Monterey — For 36 years, cheese lovers and partisans of locally sourced food have bought, eaten, enjoyed and celebrated the goat cheese (“chevre” for you purists) made by Susan Sellew at Rawson Brook Farm, nestled in the woods of Monterey. Years ago, when my husband and I decided to buy a second home, we did so in Monterey. Even before we moved in, we had been told how lucky we were to have bought a house in a town that boasted this scenic goat farm that made “incredible” goat cheese.
Our first grandchild, Tali, was then a preschool New Yorker. On her first visit to Monterey, like dozens or probably hundreds of grandparents who live in or visit the Berkshires, we went to Rawson Brook. For Tali it was love at first sight. Once there, it became increasingly difficult to tear her away so we could do things other than look at the goats. Not that we didn’t appreciate them! But, you know, there are a lot of other attractions in the Berkshires. But for her, nothing came even close to Rawson Brook.
That was years ago, and like Tali, now a college graduate with a good job, Sellew, too, has aged. About to turn 70, she is beginning to downsize, a word typically portending something unpleasant. In this case it means that Sellew has sold off a bunch of goats, leaving her with only 20 milkers. Instead of milking twice a day, she is now down to once a day. The result is that she will be making cheese just twice a week instead of every other day that has been her schedule for years. That means that her production will total 175 pounds each week, compared to the 350-550 pounds she made previously.
With these changes, Sellew will have to sell as much chevre as she can at a retail price. “That means I’ll sell it primarily here at the farm and at the Saturday morning Great Barrington Farmers’ Market. It’s also available at the local Big Y.”
As we talked, Sellew reminisced about learning to make goat cheese from a French woman from Montreal when she and her then-husband lived on a farm in northern New York state. She noted that the area in which they lived then was the poorest area in New York, “even poorer than Harlem.” Realizing that marketing chevre in such an area was unthinkable, the couple moved back to the Berkshires because they knew that the cultural climate here was influenced by New Yorkers, to whom chevre would appeal. Sellew’s family had land in Monterey, which the couple cleared in 83 days. They then spent four years building the barns.
The goats at Rawson Brook are French and American Alpines. Sellew buys two high-end genetic bucks (male goats) every four or five years. She keeps the daughters for future use. The flock expanded quickly to 25 milkers, but that was not enough for them to break even. They realized that they needed 50 to make an income without having outside jobs, so they added on to the barn. “But the barn’s always been crowded,” said Sellew. Over the years, when she needed more goats, she always bought those related to their originals from Maine.
For the last 20 years, Sellew has been running the farm alone. Until recently she had seven or eight part-time workers, but now she is down to two. Her workday begins at 5:30 a.m. and ends by 8 p.m., seven days a week, from March through December. (That might help you understand her decision to retire.)
As their business began to grow and they no longer needed other jobs, the couple made 450 pounds of chevre each week. They sold 5-pound tubs to local restaurants and delis. “Our cheese sold itself, really,” said Sellew. “There were times when people called us, and we had to turn them down because we just didn’t make enough.”
Rawson Brook’s business began when goat cheese was all but unknown in the United States. To sell their new product, the couple got the Yellow Pages from out-of-town phonebooks, and began to send samples to commercial prospects in New York and Boston. When her cheese business was at its peak, Sellew sold to about 40 outlets. “We sell to fewer now,” she said, “and now everything is retail.”
Like probably most other people, I am not happy when something I cherish ceases to exist. Rawson Brook Chevre will be with us for a while, but not forever. Yes, it’s true that there are many other cheeses to buy, eat and savor. But Rawson Brook Chevre—its setting, its product, its owner—is unique. Let’s enjoy it while we can and remember it with pleasure.