearl in action when I visited Ed-Mar, and I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw. It begins by washing the cow’s underbelly, spraying her with soapy water and then gently cleaning her with a foam brush. Next, the laser guided arm goes underneath the cow and slowly puts the utters into rubber tubes. Finally, the cow is milked and walks away whenever she finishes.
Each cow is fitted with a radio collar so that Pearl can recognize her individually when she comes to be milked. This intuitive technology means that Pearl can portion out the right amount of feed, know exactly where the cow’s utters are and never over-milk.
Currently, there are only three milking robots like Pearl in Kentucky, and when Eddie bought it two years ago he was the first. Although technology and farming aren’t always the best bedfellows, in this case, Pearl surprisingly helps both the farm and the cows.
Despite Pearl’s success for Ed-Mar – it has boosted milk production by 20% – Eddie still struggles to turn a profit from selling his milk alone. Since Ed-Mar lacks a pasteurizing facility, Eddie has to sell his milk to a producer, a Kroger co-op processing plant in Winchester, KY. While the co-op makes Ed-Mar’s milk production process consistent because they pick up the farm’s 1,000 gallons of milk every other day, the caveat to the system is the dismal pay.
For the most part, large milk production facilities are supplied by equally large-scale farms with hundreds to thousands of cows. Such mass production means lower overheads for the farms and the ability for manufacturers to pay less for the milk. Unsurprisingly, when farmers like Eddie insist on treating their cows well and keeping their farms small and manageable, they wind up being fleeced by the corporate producers.
With an eye to the future, Eddie began expanding Ed-Mar’s production to include cheese. Three years ago, Eddie and his cheese production manager, Maggie, partnered with an artisanal cheese maker near Louisville and began making aged, raw milk (unpasteurized) cheese. Although Ed-Mar only uses one day’s worth of milk (about 500 gallons) for cheese making a month, the results have been tremendous and have given new life to the farm.
In order to stand out, Ed-Mar decided to craft English style cheeses, which are rare for this area. Midwesterners, for the most part, prefer American cheeses like jack and cheddar. However, since Ed-Mar markets its products to high-end farm-to-table restaurants and local grocery stores, they can risk making lesser-known cheeses.
Ed-Mar currently makes five flavors: Maddie’s Gold (a Double Gloucester), Banklick Cream (a Cotswold), Banklick Pub (which includes chives), Garden Herb (a Banklick base with rosemary, thyme and other herbs) and Kenton County Colby (for the unadventurous palate). Fortunately for me, Eddie, Maggie and Rachel – the head of marketing for Ed-Mar – generously provided me with packages of each cheese for my wife and I to enjoy. And enjoy we did!
Although each of the cheeses were great on their own, they were even better with a small dollop of apricot jam. My favorite of the bunch was the Maddie’s Gold, which reminded me of an aged, extra-sharp cheddar. I also think it would work excellently in shrimp and grits.
To read the rest of the story in the Northern Kentucky Tribune and learn more about the future of Ed-Mar Dairy Farm, click here. And, if you want to try their cheese for yourself, order some from their website at ed-mardairy.com.