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!
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.
Chapel Hill Creamery is living wage certified in Orange County. Watch a video of our visit below.