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Whey Station

by Cindy Bernhardt

photoGreg Bernhardt and Hannah Sessions have mastered the art and soul of cheese-making

Gregory Bernhardt and his wife, Hannah Sessions, started Blue Ledge Farm in Leicester as a way to make enough money to raise a family and stay in Vermont. Their acclaimed goat cheese is now sold across the Northeast and draws 400 visitors a year. The scrappy — and nosy — yearling is named Colleen.

Nobody’s more surprised by the popularity of the Blue Ledge Farm’s artisan cheeses than owners Hannah Sessions and Gregory Bernhardt. Yet this husband-and-wife team of self-proclaimed, right-brained artists is steadily capturing Vermont cheese lovers one palate at a time.

Now a popular stop on the Vermont Cheese Council’s Cheese Trail, they sowed the seeds of their Leicester operation when they met through a year-abroad language program in Florence, Italy, as fellow Bates College students. Sessions hails from Cornwall; Bernhardt, from outside Philadelphia.

Upon graduation the two moved to Brattleboro, where, says Bernhardt, “We tried to be artists, showing our work in galleries.” His part-time teacher post and Sessions’ work on a dairy farm supplemented their income.

The situation left them wanting. “We were ready to get married and start a family but couldn’t see living in an apartment,” recalls Bernhardt.

The key, says Sessions, was their motivation. “Most people decide what they want to do and go where that takes them; we wanted to be in Vermont, and focused on what it took to live here.”

They settled on farming. “A lot of my mom’s cousins farm in Vermont,” Sessions says, “and I grew up having animals.”

Adds Bernhardt, “We liked the idea of working with our hands and having our own business. Plus land was affordable in 2000 when we decided to do this.”

Ideas of dairy or vegetable farming were discarded because, says Bernhardt, “vegetables weren’t a creative enough venue, and we couldn’t set our own prices or markets with milking.”

After poring through Brattleboro library’s books on raising goats, they decided goat’s milk cheese-making fit the bill. “We couldn’t afford cows, and goats felt safer than a massive cow,” says Sessions. Today’s herd of 85 started with four goats bought, she says, “from all over. Once we drove back from Maine with four small goats in the back of our little station wagon.”

It was Sessions’ parents who found the 200-year-old, 111-acre farm in Leicester, which is now home to Blue Ledge. “Our plan was start slowly and decide if we liked this lifestyle and were good at cheese-making before we invested in building a cheese plant,” she says.

Both 22 years old, they plunged in. “We thought we could be creative in the cheese-making process and business end,” says Bernhardt. “We didn’t realize we’d entered such a growth industry, or the appreciation for local, naturally made products.”

Finances necessitated Bernhardt’s working “off-farm,” balancing a Rutland teaching job with part-time cheese-making. Sessions taught art in an after-school program and sold ads for a local newspaper, in addition to making 50 pounds of cheese a week while toting their baby daughter, Livia, on her back.

The “go goat” move allowed Blue Ledge to flourish from the start. “Goat cheese is fun to work with and has a wide variety of options,” Sessions explains. “Some cheeses can be eaten after three days while others age four months.”

“Moving cheese in and out quickly every week is critical when you’re small and can’t afford a large aging cave,” adds Bernhardt. Having started with a freezerless refrigerator, within six months, they had built a 6-by-10-foot cooler.

In 2003, they made a major decision: Bernhardt would leave teaching to become the full-time cheese-maker at Blue Ledge. Money was invested in a bigger cheese room and an 18-by-20-foot aging room.

“We started with a chevre that takes five days to age,” says Sessions, “and took on more aged cheeses as we expanded.” The farm now offers six cheeses, including one cow’s milk cheese.

Production has doubled every year, “except last year,” says Bernhardt, “when we only increased 25 percent.” In 2007, Blue Ledge shipped more than 25,000 pounds of cheese.

Over 60 percent of Blue Ledge cheeses are sold in Vermont to co-ops and health food stores. The operation also supplies a few high-end restaurants in Boston and New York City, and a list of food shops and co-ops around New England.

Ann MacDonald is the cheese shop buyer for the Hanover Food Co-op in New Hampshire, “People love buying local products,” she says, “but quality is what keeps a product in the store, and Blue Ledge’s products stand on their own. It’s really wonderful cheese — as wonderful as Hannah and Gregory.”

The couple’s cheese reflects their commitment to their lifestyle and family, says MacDonald. “Customers feel connected to a product like that.”

Laura Lapoint, sous chef at Café Provence in Brandon, echoes MacDonald’s comments, “Their cheese has great quality and flavor. People love it, and Hannah and Greg are great to work with, always going above and beyond to meet our needs.”

Blue Ledge’s prices have remained affordable over the years. “Because we sell all our cheese we don’t have much waste,” says Bernhardt. Adds Sessions, “We try to be as efficient as possible to stay affordable within the specialty cheese market. We want to make a cheese we can afford.”

