It is with tongue in cheek that I write about the history of cheese on Martha’s Vineyard, because I am really talking about the last decade or so, and for now, just the evolution of two farms — the Grey Barn and Mermaid Farm — producing cows milk cheese in Chilmark. In the classic Vineyard tradition of feast or famine, (or in this case famine, then feast), we have gone from virtually no commercial cheesemaking on the Island to a jackpot in just a decade. In one small Island town, we have two thriving farms, producing undeniably delicious cheese, (plus dairy, meats, and vegetables) year round.
It started with a dog
Mermaid Farm sits on a relatively long, narrow plot of land on lower Middle Road. It looks like the classic New England farm — with a hodgepodge of hoop houses, tractors, outbuildings, barns, gardens, cows, sheep, chickens, dogs, and a friendly cat. Just off the road sits Mermaid’s honor system farm stand, with a cheerful teal door and a sign that announces, Always Open. In the spring there is everything from tomato and veggie plants to a freezer with beautiful grass- and grain-fed beef and lamb from animals that have had fortunate lives, grazing their way around their neighborhood. There are also famous raw milk yogurt, mango and fruit lassis (an Indian yogurt-based drink), Island-grown flour, granola, jams, fluffy sheepskins, and a boutique-size collection of Mermaid Farm raw milk cow cheese.
Caitlin Jones and husband Allen Healy started their farm in the mid-90s. “We got a Border Collie,” Healy says. “Then we got some sheep for the Border Collie.
“Then we got more sheep, then tomatoes, and then we started doing the Farmers Market.”
Meanwhile, the Healy/Jones family grew: They added sons Everett, then Kent — named after their grandfathers. As the family grew, Mermaid Farm grew.
A talented kicker
“We wanted fresh milk for the boys,” Healy says. They had space on the farm, so they built a small dairy barn, and started out with two cows. Freddy Fisher had recently closed his dairy operation at Nip ‘N Tuck Farm and gave Healy and Jones one of his milking cows. Healy found the second cow on his own, not knowing what he was buying. He soon discovered the cow had a tricky temperament, and she would not stand still for milking.
Freddy Fisher came back up to the farm and soon enough, got this unmilkable cow milking. “She’s a talented kicker,” Fisher observed. Fisher, who had been milking cows since he was a kid, taught Healy how to work with this reluctant cow. After trial and error, they were up and running.
Pretty soon Jones and Healy added more cows to the farm — Jersey cows, which are thought to be one of the oldest breeds, and also one of the smallest dairy breeds. These sweet, mellow creatures produce some of the highest fat milk, which is lovely for making cheese, yogurt, and ice cream.
Mermaid has added more cows — some Normandes, some Holstein; they added some crossbreeds to the mix.
Then there was yogurt. And cheese!
Dairy cows produce milk for about 10 months a year around calving time, and produce a lot of milk — up to seven gallons a day. Once Everett and Kent were fully satisfied, Mermaid Farm began creating yogurt with their bounty of raw milk.
“I think we started making cheese about 10 years ago,” says Healy.
Their friend Jan Burhman, of Kitchen Porch Catering, happened to have a talented cheesemaker named Jaqueline Foster cooking with her at the time. Foster was introduced to Healy by Buhrman, and soon enough, began working at Mermaid to make cheese and teach Healy how to make cheese as well.
The pair started off with feta — a relatively easy cheese to make — and produced a fromage blanc style, a fresh, soft, creamy cheese.
Over the years Mermaid Farm has had a variety of cheesemakers and began adding aged cheeses to their lineup. Healy continued to manage cheese production until Jessica Burt came along three years ago.
Jessica — a 13th generation Islander, grew up down the road on Music Street and attended Amherst College, where she majored in chemistry and biology. Not finding large lecture-hall classes her style, she landed in the smaller geology department that brought her outdoors. Which is where she decided she liked to be.
Fast forward to late summer of 2016, where after about five years at 7a which ended in 2015 and an experiment in starting her own food line, Jessica ended up making cheese at Mermaid. “I was terrified,” Jess confesses. “I didn’t want to screw up the cheese.”
Milk production was low that fall and winter, which was serendipitous — she could slowly learn the complexities and science of cheesemaking.
Currently, they are milking four cows, but the overall herd has increased to 19 cows and 11 calves. About 10 will be beef cows and the rest will assimilate into the dairy.
“We had a banner winter in the dairy,” Jessica says. “I feel like we are in good shape for a busy summer.”
Mermaid’s cheese selection includes a feta-style, Herbed Fromage, King’s Highway (an ash-ripened bloomy rind cheese), Nobska (a raw milk alpine style cheese), Tiasquam Tomme (a classic farmer’s cheese, usually identified by its place of origin), and last but not least, Carding Mill Blue.
They are all farmstead cheeses, meaning they are made only with milk from the farm. Their whole milk yogurt, which is part of the mango or fruit lassi, is their biggest seller, and where at least 60 percent of the milk goes.
In addition to the farm stand, Mermaid Farm is at the Saturday West Tisbury Farmers Market and select locations for yogurt and cheeses.
Jess continues to learn and hone her skills; this past winter she attended cheese camp up at Jasper Hill Creamery in Vermont.
“The emphasis was on nutrition,” Jess says. “Basically you cannot make a good cheese from a bad product, it won’t get better with age.”
Jessica is modest about her cheesemaking: “Any success I have as a small cheesemaker is because we have amazing milk to work with.”
