The goats of Rawson Brook Farm. Watercolor by Carolyn Newberger

The curious life of Rawson Brook Farm’s Susan Sellew

Today, Rawson Brook Farm can lay claim to being the oldest continuously operating commercial cheesemaking farm in Berkshire County.

I’ve known Susan for about 10 years since I began ordering cheese for local retailers. We often spent time chatting about a whole range of topics other than my order during our phone calls. We’d careen all over the place in our conversations, often finding commonality as we’re about the same age. The more I got to know her, the more I became intrigued by how the bits of information I’d gleaned from our 10-year running dialogue could come together into a story I could share.

Susan Sellew. Photo: Bob Luhmann

Having the relationship we have, the first question I had when I sat down with her for this story was, “So, what makes you so fascinating?”

Susan laughed, but replied emphatically, “My sense of curiosity.”

Before I get into her chronological story, Susan has consistently told me she’s never thought of herself as fascinating; in fact, she considers herself quite dull. So I loved her direct answer to my semi-wise-guy question. I’ve always found Susan to be exceedingly bright, without pretense, with an aesthetically creative, entirely honest approach to life and, yes, fascinating. Her driving forces throughout have been conservation and independence.

Susan’s Monterey Chèvre is legendary in Berkshire County and beyond. Her cheese has won seven first- or second-place awards from the prestigious American Cheese Society. It’s the most elegant fresh chèvre I’ve tasted, characterized by its lush creaminess and subtle lemony tang with none of the gaminess sometimes associated with goat cheese.

Susan’s interest in cheesemaking began in Boulder, Colorado, as a student enrolled at Antioch College as an art education major in the late 1960s. Antioch has a long tradition of experiential learning, including having the students develop their own work/study programs. Her curiosity led her to choose the back-to-the-land movement, just beginning to blossom at the time. She began researching the topic, which led her to a book on raising goats. She became enthralled with them and that book would become one of her bibles in her pursuit of living self-reliantly.

As I got to know Susan and spent some time around her goats, I came to understand why she was attracted to them. She and her goats share a naturally sweet disposition with an abundance of energy, curiosity and independence.

After getting married and a brief stop in Maine where she and her husband, Wayne, purchased their first goats, they bought a 260-acre farm with a house and two barns for $18,000 in St. Lawrence County, New York, close to the Canadian border and about 30 miles from the St. Lawrence Seaway.

They raised as much food as possible in that far northern region for the seven or eight years they lived there. They became obsessed with raising their own food and purchasing as little as possible. One of their ultimate goals, which they were able to achieve one year, was their quest to make the completely homemade BLT. They raised a pig for the bacon, grew the tomatoes and lettuce and even grew the wheat for the bread. On the purchasing side, one year they were able to limit their market spending to $200. Susan made sure I knew that included the impossible-to-raise toilet paper. It’s especially astonishing they were able to satisfy so many of their food needs purchasing as little as they did in an area as far north with its short growing season.

While in northern New York, Susan met a French woman from Montreal who was giving a tutorial on making fresh chèvre. Previously, Susan had been experimenting with making fresh chèvre but with uneven results. After attending, she put to practice what she’d learned and was able to make an excellent fresh chèvre consistently. With this accomplishment, she became convinced her calling was to become a cheesemaker.

Goats at Rawson Brook Farm. Photo: Bob Luhmann

At this point, Susan and her husband were still on their farm in New York before the relatively sophisticated networks of distribution were realized for small-farm-to-table foods we enjoy now. The area in which they had their farm was one of the poorest in all of New York, making it difficult to succeed as a business, especially for a product with which so many in this country were unfamiliar. Luckily for us, Susan was raised in New Marlborough and bet Berkshire County as a growing destination for people from East Coast urban centers would provide a far superior market for her cheese.

Her family had 120 acres in Monterey on which the farm sits today. The land, however, was completely wooded except where it was swampland. She and her husband picked out a spot suitable for farming and began clearing with chainsaws. Continuing with their back-to-the-land lifestyle, all the lumber used for the farm buildings was from the trees they’d cleared.

