Friday, January 17, 2014

Artisan Profile: Ancient Heritage Dairy

Excerpted from an article I wrote for The Oregonian:

Editor's note: In 2007, Oregonian reporter Leslie Cole profiled Paul and Kathy Obringer of Ancient Heritage Dairy in Scio. Just one year after starting their creamery, their sheep's milk cheeses were beginning to attract attention in Portland and customers were flocking to their booths at local farmers markets. This is the story of their evolution from those beginnings.

Kathy and Paul Obringer were ready to take the next step. It was 2009, and the lease was up on the farm they had rented in Scio, where they had established their tiny Ancient Heritage Dairy, producing sheep and cow's milk cheeses from their own animals. With recipes Kathy had developed based on the bloomy rind Chaource cheese of France, and with romantic names like Valentine, Adelle and Hannah, the couple felt they were at the point where they could move beyond their mom-and-pop roots and evolve into a small business.

Some of the creamery's flock.

The elderly owner of the property, while interested in selling it, was asking $100,000 over market value. Paul was getting fed up with the toll that the wet Willamette Valley weather was taking on the his sheep, the muddy pastures making it hard to keep them clean and healthy. Plus there was the yearly chore of lambing on damp, cold winter's nights that were hard on the ewes and their fragile newborns, not to mention the Obringers themselves, who had to go out at all hours to bring them into the shelter of the barn.

Neil (left) and Hank (right).

Paul said they were in the truck one day looking at property when Hank, his then teenage son who had been Kathy's assistant cheese maker since he was a boy of 12, suggested looking in Central Oregon.

"It was Hank's idea, he said it," Paul recalled. "I'd never said it because (although) I knew I liked it, I thought it was too much of a stretch for them. But then Hank said, 'Let's try it.' and Kathy said, 'Let's do it.' And I said, 'Great!' "

Willow, an aged cheese.

Soon after that they found 84 acres available outside of Madras, 65 of them irrigated, That would provide the ideal dry climate for raising the sheep and growing the alfalfa to feed them. With Kathy's name on the contract, because she was a woman business owner, they easily qualified for a Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan.

Kathy's blue apron hangs in the creamery.

At the same time, they'd met Tony Arnerich, a former Portland restaurateur-turned-investment advisor, who was looking to invest in what he felt was the emerging artisan food culture of Oregon. Tony's son Nick, who was working at Thomas Keller's famed French Laundry in California's Napa Valley, had mentioned a cheese from a Portland creamery that the restaurant was serving.

"When he called that was the connection," Arnerich said, and he immediately went to the farmers' market to try it.

"I've been a food person all my life," he said. "And this guy made world-class cheese. Period."

Shortly after that, he and Paul began talking about Tony's firm, Arnerich Massena, providing expansion capital for the move to the new property.

Read the rest of the article here.

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