Monterey — Berkshire County is famed for its beautiful scenery, its extensive cultural offerings, and for Rawson Brook goat cheese. No kidding. Twenty years ago, when my husband and I first rented a house in Monterey, we were advised by many New York friends to make sure we visited Rawson Brook Farm, “this amazing goat farm in the middle of nowhere.” Luckily for all concerned, “this amazing goat farm” is still in the middle of nowhere and doing quite nicely, thank you very much.
Susan Sellew and her then-husband Wayne Dunlop opened Rawson Brook farm in 1983. “We were ‘back to the land’ homesteaders in the late 60’s and early 70’s, trying to become self-sufficient,” says Sellew. “We had a lot of goats because I’ve always liked them.”
The couple lived in Macomb, N.Y., along the St. Lawrence Seaway, deeply imbued with the “old McDonald syndrome.” “We had lots of animals, and gardens where you could pick the strawberries. We tried to produce everything we ate,” she says.
While in upstate New York, Sellew met a French woman from Montreal who gave a talk on making goat cheese. “I’ve always been a ‘small business’ person, and since I loved my goats, I got into the goat cheese business.” The couple moved back to Monterey. “There’s no place like home,” she says, and besides that, the Berkshires are halfway between New York and Boston, the region’s two major markets.
When Sellew got into the goat cheese business, it was just becoming popular. “There was Laura Chenel out in California, but that was about it.” But goat cheese — later to be known as “chèvre” as palates become more sophisticated — was not a hard sell. “Its time had come,” she says.
As Sellew was starting her business, she knew she wanted to stay small. “I wanted to have 25 milking goats and sell that amount of cheese. But that didn’t allow me to break even. So we had to quit or get bigger.” Over the years, she doubled her herd to 50 goats, but that was as big as she could go with their physical facilities. “If we got bigger than that, we would have needed an addition. And I would have to be the manager, which is my least favorite part of the job.”
After years of having 50 goats, she’s been downsizing, and today has 39 goats. “We’ve been feeding them differently, so now we get more out of them.” In 1985 they milked 24 goats that yielded 7,500 pounds of cheese. A few years later, in 1991, they were milking 50 goats that yielded 15,500 pounds of cheese. Three years ago, shortly after Sellew began reducing the size of her herd, she was able to make 18,000 pounds of cheese from 41 milking goats. An excellent example of “practice makes perfect” and all that.
Sellew and her staff name their goats. There has been a line of goats with Indian names, including Tali, which is also the name of my granddaughter, who loved to visit her namesake. E.B. White’s writing has yielded a series of goat names, as have queens, shrubs, palette colors, gemstones…and characters Julia Roberts has played in movies. Colorful and winsome.
Sellew produces 400 pounds of chèvre each week during her 40-week season. Goat cheese freezes well, which helps her distribution during low-output times. “Freezing keeps us be able to meet our needs when they’re above what we can produce, or when the goats are producing less milk,” she explains.
Currently, Rawson Brook has enough chèvre in the freezer to sell through February. If you’re curious about the cheese you buy from Rawson Brook, on the bottom of the carton a “200” indicates it has been frozen, thawed out, and repackaged.
Because Sellew has cut back on production, she now sells less chèvre outside of the Berkshires. “We don’t ship out except to Zabar’s,” she says. “Well, to Grill 23 in Boston, too.” Here at home you can buy it at any number of stores, including Guido’s, the Big Y in Great Barrington, and, not surprisingly, the Monterey General Store.
There is no information on the web about Rawson Brook Farm, so visitors have to know something about the cheese or the farm before they arrive. Sellew says it would be dull if people did not stop by (but not with dogs!). “The humble nature of our farm makes people feel comfortable,” she says.
Currently the farm has six part-time workers, and one intern who puts in 40 hours each week. The intern lives in a cabin on the property. Sellew has had interns for years, and finds those who are in their late 20’s or early 30’s are the best candidates.
Cheesemaking is like many other professions — the learning curve is endless. Perhaps that is one reason it is such a pleasing experience. For those who might fret about the future of Rawson Brook, Sellew says firmly, “I love what I do and don’t want to stop doing it” That brought a huge sigh of relief. Really.