It wasn’t long before they began selling their vegetables from a stand they had set up on the farm. Soon thereafter Susan began making her fresh chèvre in her home kitchen. At first, she sold her cheese out of their home refrigerator on a self-serve basis. It became increasingly disconcerting, however, when she would come back to her house after working in the gardens and find a stranger sitting on her couch. Finally, ever a conservationist, Susan had turned off all the pilots on her stove so as not to unnecessarily use propane. One day someone’s child turned on all the burners and when Susan entered the house it was filled with propane gas. That incident was the final straw and put an end to self-service out of her kitchen.

Chèvre was not widely accepted in the United States in the early 1980s, so when offering samples in those early days, Susan would ask sweetly, “Would you like to try the cheese I made?” and wait for customers to swallow completely before telling them it was made from goat milk. It’s hard to believe today but, she found, many times people would gag if they were told it was goat cheese before they swallowed completely.

In 1983, their farm became licensed for commercial cheese production and they began selling to local restaurants and stores. Today, Rawson Brook Farm can lay claim to being the oldest continuously operating commercial cheesemaking farm in Berkshire County.

The cheesemaking room is surprisingly small, at 15 feet by 15 feet, for an operation that produced 550 pounds of cheese per week at peak capacity from a herd of 50 goats. The milking room, also 15 feet by 15 feet, contains an ingenious Rube Goldberg-like milking station. The goats battle for position to be first on a three-station carousel outfitted with World War II helmets from which the goats feed while milking takes place by a milking machine. (Wayne had bought the helmets for 25 cents each from Fort Drum while they’d been living in New York.)

Thanks to the quality of her cheese and Americans’ growing demand for what were considered European-style foods, her bet on Monterey was the correct one and the business began to grow dramatically. They moved beyond selling their cheese to local accounts and began shipping to places such as Zabar’s and Bread and Circus, later becoming Whole Foods in Boston. In addition to their plain chèvre, they developed two flavors: chives and garlic, and thyme and olive oil.

Goats in the milking room at Rawson Brook Farm. Photo: Bob Luhmann

In 1999 Susan’s husband left the marriage, but Susan continued running the farm herself even as the business continued to prosper. Her business grew to the point where, at times during the year, her production couldn’t keep up with demand from her regular accounts and she had to limit how much she sold to whom.

Today, Susan continues to serve as cheesemaker, herdswoman, veterinarian, accountant, saleswoman and repairwoman, still working 12-hour days, seven days a week. Beginning several years ago, Susan started taking two weeks off when her goats are pregnant and not producing milk during that 10-week period between the months of January and March. Her vacation has been spent at the same small condo with a view of the ocean on Sanibel Island in Florida, where she always makes the local library her first stop and then does little else other than read and sleep.

While talking with Susan during one of my visits last year, we sat on hay bales in her open barn with an adjoining penned area so that she could keep an eye on her pregnant goat, Ethel. A few hours after our visit ended, Susan assisted Ethel with the birth of twins, Eddie White and Eddie Brown. Susan names all her goats and treats them more as partners than as domesticated animals. As Ethel was beginning to go into labor, Susan commented, “Ethel may seem to be looking at us, but she’s actually looking inward.”

Susan spent a good amount of time looking inward herself before deciding that last year would be the year she would change lifestyle. She cut her herd in half, stopped milking twice a day, and began milking once a day while making cheese twice a week rather than every other day.

Cheese production has decreased to about 200 pounds a week, which required Susan to reevaluate her distribution. For simplicity’s sake, she initially chose to limit her sales to the self-serve refrigerator located in her milking room and the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market. Any excess was sold by the Big Y market in Great Barrington. There’s no planned change in availability from mid-March until the beginning of January; however, with the advent of the coronavirus, she no longer participates in the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market.

