Chattanooga and its surroundings have been described as a mecca for sustainable agriculture and have become well known for supporting a vibrant local food community and sustainable farming. Farmer’s markets abound and local food businesses enthusiastically participate.
Sequatchie Cove Creamery, established by Bill Keener and Nathan Arnold, has become a prominent part of this scene.
At the Main Street and other farmer’s markets, shoppers line up to buy their favorite variety. Popular restaurants such as the 212 Market Restaurant, St. John’s, Urban Stack Burger Lounge, Broad Street Grill, Easy Bistro, and Blacksmith’s Bistro include their cheeses in their menu items. Whole Foods Markets throughout the Southeastern United States carry the line.
After years of consulting with national and international cheese experts and a long tough climb along a steep learning curve, the Creamery received its license in 2010. They were producing and marketing commercial artisan cheese 60 days later with Nathan as the cheese maker and his wife Padgett Arnold as marketing and business manager.
Padgett writes, “Our cheeses are made from raw cow’s milk produced here at Sequatchie Cove. We are inspired by old-world dairying and cheese making practices, and have a deep respect for the health of the animals, plants, and environment that must be created and maintained to produce a truly unique farm-stead cheese, reflective of the place and substance from which it comes.”
“We’ve been supporters of the Sequatchie Cove Creamery from the beginning,” says Susan Moses, chef and co-owner of the popular restaurant, 212 Market. “The Creamery is a work in progress and we appreciate their willingness to listen to an incorporate suggestions.”
As it is with most things, none of this is as simple as one might think. Nathan is the skilled artisan who must use his experience and skills to deal with many variables in order to maintain consistency and quality of the Creamery’s products. The grass-fed cows produce top quality milk, but the details of its composition can vary, among other things, with the changing seasons, with the age of a cow and with small variations in diet.
“The art of cheese making rests in balancing a number of variables that can affect the final product,” Padgett says. “Maintaining consistency in texture, flavor, and appearance in the face of many variables requires both expertise and creativity.”
Their commitment to quality and consistency led to a prestigious award in 2012, an award that catapulted the Creamery into national prominence. The American Cheese Society awarded a first place ribbon in the category of Soft Farmstead Cheese, to Dancing Fern, the velvety delight developed by Nathan and Padgett after years of refinement. The Arnolds were taken completely by surprise. Padgett points out that, “Developing our creamery was much more difficult than we thought it would be, and we didn’t expect this level of recognition, especially so quickly and at a national level.”
Todd Druhot, Atlanta Foods International & Chair of the ACS Judging & Competition Committee say, “The ACS Judging & Competition is the largest and most prestigious competition of its kind. For a cheese such as Dancing Fern to win a first place ribbon in a competition featuring more than 17,000 entries speaks volumes to the quality of the cheese, as well as to the care and attention paid by the cheese maker to produce the best product in its class.”
Before the birth of the Creamery and years before Dancing Fern won its award, Nathan and Bill Keener were planning how to best use about 100 acres of pasture on Bill’s 300-acre Sequatchie Cove Farm. The land was rocky and subject to flooding, making it unsuitable for growing many other types of high value crops. The basic question was how to add maximum value to pasture grass that was virtually worthless, in itself. Their answer-cheese. The plan- establish the best quality pasture possible and feed the grass to a herd of dairy cows. Let them turn it into milk, and then make unique artisan-style cheeses from the milk. As Padgett says, “One of the best ways to add the most value to grass is to turn it into cheese.”
Bill Keener has been establishing their dairy herd over the last several years. He ultimately chose a crossbreed between Jerseys and Holsteins, a combination noted for producing milk with an exceptional balance of fat and protein for making cheese. He now manages the herd and milk production to the point of delivering top quality milk produced on the farm directly to the creamery, also located on the farm.
The Creamery’s repertoire now consists of five raw milk cheeses: Cumberland; Gruetli; Coppinger, Fletcher, and the flagship prizewinner, Dancing Fern. Since winning the award, Dancing Fern and their other cheeses are now sought after by major distributors and specialty shops throughout the country.
It’s worth nothing that the Farm and the Creamery have been dedicated to sustainable practices from their beginnings. “Farming in an ecologically and environmentally friendly way,” is their creed. Resources are recycled. Cows eat grass and in turn enrich the pasture’s soil through their manure as they graze. In a manner of speaking the cows themselves are solar powered. A pasture is really one big grassy solar panel! Each blade of grass houses countless microscopic biological “solar panels.” These capture the sun’s energy and convert it into sugar, assembling the nutrients that cows must have to live and produce milk.
The Creamery itself is also powered sustainably by man-made solar panels. The electricity the panels produce is exported to a larger grid. The creamery draws its power back from that grid, but it turns out that it exports more electricity than it uses. Padgett points out, “We have almost always received a credit from the power company at the end of each month, because we use less than we produce.”
Years of planning, dedication, and learning are paying dividends to the Sequatchie Cove Creamery, the environment and the reputation of our local sustainable farming community. Now its presence extends far beyond, into the nation, making the possibility of more first place ribbons entirely likely.
Story by Dick Morel
Photography courtesy of the Sequatchie Cove Creamery
This story was originally published in the April/May 2013 Issue of Chattanooga Magazine.