The couple has watched demand for artisan cheese expand in recent years as people educate themselves and expand their palates, exploring more intense cheeses, says Bernhardt.

photoFor a while, finances necessitated that Bernhardt and Sessions hold outside jobs, but no longer. All of their 85 goats are named. Their children are Livia, 5, and Hayden, 3.

His right-brain side is well-suited to cheese-making, he says. “While the chemistry of the process is predictable, variables like humidity, temperature and time matter, too. I try to be in tune with the scientific piece and be creative in affecting variables in the making and aging processes since both are equally important.”

Sessions handles the company’s marketing and distribution. Marketing everything themselves rather than relying on a distributor was a deliberate business decision, she says. “We began with three accounts and slowly added from there, so we’ve maintained good relationships and account loyalty.”

Securing accounts involved two years of “really intense legwork,” Sessions reflects. “I’d drive around the state asking, ‘Would you like to try our cheese?’ Nearly everyone who tried it bought our product. The artisan cheese movement was just taking off so our timing was lucky. Then a switch began, and people began calling us.”

Farmers markets in Middlebury and Rutland have been key marketing outlets where they can connect with consumers, get direct feedback and drum up enthusiasm.

Keeping labor costs low is a priority. The farm has one part-time employee and hires interns who work in exchange for room and partial board. “There’s a lot of interest in that,” says Sessions. “They come from all over — some from colleges, but mostly, people find us on the Web. Google “internships” and we come up.

Then there’s the “slave labor,” Sessions jokes. “My parents work the farmers markets for us every Saturday, and my mom helps me wrap cheese a day and a half every week.”

The couple’s informal mission statement, established early on, was “to produce a quality product, support local businesses and farms, and have a sustainable lifestyle.”

“We’ve made it financially sustainable,” says Sessions; “now we need to make the operation mentally sustainable, because we work so much.”

The foundation is being poured for a “last and biggest expansion,” which is to build three underground caves and a packing room. It is to be completed by spring. “Our plant size will triple,” says Bernhardt, “increasing production by 25 percent. That will allow us stronger financial sustainability to afford another employee and give us more time with our family.”

photoGreg Bernhardt is the full-time cheese-maker. Blue Ledge is a popular stop on the Vermont Cheese Council’s Cheese Trail.

It’s not that they don’t love work, says Sessions, “but as the kids get older and have Little League games, we want to be able to drop things and go.”

Determining Blue Ledge’s optimum size is a struggle, says Bernhardt. “As a business you always have to be growing and changing or you’ll disappear. Luckily we’ve grown the perfect rate every step of the way.

“At the same time, how big is big enough to make money but not be overworked? And not be so big we hurt our product quality with efficiency short cuts. We’re trying to find that balance.”

Balance can take many forms. They faced a happy dilemma during the last few months when demand was so high that they found themselves without enough cheese to last through the winter when the goats birth.

Two years ago they began buying additional goat’s milk from a local farmer to help increase production, and are considering bringing on another farm to further boost supply.

“It’s hard to turn away accounts when we don’t have cheese,” says Sessions. “We’re Americans,” she adds, laughing. “It’s in our blood to know how well we can do. We can’t help it!”

They credit Vermont’s farmer-friendly environment for helping their growth. “There’s great infrastructure here,” says Bernhardt. “Farmers really support each other. Farm supplies and services are readily available, and we’re able to hire out large pieces of equipment we couldn’t otherwise afford.”

He’s referring to organizations such as the Vermont Fresh Network, the Vermont Grass Farmers Association and the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program.

The Vermont Land Trust helped Blue Ledge conserve its land and provided seed money for its expansion; and the Vermont Cheese Council’s map of the state’s cheese-makers brings hundreds of visitors to farms like Blue Ledge every year.

Life at Blue Ledge gets temporarily saner during their winter downtime months of mid-November to mid-January, “but there’s always a project to do,” says Bernhardt. They love to cross-country ski and spend time with their children, Livia, now 5, and Hayden, 3.

Blue Ledge has only one drawback, says Sessions. “We can’t get away from our work. We’re always on call.”

Still, she confesses that it’s great to be creating something people appreciate and to receive such positive feedback. “If we were just a dairy farm it wouldn’t be worth the sacrifices we make,” she says.

Starting Blue Ledge together strengthened their vision, says Sessions. “We’re both equally committed to Blue Ledge and can’t imagine not working together. We’re lucky this is fulfilling for both of us.”

Eventually they’d like to reconnect with their oil painting muses. In the meantime, says Bernhardt, “We really wanted this lifestyle.”

“It’s homey,” Sessions chimes in. “So what, that we work this hard? It just means we don’t have to go to the gym!” •

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