5/11/2013 7:00 AM
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant New York Correspondent
KING FERRY, N.Y. — Keeley McGarr is not your typical cheesemaker. This 30-year-old female has worked to make her product stand out for an entirely different reason: quality.
After growing up on the 400-acre McGarr Farms near King Ferry, N.Y., McGarr took a somewhat predictable path in attending the University of Vermont to study animal science. Living in Vermont exposed her to value-added farm products.
“There are a lot of wonderful, small cheese-making operations in Vermont,” McGarr said.
Learning all about ag, she completed a work-study program at a farm making cheese. She was told that cheese-making was “man’s work,” which was just the catalyst this spunky college student needed to want to make cheese herself.
While hefting 40-pound cheese forms may have challenged McGarr at first, she loved making cheese. She realized cheese-making could provide a business that aligned with the family farm, which raises registered Holsteins and Jerseys.
She studied abroad in Ireland in 2004 where she spent one semester visiting some dairies in the country. She returned to the states to take a cheese-making course at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese. In 2008, she went back to Ireland to complete an internship on cheese-making. She learned how to make natural rind, farmstead cheese.
“I have found acceptance as a female cheesemaker both here and in Ireland,” she said. “Over there, a majority of the cheesemakers I dealt with were women. It was inspiring to see how they have balanced their family and farming lives, and still found a way to make world-renowned cheeses.”
In 2009, she opened Keeley’s Cheese Co. A farmhouse on the family homestead was renovated to serve as the cheese house.
“I enjoy the science behind the process, and striving to understand the huge variety of cheeses,” she said. “It’s really interesting to me how many variables are involved in cheese making, which is also what makes it an art form. This can be the most frustrating or rewarding part of making cheese, depending on how it turns out.”
McGarr’s signature cheese, Across the Pond, is a semi-soft variety with a washed rind. McGarr uses raw milk and ages the cheese for a minimum of two months. She sells it by the pound or in wheels of approximately 4 pounds or 1.75 pounds.
The cheeses are sold at 15 shops and several restaurants in the area, in addition to the sales at the farm.
Currently, she owns the cheese business separately from the farm and purchases the milk from the dairy.
McGarr hopes to continue to grow the business and someday turn all the milk into value-added products instead of the current 7 percent.
“I think the future of our small farm will depend upon producing high-quality milk and using it for value-added production,” she said. “My father and brother are also very active in the purebred Holstein business; this is another way of adding value to the operation. The cyclical nature of commodity milk pricing means small farms have to find other income streams. Luckily, I have discovered a passion for doing this through cheese.”
She started at the farm working with the herd, but did not feel as fulfilled as she does making cheese. McGarr feels strongly about the importance of choosing a niche in ag that stirs one’s passion.
“The more background information you can gain about your field before beginning your business, the better off you’ll be,” she said. “And utilize your Extension contacts, they’re there to answer your questions, or find someone who can.”