Cheese making became a calling
Yellow Springs owners Catherine and Al Renzi left corporate jobs to see if they could make a small farm profitable. Now, they’re on a mission.
“A lot of people focus on the romance of farming and not the business of farming. There’s no formula, no book to read. So you just take it one step at a time and hope in the long run you are providing a product people want. But it’s a 24-7 lifestyle.” – Al Renzi
WEST PIKELAND » Yellow Springs Farm is many things to its owners, Catherine and Al Renzi: A statement, a mission, a lifestyle, a home, a business.
Situated on eight acres of several winding roads off Route 113 in bucolic Chester Springs, the farm has gained national recognition in recent years for the cheeses it produces.
In July, for instance, the family farm business focused on selling artisanal goat cheeses to local communities and restaurants was awarded first place for its Black Diamond, second place for its Goat’s Beard, and third place for its Red Leaf goat’s milk cheeses at the annual American Cheese Society Awards in Denver, Colo.
Not bad for two escapees from corporate America who bought the farm in 2001 with the idea of – doing something besides corporate work. For Al, 59, and a microbiologist by training, that meant leaving his job in pharmaceuticals. For Catherine, 53, who has a master’s degree in History of Art from the University of Pennsylvania, it meant a new life after a career in financial services.
Now the husband and wife team, married in 2000, spend their days tending to goats, making cheese and yogurt and maintaining the historic property they’ve donated to the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust to be preserved in perpetuity.
Oh yes, and they continue
to operate a native plant nursery, the first business they started after buying the farm.
“We like working together,” Catherine said last week as they gave a tour of the operation to visitors.
The Renzis started in the cheese business in 2009 on the property that in the 1800s had been a large dairy farm.
“This is the product of our marriage,” said Catherine, noting the couple doesn’t have children. Unless you count, well, the kids.
“They don’t wear braces, they don’t go to college,” Catherine allowed.
“But they do eat a lot,” Al countered.
After a bit of thought, Catherine said the goats are more like employees in a family business than they are children – each with their own personalities, problems, preferences and needs.
Yellow Springs Farm is about eight acres. The Renzis keep about 30 goats there at one time. They have a total of about 100 goats; the others are kept on nearby farms.
According to Catherine, goat pregnancies last for five months and they produce milk for eight or nine months after that. So for the farm to keep producing cheese, the goats need to keep producing kids. A typical goat pregnancy results in two kids, with the range being one to three.
“So it’s a complicated situation, or simple, depending on how you look at it. We have more than 100 kids a year,” Catherine said, noting they sell a certain number to keep the herd size under control.
“To some extent what we have here is ‘Money Ball, ” she added, referring to an account of the Oakland Athletics baseball team’s 2002 season and their general manager Billy Beane’s attempts to assemble a competitive team by using a production-to-salary type of analytics.
“Think of it like a sports team,” Catherine said, looking out at the pen of goats. “Some are alphas and some aren’t. You have to have a mix.”
Once the goats give their milk – they give about a gallon a day versus cows, which give about 10 gallons a day – it goes to the cheese house.
Yellow Springs makes 10-pound batches at a time in the cold rooms. Some are made into balls, others are made into pie-like shapes. They are aged anywhere from several weeks to six months.
The farm is an artisinal operation, Al said. As a boutique operation, its selling point is high quality. Doing that requires attention be paid year round, he noted.
“A lot of people focus on the romance of farming and not the business of farming,” Al said. “There’s no formula, no book to read. So you just take it one step at a time and hope in the long run you are providing a product people want. But it’s a 24-7 lifestyle.”
The Renzis said very little of their cheese sales are done over the Internet since it needs to be kept cold to be shipped. Instead, they sell in a number of stores such as Kimberton Whole Foods, Whole Foods and McCaffrey’s Food Markets.
“And the local chefs are so supportive, we’re very thankful to them,” Catherine said.
They also sell their cheeses through a Community Supported Agriculture program in which residents sign up, pay in advance and pick up their orders when the cheeses are ready.
Such programs are important to the Renzis, who encourage others to take part in eating in more environmentally responsible ways and who like being part of the farm-to-fork movement.
They don’t know what will happen to the farm when they can’t work it any longer; they hope a young family may take it over.
But they do know that it won’t be developed, a fact that brought a smile to both their faces as they talked about it on the farm last week.
“We could earn more money doing practically anything else,” Catherine said. “I rode horses all my life and I benefited from previous conservation efforts. To connect to the earth, to be part of the ecosystem, that’s so important to us.”
Catherine and Al Renzi with some of their milking goats at Yellow Springs Farm in Chester Springs.
Goats at Yellow Springs Farm in Chester Springs.
Red Leaf cheese ages at Yellow Springs Farm.
Al Renzi of Yellow Springs Farm surveys the goat cheese as it ages in the refrigerator.
Catherine Renzi of Yellow Springs Farm with the female goats. Renzi said contrary to belief, goats can be selective eaters and what they eat is tasted in the cheese.
Cloud Nine - Yellow Springs Farm Artisanal goat cheese packaged and ready for delivery.