Cheese-making is a year-round venture |

Cheese-making is a year-round venture

Ashley Davis Tilly/Special to The Aspen Times

Like ranching and farming, the work of a cheese-maker is seven days a week. The years schedule is written by nature and pauses only for a seasonal change. In the transition to winter, the rhythm will slow just enough for a break from the day-to-day grind and maintenance.

Wendy Mitchell, the owner of the Avalanche Cheese Co., is entering her fifth season managing a dual-location business. It is evident that she is focused and passionate about all parts of the many business details.

The farm and the goats are in Paonia, while the cheese-making facility is in Basalt. Farm and plant work as a cohesive team to create award-winning cheeses.

The Avalanche milk truck arrives every other day from the farm. This three- to four-hour round trip is made from Paonia to Basalt and then immediately back again over the pass regardless of weather. Once the milk is delivered, a separate container is filled with whey (a byproduct of cheese-making). This will be returned to the farm.

Using the whey for composting or feeding pigs is a sustainable practice. As is the free-range chickens, which help to keep the grazing areas parasite-free. Pastures for the goats also are grazed rotationally to keep the land healthy.

The farm runs seven days a week. Each day begins with a 5 a.m. milking and another at 5 p.m. Impatiently, the herd of goats stand waiting at the milk parlor door without having to be called. They have their own pecking order of who enters and in just what order.

Milking sessions lasts about 90 minutes. When you add in the equipment cleaning, this becomes almost four hours of work. Eight hours is involved just in the milking phase alone.

Goats produce milk for 10 months a year. Like cows, the girls have to be bred annually to continue producing milk. The breeding is done in September and October, with a gestation period of five months. The goats begin kidding (birthing) in March. Typically births are two per doe but can be as few as one or as many as four kids. Once born, the kids are moved to the nursery, where they are bottle-fed. The mothers return to the daily routine of producing milk. Each goat produces about a gallon per day, which amounts to around one pound of cheese. They have an average productive milking life span of about seven to eight years.

After this career, they can look forward to a well-deserved retirement. This consists of spending their remaining years enjoying Avalanche farm life with the other senior goats.

Mitchell has high praise for the skilled and educated Avalanche employees. On the farm, a top priority is to prevent health problems. Her managers and workers there are keenly aware of the slightest change in a goat’s behavior. Careful health management helps prevent the use of antibiotics. If they did, the result would be having that goat being removed from the herd and not milked for a full season.

With 200 goats giving birth to an average of two kids every year, you soon will have overpopulation. Selling stock at a typical auction barn is out of the question for Mitchell. So she keeps a select percentage of the newborns based on the mother’s history of milk production, health and temperament. Others are sold to private buyers, and the rest go toward in-house meat production.

As a result of this growth, a new venture also is growing at Avalanche, and that is to produce a gourmet, dry-cured salami (salumi). They do offer fresh sausage links (not a cured meat like salami). Offering unique meat products along with their cheese varieties is a perfect Artisinal pairing. Locally, The Little Nell, Cache Cache, Rustique Bistro and the Viceroy are just a few of the Roaring Fork Valley establishments that offer Avalanche cheeses. Their distinctive packaging can be found in Whole Foods, farmers markets and several stores, as well.

I asked Mitchell, “What is your favorite part about Avalanche?” She responded, “That is really hard to say. I love all of it. From the accounting, cheese-making to the kidding season in the spring, I could never be just that person in the background. I like to go home feeling physically tired. This keeps that connection there for me.”

She continued, “We have a commitment to animals and the environment. It is all about making positive changes while creating a delicious, quality product.”

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