Also with the advent of the coronavirus, she now sells her cheese from a refrigerated unit located in front of her farm as, unfortunately, she’s no longer able to allow visitors into the production area of her farm. Her cheese is now available from a few farmstead markets of fellow farmers with whom she’s begun partnering. Those markets are North Plain Farm in Great Barrington; Mill River Farm in Mill River; The Farm New Marlborough and Off the Shelf Farm, both in New Marlborough. In addition to these farmstead markets, her cheese can still be found at the Great Barrington Big Y. As a testament to the popularity of her cheese, she sells her approximately 200 pounds of cheese each week this way.

I can testify as a cheesemonger at Guido’s in Pittsfield to the severe consternation devotees of her cheese expressed when they discovered her cheese was no longer available there. Hopefully this story listing where her cheese is available will aid with withdrawal symptoms and will allow for recovery. I can also testify that for connoisseurs of her cheese, which includes everyone from toddlers to elderly cheese lovers, the best time to buy her cheese is the year’s first batches sometime in late March when the milk has a higher butterfat content until the kids are weaned. Finally, her cheese freezes quite well. I recommend freezing the containers upside down to help seal the container.

When Susan decided to change the lifestyle for her and her goats, she approached it with the same independence and curiosity with which she’s approached everything in her life. Her French and American Alpine goats are a large sturdy breed that produces a great deal of milk. While pondering her lifestyle change, she wondered whether her goats would adapt to being milked only once a day. She asked the opinion of several other breeders and they were very skeptical.

Happily, Susan and her goats have been able to make it work. In fact, the goats adapted more quickly than Susan, as she initially found it strange not preparing for the afternoon milking. When I asked her about her future, she replied her plan was “to continue operating this way until it doesn’t work any longer.” Sounds like a plan to me.

Bruschetta two ways with Monterey Chevre. Photo: Bob Luhmann

Bruschetta two ways with Monterey Chevre

I like to end my stories with a recipe. In the case of Susan’s cheese, grabbing a spoon and simply eating it straight from the container is as much as you may need or want to do, but I like serving it this way, especially for guests (whenever we can start having them again). Although no cheese compares to Monterey Chèvre for devotees like me, you can substitute another excellent quality fresh chèvre. I can also suggest using ricotta from Four Fat Fowl in Stephentown, New York. It’s local and an excellent fresh creamy cow’s milk cheese.

Ingredients:

8 slices ciabatta or baguette sliced on the diagonal, about ½ inch thick. Berkshire Mountain Bakery bread is recommended.

  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 plum tomatoes cut in half lengthwise, cores and seeds removed
  • Salt (preferably Maldon salt) and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 cup diced strawberries
  • 1/4 cup good quality balsamic vinegar
  • 7 oz. Monterey Chevre, plain, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup chiffonade of basil leaves
  • Additional basil sprigs for garnish

Method

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Mix the olive oil and garlic. Place the bread and tomato slices on a parchment paper-lined sheet pan. Lightly brush both sides of the bread and the top of the tomato slices with the olive oil and garlic mixture. Place the pan on the middle rack of the preheated oven. After five minutes, remove the pan and turn the bread slices. After five more minutes, remove the toasted bread from the pan. If preparing in advance, cover the toasted bread with plastic wrap after cooling to avoid becoming too dry. Place the pan back in the oven for 20-25 more minutes or until the tomato slices begin to caramelize. Season the tomatoes with salt and pepper. Approximately 20 minutes before assembling, reduce balsamic vinegar by half and allow to cool five minutes. Working with room-temperature cheese that has been stirred to soften, spread the cheese on the toasted bread slices. Combine the diced strawberries and reduced balsamic vinegar. Place the roasted tomato slices on half the toasted bread and the diced strawberry and balsamic vinegar mixture on the other half. Place the bruschetta on a serving platter and cover until ready to serve. When ready to serve, remove the wrap and sprinkle all the bruschetta with the chiffonade of basil and garnish with reserved basil sprigs.