Wendy Mitchell: The backstory of Avalanche Cheese Co.’s pending closure
Avalanche Cheese Co. will make its last batches of cheese at the end of this milking season in December, and its last salumi at the end of this month.
This decision has been painful for me on so many levels. It was 2008 when we purchased our farm in Paonia, welcomed 50 dairy goats from our friends at Haystack Creamery onto our land, built out dairy operations in Paonia and a creamery in Basalt. I have been fortunate to work with the most wonderful people on the farm, in the creamery, in the meat room and in the farmers’ markets.
We grew the goat herd to 200 milking goats and made cheeses that were sold in local farmers’ markets, served in restaurants, and delivered regionally through gourmet distributors. Our pastured goats produced beautiful milk, and our cheese-making team turned out world-class goat cheddars, blues, robiolas and chevres that won awards at national competitions and put the North Fork and Roaring Fork valleys on the artisanal cheese map.
We grew a sausage-making side business into a USDA-certified meat-processing facility, and won a medal at a national gourmet food competition in our first year. The people who made it happen are the best people I’ve ever worked with, and I still can’t believe sometimes what we created.
So why are we closing? It comes down to a struggle to be profitable while sticking to our principles about how to manage a farm, how to treat employees and how to care for animals. Our goats are pastured and grass-fed (with a dose of delicious grain at milking time). We use antibiotics rarely, on individual goats isolated from the herd, in response to illness, never to stimulate production.
We let our goats enjoy a “dry” season and never manipulate their lactation cycles with hormones to increase their yield. We grow our alfalfa hay with minimal man-made inputs. We pay our employees more than minimum wage, provide vacation and days off, and a health care stipend.
We aspired to do something special with our cured meats and cheeses. At the other end of the food chain, we appreciate there is a limit to what customers will pay for food that is made in this way. We have all become accustomed to the price of a gallon of milk or a block of cheddar at the supermarket, and no one wants to hear a lecture about local, humane dairy production and the costs that come along with that.
What were our options?
Well, my husband and I could have five or six new children — small artisan cheese companies are often family affairs with lots of free help from spouses and kids — but we are a bit late for that. We could pay our team less than a living wage and see how that goes. We could create economics of scale by expanding the operation from 200 to 2,000 dairy goats, confining our animals and increasing dairy yield with hormones and antibiotics.
But we’d never do that, and we couldn’t afford the investment anyway. So, we’ve decided to wind down the operation rather than run a business that we’re not proud of. We’ll make cheese through the fall milking cycle, look for a home for our animals, and begin the process of selling the farm.
Eventually, I will put all my energy into Meat & Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop and Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar, which are doing well and will continue to be my connection to the food community in this valley.
Although I am heartbroken, I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve midwifed goat births at 3 a.m., been up to my elbows in cheese curds and cheered when Kevin had a gold medal draped around his neck by Alice Waters. I’ve laughed with and learned from the most amazing team of craftspeople.
The disappointment of ending our run is small compared with how this experience has enriched my family’s life. To Kevin, Brennan, Justin, Shawn, Gregorio, Bob, Cory, Stu, all the teachers and friends that have worked with us at the farmers’ markets and everyone who made Avalanche Cheese something to be proud of — thank you, I love you. To loyal customers who have enjoyed our meats and cheeses, thanks for supporting our team in work that has been among the most rewarding experiences of our lives.
Wendy Mitchell is owner of Avalanche Cheese Co.
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“If I was moving through the herd, the others would begin walking away, some of them at a jog, taking their calves with them, but the big brown ungulate would face me sideways, reluctant to move, not wanting to give any ground,” writes Tony Vagneur.