The fog enveloped the countryside around Gavin and me as we made our way toward the edge of Tomales Bay, where Bleating Heart Cheese is nestled. We drove past lazy black Angus cows in pasture and some jittery sheep before arriving at Seana Doughty and Dave Dalton’s shiny, new cinderblock creamery. Seana greeted us with her characteristic bubbliness and sunshine smile, and ushered us inside, handing us some blue booties to protect her creamery.
The creamery takes up only a small part of the former 1000-acre Marshall Family Homestead, and its presence marks a new chapter in the land’s long history. For years, the Homestead belonged to one family, who worked the land as dairy and meat farmers. When the family patriarch passed away in 2000, the high taxes levied on the property left the family struggling to make even the first tax payment. Thanks to the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, the Marshalls were able to sell their land, piece by piece, for continued farm use. This is where Seana and Dave enter the picture. They were looking to leave their research laboratory careers to launch their cheese lives, and fell in love with the building that had once served as the Marshall milking parlor. Although it lay in disuse and disarray, she saw potential for her new cheesemaking operation.
It wasn’t all sheepy milk and rainbows to get the creamery going, though. Seana and Dave are open when it comes to sharing the obstacles they encountered along the way. Starting up a new creamery takes many, many hours of investment, and many, many dollars. They spent $5,000 on permits alone and $34,000 on their top-of-the-line, C. van’t Riet vat from the Netherlands. Building the creamery was an exercise in handling the unexpected. For instance, they knew they had to rework the building’s floor, but they didn’t realize they’d have to reconstruct the entire floor all the way down to the earth. Thanks to Dave’s engineering background, he was able to save Bleating Heart time and money by doing a good amount of work himself.
Seana shared much of this information as we stood around the cheese making area, which has a window looking toward a couple of older barns toward the back of the property. We stepped into the creamery’s small, hurriedly built, aging room. In the early days, Seana and Dave found themselves quickly in need of more aging space, as their first cave filled up within months. The couple shifted into problem-solving mode and converted the creamery’s former milk room into an aging room. They keep epoxy racks full of cheese as they slowly build up their collection of local redwood wooden racks. Dave even devised an ingenious, automated humidification system for the space with a fog machine for ponds and some PVC piping. On one side of the room sat dozens of wheels of Shepherdista, the last of the year (milking is done for the year!). On the other side sat seven batches of experimental blue cheeses—the seven blues (kind of like the seven veils of Salome’s famous dance?). Large note cards with daily observations are tacked in front of each batch. They are all different, and who knows which ones will be deemed appropriate for the market? One batch sports a bright orange rind—all thanks to the natural foggy atmosphere. Another batch has some dusty mold. Yet another is stored in Ziploc bags. Seana has razor-sharp observation skills, but this phase of the cheesemaking is where the art comes in. The cheese(s) will be ready when she says so, when they have achieved that certain unnamable quality that she is searching for. These seven blues all represent Seana’s real cheese dream—she wants to produce ewe’s milk blue cheeses more than anything else. We have a sample later of Batch #1, which I think is now available for sale under the name of “Ewelicious.”
In fact, Seana and Dave have been doing so well, they are already in a flurry preparing for the next phase of their creamery expansion. In six months, they expect to construct a new wing to their current creamery from several recycled shipping containers. Marissa Thornton, whose family owns the land on which Bleating Heart is built, plans on developing her own sheep dairy on the property; Seana plans to use 100% of that milk to double her cheesemaking. Seana even showed me the milking area that is scheduled for renovation. At $40,000, the expansion is no small ticket, but they feel demand is already high enough to justify the investment. It’s not a bad dilemma to have, considering just a couple years ago, Seana and Dave were just making cheese in the evenings as they worked full-time jobs during the day. Bleating Heart Cheese is now full-time work for this industrious couple!
Why did Seana share all of these numbers with me? Because she (and I) have seen many wide-eyed home cheesemakers who hold romanticized dreams of starting their own creamery. What many people do not see, and what the industry keeps oddly silent on, is the real investment that goes into launching such a business endeavor. Because, as much as we all love well-made cheese, making it on a commercial scale requires a healthy bottom line.
In any case, I am glad to see that Bleating Heart is doing so well now, despite all of the obstacles that come with building a new creamery and new business (There are plenty more “in the trenches” stories, probably too many for this blog post!). I can’t wait to see how their operations will change when their new wing is built, and their sheep milk supply doubles! I’ll be back to check out the new digs!
We ended this visit outside near a junk pile, where the dairy sheep seem to love spending their afternoons. They didn’t go anywhere near me, but two of them seemed very curious of Gavin. Around the corner, in some shade, two Great Pyrenees shepherding dogs napped before their nighttime job of guarding against coyotes and other predators commenced.
Before we left, Seana gave us some delicious cheeses to try—Fat Bottom Girl, Shepherdista, Funky Bleats, and the Blue #1 testing batch. I’ll tell you more about them in my next post!
Thank you, Seana and Dave, for showing us around, and for sharing with us your cheeses and vision!