Before there was Grey Barn
When I was a kid, the farm now known as the Grey Barn was called Oak Grove. The farm sits on the edge of South Road in Chilmark, and opens to the southeast with vast pasture land.
In the winter of 1982-83, David Douglas bought Oak Grove from Charles Warren. Douglas relocated Rainbow Farm — his Charolais beef cattle farm — from the Vineyard Haven-West Tisbury town line up to South Road, on the West Tisbury-Chilmark Town line. The property was a homestead and a working farm. Douglas knew that the size of the land was not sustainable for a small cow farmer to manage, so he put 90 acres into agricultural restriction with the Trustees of Reservations and leased the land back from them, keeping 10 unrestricted acres for the homestead.
In the spring of 1995, Douglas and his second wife, Laura Campbell, opened a retail store on the farm, on the second level of the old wooden main barn. “Campbell & Douglas” was an interesting combination of livestock and pet feed, along with gardening tools and equipment, custom Vineyard grass seed, equestrian outfitting, gorgeous cashmere sweaters, and treasures from all over.
When Douglas and Campbell decided to retire from farming and retail, selling this almost 100-acre farm was not an easy sell, because of the land lease and agricultural restriction. But it happened to be right at the time that Molly and Eric Glasgow thought maybe it was time to leave the corporate world in London.
Ditching the real world
Like many people who end up ditching life in the so-called real world, Molly and Eric, and their sons, Noah and Jake, had spent a few summer vacations renting on the Island. Long story short, they stumbled upon a real estate listing for a farm for sale in Chilmark, came during the winter to see it, and, after a lot of negotiation and moving parts, the Glasgows were able to lease then purchase the almost 10-acre homestead from Douglas. Soon enough, they were able to transfer the 90 acres under agricultural restriction from Douglas.
The Glasgows decided their farm would be a certified organic, grass-fed dairy farm.
“We were completely naive,” Molly laughs. She soon set off from London to go to cheese school in Vermont.
In 2009, the family moved to the Vineyard with an untested plan to become farmers. The Glasgows named their farm the Grey Barn, after the color of the main barn, and spelling it with an E the way Crayola (and the British) spell it.
The Glasgows knew they’d need to be multilayered to be sustainable. They decided on the relatively rare Dutch Belted cows (at the time there were fewer than 1,000 of them worldwide). The Dutch Belted are grass-fed high milk producers, a multipurpose breed that also produces tasty beef. They bought three Dutch Belted to start. That doesn’t sound like much, but Dutch Belted cows can produce 20,000 pounds of milk per year.
First came milk
In 2011, Molly and Eric started their dairy with raw milk with a diversified creamery model, producing fresh raw grass-fed organic milk, skim milk, pasteurized milk, and cream.
Soon Molly took her newly acquired cheesemaking skills and began experimenting. She also began having health issues and soon discovered she was allergic to all dairy.
Molly stayed out of the cheesemaking process and they hired Jacqueline Foster, a seasoned cheesemaker who had been working at Mermaid Farm, to assist. In the spring of 2013, the Grey Barn came out with Prufrock, their first cheese, a washed rind soft cheese aged for only one month. About a month after the launch of Prufrock, the Grey Barn had a devastating fire that destroyed the new dairy. Though the exterior of the building looked normal, it was a complete loss inside.
“The irony was we still had Prufrock to sell for a month after the fire,” Eric says, “because it was aging in our cheese cave.”
Even though the dairy was disabled, the farm continued to grow, adding chickens, pigs, and eventually a bigger herd of meat and dairy cows, and even sheep.
It took about a year to reboot and rebuild the dairy. Reopening the dairy in the spring of 2014, Molly and Eric hired Joe Alstat — who would go on to be head cheesemaker — so they could hit the ground running.
New cheeses were created, including Eidolon, a soft, creamy cheese.
Today Grey Barn is bustling; Joe is still at the helm. Grey Barn produces cheese in Chilmark that is sold at their farm stand, the West Tisbury Farmers Market, and Island-wide; 70 percent of their total production is shipped and sold around the country.
Last summer Grey Barn added a vegetable farmer, Islander Ethan Valenti-Buchanan, who farms one acre of organic vegetables there, which are sold at the farm stand and at the West Tisbury Farmers Market. Christian Walter has come aboard as a breadmaker to bake beautiful European-style, mostly sourdough bread on the farm six days a week.
“The biggest satisfaction is the people we work with every day; we wanted to build this farm to the scale where we could create a team. We didn’t want to be just the two of us mucking stalls year-round,” Molly says of their team of 10 (which will increase with the addition of their younger son Jake this summer).
A decade of cheese
Grey Barn will celebrate their 10th anniversary with a cheese Joe has been working on, aptly called Bon Anniversaire; it comes out on Sunday, July 7.
“I am always looking for something to do in the winter,” Joe says, and told me he came up with this idea quickly. Bon Anniversaire is a slow-aged raw milk version of Prufrock, aged six months. It is being produced in a big cheese hoop, which is basically the mold or shaper for curd to be poured into, from which it ages into cheese. The wheel will weigh in at about 8 pounds and will be sold in quarter wheel amounts, though Molly is hoping she will have someone buy a whole wheel as well.
The cheese will be sold on a limited pre-order basis, and Grey Barn will host a celebration on the farm on July 7, for everyone picking up their special anniversary cheese.