When we left off with our characteristically buttoned-up cheesemaker D.J. Mitchell, owner of Jackrabbit Ranch Cheese in Southern Utah, he was opening up after his regular 450+ mile drive to L.A. (he works as a freelance accountant here) about why he and his wife, Suellen, left L.A. for a 20-acre ranch where the nearest neighbor is nearly a mile away. (“The only traffic in Utah is a herd of cattle crossing the road.”) And why, he says, you have not seen a goat scorned until you neglect to milk the “chief” female first. Udder lesson learned.
Actually, learning to make cheese from a book, and those few generous cheesemakers willing to share their secrets, was the easy part. Figuring out the marketing and sales side of the equation has been a difficult hurdle, even for a guy so good with numbers. Turn the page for more.
SI: You were saying you learned to make cheese by experimenting. Does that mean you just made anything and everything?
DJM: Well, I did experiment a lot in order to learn. Like our Caerphilly, a slightly offbeat cheese, was based on a recipe in Margaret Morris' book. We just decided to try it, changed it a little, and it turned out great.
But whatever you make, you need to like it. I won't ever make a cheese that I don't like. There is no point to it. Of course, you have to be practical, too, as you need to be able to sell your cheese, so there is that side to it. The other great thing with experimenting with cheese, is if it didn't turn out the way you expected but still tastes good, you can just call it something else. That's basically what we did with our tomme, the French style blue cheese. We made a mistake but it turned out to taste good, so we just called it something else.
SI: The chocolate chip cookie discovery phenomenon. Since neither you nor your wife come from a cheesemaking background, how did you end up making the cheese, and she would up tending the goats.
DJM: It just sort of worked out that way. Almost like it was a spiritual thing, meant to be. And I'm just better at cheesemaking than she is, she really loves the goats. I also have the technical knowledge. That side appeals to me more, as cheese is very technical, and I have the brawn. We are making 150-gallons at a time in an old vat we bought from a dairy supply shop in Wisconsin. We only have one part time ranch hand, so I end up doing a lot of the heavy lifting.
SI: Real life practicality. Still, it's expensive to get into the cheese business.
DJM: Yes, we were able to save a lot because we opened at the right time, and we could get old stainless fixtures from restaurants going out of business. Utah also has a very strong dairy tradition. But those are cow dairies — we get our milk for our cow's milk cheeses from neighboring dairies. But there aren't very many small cheesemakers here. Our dairy inspector was really at a loss with us because he hadn't inspected anything but large diaries that had different requirements from us, like having to install separate men's and women's restrooms. He basically had to learn the regulations for a small dairy with us.
SI: So how is it, three years in as a pioneer small cheesemaker in the state?
DJM: The trick for me now is figuring out the price. The sales side. I've spent most of my life sitting behind a desk, so I've never done sales. But we've been lucky with our Farmers' Markets in Utah. It's been easier to sell things there, because there is a lot more word of mouth. The bulk of my business comes from face-to-face sales, but now I need to figure out how to sell it other places. You can't charge the same thing where I am and other places, for various reasons.
SI: Like L.A. Or even just a small town versus a slightly larger town. A couple dollars make a big difference.
DJM: That's it. I haven't had to think about marketing or selling people something. There is an honesty in Utah, people hear your story and they just want to try our cheese. That's it. No marketing, no sales pitch.
SI: The way good old fashioned cheese should be.
Jackrabbit Ranch goat and cow's milk cheeses are available directly from the farm online.