Chapel Hill Creamery - Chapel Hill, NC
by Cat Moleski, updated by Emily Buehler
Portia McKnight and Flo Hawley began the Chapel Hill Creamery about
fifteen years ago. They planned on buying North Carolina milk to make their cheeses. Unfortunately, North Carolina milk production had declined so much that the state often needed to import milk. If they wanted fresh, local milk, they would have to make it themselves.
They purchased land south of Dairyland Road and began clearing and converting it to pasture with a mix of grasses. They partitioned over a dozen separate areas; the cows move onto fresh pasture twice a day, after milking. Allowing maximum grass growth leads to maximum nutrition for the cows, in line with their philosophy of raising "cows that are healthy and happy and improving the quality of the land."
They chose Jersey cows over Holsteins, the traditional dairy cow, because Jerseys produce a creamy, rich milk. (On the day of our visit, 38 gallons of milk were turned into 10 wheels of paneer cheese, a “14% yield” according to Portia. Had Holstein milk been used, the lower solids content of the milk would’ve resulted in less cheese.) Jerseys are also more tolerant of heat and better suited to the intensive grazing system.
They also chose Jersey cows for their fertility. Now that Chapel Hill Creamery produces cheese year-round, they need a year-round supply of milk. They generally need more in the summer, when orders for fresh mozzarella increase. Thus they have two calving groups: a bigger one in spring that coincides with the large supply of spring grass (by December, these mothers will be gestating again), and a smaller fall calving group. The 2011 fall calving produced four calves, including the Creamery’s 100th heifer!
Portia finds cheese making "fascinating because you start with an everyday thing like milk and turn it into such a wide variety of things." The Chapel Hill Creamery makes about 7 kinds of cheese. Their line-up includes camembert-like Carolina Moon and New Moon, which differ in the number of months they are aged; fresh Mozzarella; fresh Farmer's cheese; feta; and a raw-milk, aged cheese made in the monastery style. (Monastery cheeses were traditionally named after the monastery where they were made, so Portia and Flo named theirs “Hickory Grove” after the Baptist Church at the end of their road.)
The Chapel Hill Creamery has expanded since its beginning; it still has room to expand production without increasing the size of the facility. But they probably won’t make more types of cheese; it wouldn’t make sense. Everyone has a favorite, Flo says, so they can’t stop making their current cheeses; and each new cheese requires special conditions and a learning curve. What with milking twice a day and scheduling batches of cheeses, even with seven helpers, Portia and Flo have their hands full.