Filling the Gap – Learning to be a Fromager at Cato Corner Farm

Photos and profile by Caryn B. Davis

Oaklea Elfstrom is taking a gap year. It’s that sweet period after high school, prior to college, where a time out is taken for the purpose of self exploration before having to declare a major and deciding what to be for the rest of your life. Many young people opt to travel; some go backpacking, while others elect to volunteer abroad building orphanages in India, teaching English in Japan.

But instead of traveling oversees or learning how to surf like many of her friends, Oaklea decide to stay close to her Haddam home to learn the art of cheese production.

“I have been lucky in my life to travel because of my father’s company. So when considering my gap year, I thought it would be an amazing opportunity to find a way to give back to my community and learn a trade that a lot of people don’t know how to do anymore,” says Elfstrom.

She set her sights on Cato Corner Farm in Colchester; and after dropping off an application, was given a job. The farm began making hand crafted cheese in 1997 as a way of having a value-added product to help support it. Liz MacAlister, who co-owns the farm with her son Mark Gillman, originally kept goats, sheep, chickens, and a few cows when she established the farm in the 1970s, but it was not sustainable. She began making cheese with her 13 Jersey cows, which has since grown to 45 bovines.

Gillman entered into the family business in 1999. He was teaching seventh grade English in Baltimore but decided to try making cheese one summer and never looked back.

“We all have to eat, so you might as well eat well and have food produced in a manner you feel good about. It is very rewarding to create something by hand we are proud of,” he says.

He now manages the cheese making side of the business while MacAlister tends to the farm and the breeding of animals, ensuring the stock remains healthy with genetic traits that are optimal for producing quality milk, which leads to quality cheese.

“It starts with the cows in the field and what they eat. Our cows spend twelve hours in the paddock in the warmer months and mainly eat a grass-based diet. We work with a nutritionist and add a little grain to complement whatever they are getting from the fresh grass and local hay. The cows are milked twice day and give us good milk. We use about one gallon of raw milk in sixteen ounces of cheese,” says Gillman.

Cato Corner Farm yields about 1000 pounds of cheese per week in twelve different varieties that are sold at farmers’ markets, in retail stores, and to restaurants from Boston to New York. Elfstrom does a little bit of everything from manning the farmers’markets, to putting together wholesale orders, to the actual production. This translates into long days and physically demanding labor. (For example, just stirring the curds can take anywhere from 40 minutes to several hours depending upon the type of cheese being made).

But Elfstrom is not deterred. This is exactly what she signed up for. She learned to value hard work at a young age by picking up pruning clippings on her family’s vineyard. At 15, she built an aquaponic gardening system in her backyard and in high school, worked on a documentary about young people who were choosing careers in farming over banking or Wall Street. Spending time working on the documentary really cemented her passion for sustainable agriculture.

“It opened my eyes to this group of smart, technologically savvy Millennials who decided farming was important to them,” says Elfstrom. “One farm we visited was a cheese farm. I watched the cheese making process and fell in love with the idea of creating something with your hands that is alive. Cheese is a living thing. That’s why you don’t want to freeze it because it can’t keep growing and living.”

Elfstrom’s reverence for nature was developed early on. Her parents strongly encouraged this by insisting she and her sister Petra play outside everyday. Compared to may of her peers who spend hours posting every moment of their lives on Instagram or Twitter, Elfstrom still favors the great outdoors to cyberspace and cell phones and prefers face time with friends rather than Facebook.

“I’ve been trying to figure myself out before I go to college, which I think is the whole point of a gap year. Part of that was a desire to reconnect with nature,” Elfstrom reflects. “I think it’s awesome the movement of young people who want to be outside hiking and backpacking. I love that and want to do that, but I don’t feel the need when I am on top of a mountain to post a picture of it or Snapchat about it. I want to take that in for myself. It makes no sense to me, but at the same time I get it. I know that social pressure and the need to show the world I am having a good time, but it seems fake.”

Elfstrom grew up eating Cato Corner Farm cheeses and admits she’s biased when it comes to how amazing she thinks it tastes, but it’s not her imagination. While their award winning cheeses are crafted with great care, skill, and attention to detail, Gillman attributes the flavor to their healthy, happy cows. Every batch comes out a little different depending upon the season and on what the cows are eating.

“Our cheese starts with our cows and the pastures they graze. If you taste our cheeses throughout the year, you will be able to appreciate the changes that come from changes in the cows’ diet. I love the sweet, grassy flavors and the gorgeous yellow color that the pasture milk brings to our aged cheeses in particular. In the winter we feed local hay, and the cows produce a lower volume but much richer milk. This makes for a super creamy texture that’s ideal for our semi-soft cheeses,” says Gillman.

Nothing gets wasted. The cheese making produces about 85-90 pounds of unused whey that does not make it into the product but contains loads of protein and nutrients that are feed back to the cows.

“It’s an excellent way to recycle a waste product, and the cows love it,” notes Gillman.

While Elfstrom will attend Bates College in Maine next year with an undeclared major, she think the skills she learned this year can be parlayed into any profession.

“I know how to make cheese. While that may not directly get me an internship at a government environmental planning office, the other skills I have learned absolutely will, like hard work. If you slack off, everyone has to pick up your slack. Persistence – if you show up at someone’s workplace enough they might give you a job. And people skills. I sell cheese at Union Square in New York City and interact with a whole range of people. I have to be able to have coherent discussions. I am inherently shy, so if I hadn’t taken this gap year and started making cheese, I might not have cultivated that skill.” says Elfstrom.

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