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Blessed Are the Cheese Makers

Harley Farms is reviving the near-forgotten glory days of coastal dairy production with its daringly old-school methods of getting the industry's goat

By Steve Billings

There's a foodie revolution quietly happening on a refurbished 12-acre dairy in Pescadero. Subversive farmstead practices abound--pasture-fed goats, hand-sewn cheesecloth, farm-raised edible flowers and award-winning fresh cheese that, from udder to package, is ready for market in just 2 1/2 days.

It's been roughly 4 1/2 years since the goat cheese produced here was first sold under the Harley Farms name, but the story goes back much further, and begins with a more southerly goat. A goat with a Santa Cruz connection.

Fourteen years ago, over a transaction of dried tomatoes, Dee Harley agreed to buy six goats from a woman named Nancy Gafney. Gafney took one look at the dormant coastal farm and convinced Harley that this would be a perfect spot to produce the winter milk she needed for her Davenport/Santa Cruz­based cheese operation, known then as Sea Stars Goat Cheese.

Harley and her husband had bought the Pescadero farm just over a year prior, and had been living in a home on the property, but not doing much with the rest of the farm. Built in 1910, the farm operated as a cow dairy until the late '40s, when, like many other area operations, dairy production started to decline and farms stopped producing.

Harley's decision to tend these six goats was the first step in resurrecting this once bustling property.

"I thought it was a good idea, because it would get the place going again," she says. "Making it breathe again, that's what excited me. It was just a dead, sad place. A couple of people had horses in the corrals, Phipps grew artichokes and beans in the pasture, but that was about it."

Over the next eight years, Harley learned from Gafney how to care for and tend the goats. Trimming hooves, castrating--all of these vital tasks needed to be learned. And as the goats bred, farm improvements were made. Things evolved organically. Pasture was planted, fencing built, concrete was poured for a certified milk room and all the while the milk being produced was loaded daily into 5-gallon buckets and sent to Santa Cruz to be turned into cheese in the Sea Stars kitchen.

When Gafney decided she wanted out of the business, Harley made the choice to forge ahead with developing her own farm. To do so, she renovated the entire lower half of the old hay barn into a dairy complete with a cheese-making room, packing facility and cooling facility and ostensibly absorbed the equIpment used by the Sea Stars operation.

Today, Harley Farms keeps about 200 odd goats in its cool, breezy Pescadero pasture where they roam most of the day. Each animal produces a gallon of milk per day, which translates roughly to a pound of cheese. Do the math. The goats are milked twice a day, and after they've had their evening meal of balanced grains, they are free to roam out to the pasture or stay in, under cover.

The milk taken for the day will be cooled overnight, and the next day it will be pasteurized slowly into cheese. The next day the cheese is hung in bags and allowed to set and on the following day it is shaped into rounds, decorated, packaged and ready to sell.

"It's 2 1/2 days from being in the udder [to] you being able to buy it. And from the grass the goats eat to the hands that touch the cheese, we're in control of that."

Changing History

The resurrection and transformation of a derelict cow dairy into a producer of premium artisanal goat cheese bucks the agricultural trends of the last 60 years, which have seen the evaporation of Central Coast dairy production of all kinds.

Crop reports for San Mateo County from the 1930s and '40s reveal dairy production was the county's No. 1 agricultural income source, whereas today, Harley Farms is the only coastal dairy from Sebastopol to Monterey and is a relative blip on the radar.

Despite an asterisk-size portion of the county pie, Harley is an important player in a growing movement of farmers who employ traditional production methods and minimal automation, and seek to express an area's local character through the food they produce, not unlike the French vintner concept of terroir.

This farm is one of only 40 farmstead cheese (of all kinds) producers in the entire United States, meaning they harvest raw product from their own animals and perform every step of the process on the property. This devotion to craft has not only earned them numerous national awards for their cheeses, but the admiration of Slow Food, the international organization dedicated to ecological food production, stewardship of the land and "the revival of the kitchen and table as centers of pleasure, culture and community." This October, Harley Farms will travel to Italy with Slow Food to represent one of 500 farmers that epitomize the group's mission.

Advocates like Slow Food, restaurants that demand high quality products from either organic or sustainable growing methods and even mass media sources such as the Food Network are helping these types of operations to succeed. Take a look at any fine dining establishment's menu today and you'll see the verbiage of location and producer employed as key menu descriptors. This not only has the effect of gussying up descriptions, but more importantly it is a sign that a restaurant is dedicated to independent producers of unique products.

Harley Farms does its own part to raise awareness and to sustain its business by hosting groups, leading tours (by reservation) and renting out its beautiful, rustically appointed upper barn for events and dinners. Because of their commitment to quality, the cheese they make is expensive to produce, and other income sources support their production choices and expose people to an idyllic country setting.

And there's still plenty of education they have to do in a society with a remarkable disconnect between the food on the plate and the knowledge of how it gets there.

"We still get questions like 'What part of the goat do you use to make cheese?' and 'Do you milk the males?'" says Wil Edwards, the farm's managing director.

Pasteurized Art

I didn't want to eat them. I wanted to put them in a bountiful basket with crackers, fresh breads and fruits and a bottle of sauvignon blanc, leave it on a good friend's front step, ring the doorbell and run and photograph the reaction with a Polaroid camera.

These are the feelings these cheeses inspire. Harley's cheeses distinguish themselves not only with their bright, citrus freshness and absence of muskiness; their delicate, artful presentation with edible flowers is equal parts eye and mouth candy, which is an irresistible combination for any chef searching the perfect pillow on which to rest (and wake up) a diner's tongue during the salad course.

Edwards believes that both strict attention to the goat's diet and the immediacy of their process produces a cheese that doesn't carry the pungency or muskiness people associate negatively with goat cheese.

The farm produces a wide array of cheeses from ricotta to feta, herbed spreads to cranberry- and walnut-laden rounds. Yet what stands out to my eye are the Monet rounds decorated with edible flowers. These totems of freshness are an homage to spring's life and summer's bounty. Bright purple and orange flowers radiate from the cheese's center, its stark white base appearing brushed with watercolors, and though extremely corny, I picture paintbrush-wielding goats creating objects of self-expression throughout the night to magically appear when morning comes, ready for market.

In reality, this is all the product of an amazing amount of work, devotion and careful choices about the farm's mission.

"We could have 80 more, a hundred more goats, but then it's too much on the property, the grass and the people that work here. You want to maintain some kind of harmony and we do have a very harmonious family and group dynamic here, and the bigger you get the more diluted that gets and we're not willing to sacrifice that. That is the core of why we are doing well."

Harley Farms is located at 125 North St., Pescadero, 94060; 650.879.0480. It is on the web at www.harleyfarms,com. Please call ahead for tour reservations.

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From the August 18-25, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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