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.

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Brian McCul­lough bm­c­cul­lough@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @wc­dai­ly­lo­cal on Twit­ter

“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.”

PETE BANNAN – DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

Cather­ine and Al Renzi with some of their milk­ing goats at Yel­low Springs Farm in Ch­ester Springs.

PETE BANNAN – DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

Goats at Yel­low Springs Farm in Ch­ester Springs.

PETE BANNAN – DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

Red Leaf cheese ages at Yel­low Springs Farm.

PETE BANNAN – DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

Al Renzi of Yel­low Springs Farm sur­veys the goat cheese as it ages in the re­frig­er­a­tor.

PETE BANNAN – DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

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.

PETE BANNAN – DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

Cloud Nine - Yel­low Springs Farm Ar­ti­sanal goat cheese pack­aged and ready for de­liv­ery.

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