A Family Run farm
Last week, I had a chance to visit another cheese producer in the Pyrenees of the French Basque countries (I say “another” because last Spring, I visited Ferme Kukulu which is just outside of the Basque town of Espelette). Ferme Bethanoun produces farmhouse cheeses, including an AOC Ossau Iraty and sheep’s milk bleu sort of in the style of Fourme d’Ambert, as well as meat from both sheep and cows.
Our guide for the visit, Serge Frachou, explained to us that Ferme Bethanoun is truly a family run farm where he works with his father, an uncle, a brother and a cousin. Seems that the Frachou family has been in the business of raising the local beef cows, the Blond d’Aquitaine, for beef near the town of La Bastide Clairance for generations. His grandfather purchased Ferme Bethanoun, which had been a dairy, from a neighbor. He continued the tradition of raising sheep for milk at Bethanoun, but sold the milk directly to a larger dairy. Later, his son, Serge’s dad, took over the operation with his brother. The farm only returned to making cheese when Serge’s cousin, fresh out of a technical school for cheese making, joined the operation 5 years ago. Now the work load is shared by 5 family members, all with different jobs.
Adherence to traditional methods is the touchstone of work at Ferme Bethanoun. The dairy herd, comprised of about 500 of the local “tete rousse” bread of sheep, is grazed each day in the green rolling hills that surround the farm. The farm does not use hormones, steroids or antibiotics. When it is necessary because of weather to feed the sheep on hay in their barns, they use organic hay. In the cheese making facility, the milk is kept warm from straight from the animals during cheese making using traditional 500 liter copper kettles. During our visit, one of the few indications that Bethanoun is a modern operation is the sparkling clean, white tiled cheese making laboratory, which the EU requires when making raw milk cheeses.
The sheep produce milk only when they are ewing, from late November through June. We visited one day before the first day of milking, so didn’t get to see the cheese making process. However, we did get to taste the 6 month old AOC Ossau Iraty that had been made and left to age late last June. It was strongly full flavored without tasting overly of animal, still young enough that one could still taste the grassy, floral flavors of the mountain pastures. Delicious. We hope to have the Ossau Iraty and the sheep’s milk bleu from Bethanoun on the cheeseboard at Le Pichet and Cafe Presse later this year or early in 2013.
Making Bio Work
It has been interesting to me to see how different farmers are finding different solutions to making traditional, organic, raw milk dairy farming work. The costs associated with this sort of production, including extensive laboratory testing of milk and cheese, are very, very high. Additionally, it is a labor intensive business in a country where taxes and the 35 hour work week make hiring very expensive. So how to remain true to tradition and still make a euro?
At Ferme Kukulu, the solution that they chose was to get bigger. They installed a larger cheese making facility and increased the size of their herd to over 2000 sheep. To increase yield, the stopped using local “tete rousse” sheep, a low yielding breed and instead filled the herd with a breed more common to the Auvergne. Their cheese making facility is large enough so that they can make a bit extra by renting it out to neighbors who can’t afford to to build their own but want to continue making raw milk cheeses. And they opened a store to sell their products direct to the public, both at the farm and in the nearby town of Espelette. They even sell extra sheep dung for fertilizer.
Ferme Bethanoun decided to stay traditional and small but to work together as a family team. They diversified, selling not only cheese, but also sell part of their raw milk to a larger dairy. They continue the family practice of raising animals for meat.
At still another organic dairy, Lait Petits Bearnais near Orthez, they have still taken a different tack. The farm, which was formerly producing milk for a big dairy using non-organic methods, is run by a young couple who took it over from a parent almost 10 years ago. They returned the farm to organic methods, re-introduced the local breed of dairy cows and began making their own cheeses, yogurt, fromage blanc and other products, which they sell direct from the farm and also out of their truck at local farmer’s markets. They have also opened the farm for agro-tourism, especially welcoming kids, with classes, introductions to farm work and other educational activities on the weekend.
The bottom line is that organic farming is hard work and a tough business. But new generations of farmers are making it work by being flexible, tough and creative. It gives one hope.