The proprietor of Mecox Bay Dairy on “slow food,” farmer’s markets and leaving potatoes behind
It’s a beautiful property here, how big is it?
The whole farm is roughly just under 100 acres
How many cows are there here on the property?
Â I’m milking 10 right now, we’ve got about a dozen or so that are of lactating age. Then in total from babies to full grown there is about 27. I am the only cow dairy left on the island. There are some goats and there are some cows, but I am the only operating cow dairy.
How long has your family had the farm?
It’s a family farm –I grew up on the farm – I grew up in this house actually. This house was built by my great grandfather in the 1870’s and we used to grow potatoes. Back when I was growing up my dad had cows and potatoes and around the 1960’s is when he got rid of the cows and went with potatoes, which is where we stayed until 2001. And that was my brother and me, in 2001 we decided to separate our businesses. So he does the corn maze, the farm stand and the vegetables, and I do the cow farm, the cheese and the dairy.
So you have two sons, Peter and John, do they help out around the farm as well?
Yes they are both in college now but they have been helpful, they help me a lot during the summertime. My oldest one is going to graduate this year, but he actually wants to come back and farm. That’s Peter, my oldest. And John my youngest is a sophomore in college.
Could you tell me about the different kinds of cheese?
I’m actually making five different types of cheese. There are a couple different reasons why I’m doing that – it’s kind of a lot for 10 cows, but it enables me to sell more cheese locally, it saves on transportation. I am selling 80 percent or more or better of my production within a 15 mile radius from here. The five different cheeses are really five different styles of cheeses. It goes from the camembert, that’s the Atlantic Mist, which is similar to a brie and a camembert. And then I have a washed rind cheese which is a type of tomme. And the washed rind means that instead of having the opportunistic molds grow on the surface and create the rind of the cheese, I wash it with salt and water and that allows a bacteria to grow on the surface. That bacteria is what gives it its flavor, it makes it a strong pungent flavored cheese so when you think of stinky cheese, you are thinking of a style of cheese that is a washed rind. And that one is called Mecox Sunrise. I have another tomme, which is a natural rind tomme, it is really almost the same as the washed rind, but it’s a natural rind, where I let the opportunistic molds grow on the surface. And they create the rind. So that’s the third type. I make a cheddar which is the fourth type and I make a gruyere, which is another type, that is what may be called an alpine style of cheese so its typically aged. I had some this year that were aged a year and a half. It just really adds character to cheese, and it was really popular. So it’s a very firm cheese and it will age for a very long time and it improves over time.
What was your inspiration to switch from potatoes to dairy?
Well let’s see, I always liked cows, ever since I was a kid and I used to work on the farm here when we had cows. I never expected to get into having cows. But when my brother and I were into raising potatoes, we were just thinking that, here we are, growing a commercial crop, that we are really selling off the island and we are competing with the whole Northeast in potato production. When you are producing a crop, the main goal is to have a low cost production, so you produce as much as you can for as little as you can and try to sell it for as much as you can. Which is difficult. We are then selling to a broker, who then sells it to a wholesaler, who then sells to a retailer, who then sells to a consumer. We are so far removed from the consumer that the product actually loses its identity before it gets to the consumer. We thought in this area, what’s the point? Is there something better we could or should be doing? And mainly because we have such a long growing season and we have such excellent soils to produce these things, and we really have a market at our back door because of the people here and the proximity to New York City, we just thought that potatoes were not the best we could do. The other thing was that growing the potatoes – we didn’t have enough land of our own so we had to rent land from other people and that was becoming a scarce resource. We’d lose a little bit each year, and we thought if our kids really wanted to farm – the next generation, would potatoes be a viable thing in the future? So we said let’s make a change. And we both had these ideas of our own that we wanted to pursue and remember thinking that at that time we might be a lot better off doing it than ten years later. To put it in a nut shell – I like to say that when somebody is visiting the farm and the question they ask is why are you growing potatoes? And the answer is – because we always have – that is not sufficient, that’s not a good answer so I decided to change it.
So now what’s your answer for visitors to your dairy farm?
Aside from the initial answer of having lost all of my senses and totally gone off the deep end, I find it challenging, rewarding – not necessarily financially but it is rewarding to produce something and be able to sell it directly to the person who is going to eat it, and have them comment on it. Most of the comments are very favorable, and that is about as rewarding an instance a farmer could ever get. That is the short answer. The other thing is that it is the part of the challenge to create something that is sustainable, so we are experimenting with a system where I can utilize the waste products. I’ve got the manure from the cows; I can stock pile and make fertilizer to use on the land. I have pigs I am feeding the whey that I would normally throw out.Â It’s all a matter of producing the best quality food that is possible; this is something that people are interested in now. So I want to be a part of the desired element.
There does seem to be a greater interest in buying locally, and using organic products and because of that the farmer’s markets are doing very well. I know you are a part of the Sag Harbor Farmer’s Market, can you tell me how you got involved in that?
Brian Halweil initially started that, he had the vision of a farmers market, he came out and visited. He was testing the waters, and I think that first year he asked me and I said sure. It went on again the next year and I would say in the last two years it has really taken off. That’s a very positive development.Â Since then, there is now a farmer’s market in East Hampton, which I just started this year, and I like doing that, but I can’t be in two places at one time. And my time is needed here. So I figure one market is all I can do in a week. This summer, since I have two sons that came home, I said John you are going to East Hampton and Peter you are going to Westhampton Beach.Â
What kind of sales do you get from the Sag Harbor Farmer’s Market if you could put a percentage on it?
I would say 15 percent. I’m guessing that it’s not as much as 20 but its more than 10. It’s really a good thing. It satisfies many purposes. One is, well, I enjoy doing it. I enjoy the interaction. The people that are buying at the farmers market like that because they are getting that same interaction from the people who are producing the food and the vendor can sell for a retail price rather than a wholesale price. And you can spend a little more time, and you are getting more for your time so that really makes it a positive.
So how is your production split up? Where does the bulk of your cheese go?
Year-round I’ve got some shops; Schiavoni’s IGA, Cavaniolas Gourmet Cheese Shop, and then in Bridgehampton I have Bobs Village Market, Lucy’s Way, in East Hampton, she just opened. Then Citarella in East Hampton is taking some cheese.Â And then in Southampton I have The Village Cheese Shop and they also have a shop in Mattituck. So that’s what I do year-round. In the summertime I have the farm stands, Sang Lee on the North Fork, the Green Thumb, Country Market on Millstone Road and my brother has a farm stand here, and he sells an awful lot of my cheese here. He probably sells another 15 percent right there. And then I have a few shops in New York, so really restaurants are not a big item. But the Maidstone Arms gets it, the American Hotel gets its, and Atlantica, but they all buy it from time to time, they are not regular. And a lot of restaurants might get my cheese from the cheese shops but I wouldn’t even know it.
Can you elaborate on what the slow food movement means to you?
Slow food is part of the whole movement of getting people interested in where their food is coming from and the nutritional value of what they are eating. Slow food is an organization that is getting people familiar with this sort of this thing.