Farm Illustrates Challenges of Growing in Conn.

11/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Sarah L. Hamby Connecticut Correspondent

COLCHESTER, Conn. — Elizabeth MacAlister bought Cato Corner Farm LLC — named for Cato Ransom, a freed slave who lived at Cato’s Corner — in 1979 “just because we wanted to produce food. It was the ’70s, when people were doing that.”

After a few years of milking goats and raising lambs for meat, MacAlister thought it would be a good idea to add cheesemaking to the mix, bringing cows to the farm as early as 1979 and obtaining her cheesemaking license in 1997.

The plan, MacAlister said, was to bring a value-added option to the farm to ensure sustainability.

“Value added. That’s what people should do,” MacAlister said. “We have a market.”

What began as a twice-a-day, handmilking operation is now a bit more complicated with about 80 cows on the farm including dry cows, replacement heifers and other young stock. More than 20 cheeses, many of them award winning, are made on site. Cato Corner cheeses are well-known at local farmers markets in Connecticut, but can also be found at top-notch restaurants in New York City and Boston.

Support from the state of Connecticut and the Department of Agriculture has been significant to the farm’s success, according to MacAlister.

“We have an agriculture commission, but we struggle,” she said. “The state of Connecticut generally has been more supportive. The Department of Agriculture is great, just great, the inspectors are great.”

She added that a Farm Enhancement Grant received in 2004 helped the farm to grow. On the federal level, “people have been helpful, too.”

Cato Corner Farm is conserved by Connecticut Farmland Trust and The Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, Grassland Reserve Program.

MacAlister appreciates Connecticut is one of the few states in the country where a consumer can purchase retail raw milk — MacAlister and her son, Mark Gillman, make raw milk cheeses.

Still, she feels the farm could use more support at home. She expressed concern that the people of Colchester are not invested enough in farming and are not interested in compromising on simple issues. She said some residents get frustrated when cows wander across local roads or when manure is spread, and often, MacAlister said, drivers go faster than posted speed limits on winding, country roads.

Colchester’s first selectman, Gregg Schuster, disagrees with MacAlister.

“Colchester has a long and rich history of supporting agriculture and has strong roots as a farming community,” he wrote in a recent email. Schuster said that in the last few years, a “right to farm” ordinance has been established in the town and he noted that the agriculture commission “reviews proposed zoning changes, educates residents on the benefits of farming and advocates on issues important to agriculture.”

Town Planner Adam Turner adds: “It is clear that agriculture is supported in Colchester the town has been certified as an agriculture community by the state of Connecticut and is eligible for various specific agricultural grants.”

“The residents definitely support farming,” Schuster said. “We started our first farmers market three years ago and it has been steadily growing. Additionally, residents routinely shop directly at our farms. Most residents do understand the challenges faced because they talk with farmers all the time.

“We get the occasional complaint over the smell of spring,’ but other than that, Colchester residents either grew up with it or knew what they were going to get when they moved here,” Schuster added. “Farming is a critical function to continue to grow and support. Colchester has taken many steps to support agriculture, but there is always more to do. Once you lose a farm, it’s very hard to get it back.”

Another of MacAlister’s concerns is the issue of having a market, something that’s improving as Connecticut residents begin to seek out more organic, homemade foods.

“People didn’t even know we were here for a long time,” MacAlister said, noting that without the Greenmarket in New York City, where family and staff still travel to sell cheese at various farmers markets, they might not have succeeded.

MacAlister has returned, for the most part, to taking care of the farm; the day-to-day operations include milking and caring for the animals. The big “cheese” of the cheesemaking operation is her son, Mark Gillman, who left his job as a teacher in Baltimore in 1999 and began making award-winning aged farmhouse cheese from raw, pasture-fed milk.

“I did a little bit of everything for a while,” said Gillman, as he patiently drained whey from a large vat of what will eventually become Dutch Farmstead cheese, described as “creamy and mild” and recognized by various sources as one of the best American raw milk farmstead cheeses.

Continuing to separate shining curds from whey, Gillman explained his mother’s love of cheese: As a child in Providence, R.I., MacAlister and her father would consume copious amounts of cheese — Italian provolone, fine cheddar among those. Her father went to Canada for cheese and near their home in Rhode Island, several types of cheese were made.

The state of Connecticut was very good to Cato Corner, Gillman said, encouraging the farm to pursue value-added products.

“We all love cheese. We all spend a fair amount of time and money around the holidays pursuing good cheese. It sort of made sense “ he said. “I got sort of excited about what she was doing. I thought, I can go back to teaching if I don’t like it.’ That was 14 years ago.

“As we’ve grown, Elizabeth started to focus more on the animals — her love — and I started to focus more on the cheese,” he added.

Gillman said 2,675 pounds of milk will make just 300 pounds of cheese. Curd is stacked into containers by weight, flipped until it’s slightly firm, and flattened. Overnight it will acidify — thus resulting in “lactose acid,” Gillman explained. After that, it’s moved to “the cave,” where slowly it will become the rinded cheese so many people know and love.

Cato Corner Farm has been going strong for many years and Gillman, along with MacAlister, attributes this not just to the local farmers market scene, but access to larger markets made easier by the farm’s close proximity to Boston, Providence and New York City.

“When we first started,” he said, “the pallet for the kinds of cheese we make in the cities was much more advanced. But it has caught up.”

Gillman said that about half of the farm’s business is done at markets in New York and at popular local spots, such as the well-known Coventry Regional Farmers Market. Another big part of the business is selling wholesale to stores and restaurants.

Now that Cato cheese is so well known, Gillman said he doesn’t have to work as hard to get the word out.

“I’ve reached out to some people, but now that we’re more established, it seems like people find us,” he said.

Stirring whey and flattening curd is no easy task. So is it worth it?

“We get along,” MacAlister said. “It’s my living. We have several people who work here full time. The farm supports quite a few people.”

And then there’s the cheese.

“My favorite? I love Bloomsday. I love stinky cheeses,” she said.

Gillman also prefers a stronger cheese.

“The more I make cheese, the more I appreciate a subtle balance. I do love a stinky cheese. A good age. A good crystallization. Cheese is subjective. Everybody likes something different. I’ve learned not to take it personally,” he said.

Cato Corner Farm cheeses can be ordered online or check out their website to see if they will be at a farmers market near you at

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