Portia McKnight and Flo Hawley began the Chapel Hill Creamery in 2001. They planned to buy North Carolina milk to make their cheeses, but production had declined so much that the state often needed to import milk. Undaunted, they purchased land south of Dairyland Road and cleared and converted it to pasture with a mix of grasses, and then acquired a herd of Jersey cows. They chose Jerseys over Holsteins, the traditional dairy cow, because Jerseys produce a creamy, rich milk that can produce more cheese per gallon. Jerseys are also more tolerant of heat and better suited to the intensive grazing system. Chapel Hill Creamery has partitioned pastures, and 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 the women’s philosophy of raising “cows that are healthy and happy and improving the quality of the land.”
They also chose Jersey cows for their fertility. Chapel Hill Creamery now produces cheese year-round and needs a year-round supply of milk. 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!
On the Piedmont Farm Tour, you’ll see the pastures with the cows and calves of various ages enjoying grass in the sunshine or resting in the shade. Tour the milking parlor and the cheese house, where Portia and Flo and their helpers turn their fresh milk into about seven kinds of cheese, including camembert-like Carolina Moon and New Moon, which differ in the number of months they are aged; fresh Mozzarella; fresh Farmer’s cheese; 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.) Remember to bring a cooler so you can buy some cheese.
Watch a video of our visit below.