Living in a mega-tropolis means those moments of food disassociation are daily occurrences (do you know the name of your coffee bean farmer?), other than perhaps Farmers Market days when you can actually get to know the man behind those perfectly groomed romanescos. But occasionally, you have one of those surreal coffee bean moments. Like say, meeting D.J. Mitchell, the owner of Jackrabbit Ranch Cheese, a tiny cheese company in Southern Utah, in the conference room of a Los Angeles office park building.
The 51-year-old cheesemaker and his wife, Suellen, lived in L.A. for more than 25 years (She grew up in Venice Beach, he moved here from New Hampshire when he was 19 years old). In 2004, the Mitchells bought a 20 acre ranch in Paragonah, Utah. The corporate conference room connection? D.J., a soft-spoken accountant, still makes the 450+ mile drive to L.A. twice a month for freelance gigs, touting precious cargo — he hands out their cheeses to friends and colleagues for tasting feedback. “I reserved the conference room for us,” he said, laying a handful of cheeses onto a formal mahogany-stained table that we suspect was not often used as a cheese board. Sure, why not?
Turn the page for our first part of our interview with the man who makes some of the most heartfelt, almost yogurt-creamy chevre we've tasted recently. And yes, Mitchell really did perform “mouth to nose resuscitation.” This is a man who loves his goats. And cheese.
Squid Ink: Why did you leave L.A.?
D.J. Mitchell: Well, it has gotten so packed here. So many people. The only traffic in Utah is a herd of cattle crossing the road.
Squid Ink: Ha. Any reason, other than cattle crossings, you chose Utah specifically? There are so many states with those quiet ranch/farmland nooks.
DJM: Well, we had looked at Central California, San Luis Obispo, and we just drove into Cedar City one day and fell in love with the mountains. We knew we had to be there.
SI: Was cheesemaking something you always wanted to get into?
DJM: [Smiles] Well, no. But cheese is much more artistic than accounting. We bought 20 acres in the middle of nowhere, really. It was gorgeous, with our nearest neighbor ¾ of a mile away. But after that that first winter, when the snow melted, we found out our soil was terrible. And we thought, “What are we going to do?” I had a goat growing up, so did my wife. I have a friend who has cattle. Goats are much friendlier than cattle, who just seem to sit there.
SI: Sure, why not buy some goats.
DJM: Now we have 17 goats, all Alpines and Oberhasli (a Swiss dairy breed). We are about to get into the busy birthing season – we believe we have 12 who are pregnant, but we haven't done the pregnancy test. We will just wait and see.
SI: Like most dairy farmers, you probably keep just the females?
DJM: Well right now, we have one male. This year we will be selling a lot of goats, but it depends. But yes, we sell the males. They make great horse companions.
SI: Horse companions?
DJM: Yes, horses like to have companions. Usually other horses, but a second horse is expensive, so people buy goats instead for their horses.
SI: They're pretty good companions for people, too.
DJM: Oh yes. We love our goats. They have such distinct personalities. My wife and I don't have children, they are like our children. We had one goat who died after a particularly difficult pregnancy. [Pauses, his eyes teary.]
Her name was Wind, our second goat. She was very special to us. We lost two of her kids, but one, Briza, survived. It means “wind” in Spanish. I literally gave Briza mouth-to-nose resuscitation to save her. We got her to nurse off another goat, which is difficult. And the most amazing thing happened recently. She moved up the milking pecking order, our little orphan, so now she's up near #1 in the heard.
SI: There is a milking pecking order?
DJM: Very much so. Goats will ram heads if someone gets out of order. There is a #1 goat and then you move down the line, milking in the order they want you to milk them. Some of the females have strong personalities, others do not. My wife, she is in charge of the goats, she really tends to them. I take care of the cheesemaking, but we both spend a lot of time with them.
SI: Had you ever made cheese before? Seems like something you don't just fall into one day on a whim.
SI: Which basically means, you figured it out yourself.
DJM: Yes. And I visited a lot of cheesemakers in New England, where I'm from — New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine. But there are two kinds of cheesemakers: Those who are helpful, and those who like to keep their “secrets” to themselves. You of course need to find the former.
Check back later for more with D.J. Mitchell, including pictures of his back-seat stash that will make you wish you were on the receiving end of his friends-and-family-only L.A. cheese plan — a legal requirement, as JackRabbit isn't set up for retail sales here yet. The rest of us can buy it online.