A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Ed-Mar Dairy Farm makes artisanal cheeses thanks to quality milk, hard work and happy cows

Rachel, Eddie and Maggie have their favorite cheeses. (Photo by Anthony Wyatt)

Rachel, Eddie and Maggie have their favorite cheeses. (Photo by Anthony Wyatt)

By Anthony Wyatt
NKyTribune reporter

A commitment to quality lies at the heart of Ed-Mar Dairy Farm. Whether producing award winning milk or crafting unique artisanal cheeses, Ed-Mar keeps production small while always striving for the highest standards.

The dairy consists of around 50 Holstein cows that spend their days lounging around the barn, eating corn and clover grown on the farm and getting milked. Owner and fourth generation dairy farmer Eddie Gibson moved Ed-Mar – named for Eddie and his wife Marcy – to its current location in Walton in 2006. Since then, although the cows continue to enjoy the same high-quality lifestyle, so much else has changed.

One major upgrade the farm has recently seen is Pearl. Named for Marcy’s grandmother, this state-of-the-art milking machine has revolutionized the daily routine of the dairy. Before becoming the first farm in Kentucky to have this style of milking robot, Eddie did things the old-fashioned way. He attached conventional milkers to each cow twice a day, with only occasional part-time help. Unsurprisingly, this was a labor-intensive job, and it required Eddie to work long hours day in and day out.

Cheese sampler

Cheese sampler (Photo by Sean Proney

About two years ago, Eddie purchased Pearl from a dairy equipment dealer in Lebanon, Ohio. Beyond saving Eddie hours of work each day, the robot comes with many additional benefits, both for the farm and for the cows.

What really sets Pearl apart from other milking machines is that the cows decide when they want to be milked. Each cow has a collar with a tag on it, which Pearl recognizes. When the cow comes, she snacks on feed while Pearl goes to work. According to Eddie, “The feed is like dessert to them. That’s really why they come, they want to eat.”

Pearl cleans and preps the cow and then starts milking. The collar tags allow Pearl to remember each cow, the amount of feed she needs and the exact location and size of her udder and teats.

“Cows like things to be consistent,” Eddie said, “so they really like that Pearl milks them the same way each time.” Pearl is ready for the cows, day or night, whenever they want to be milked, and right now, it runs about 17 hours a day.

On average, each cow gets milked three times daily, which has led to a 20% increase in production. Although the extra milking means each cow needs to consume a substantially higher amount of food, the greater yields are more than worth it.

According to Eddie, however, Pearl benefits the farm most by saving time. Now, Eddie can play a managing role, spending more time with the herd and ensuring that the machine always works at its best.

Once Pearl does its job, the milk goes into a storage tank in an adjacent building where it sits and cools. Each day, the dairy produces around 500 gallons of milk. Right now, most of Ed-Mar’s milk goes to a Kroger co-op facility in Winchester to be made into milk for their grocery stores.

Pearl at work  (Photo by Anthony Wyatt)

Pearl at work (Photo by Anthony Wyatt)

Despite the efficiency and predictability of the system, being a milk producer brings a host of challenges for small farmers like Eddie. With most of America’s milk coming from dairies with hundreds to thousands of cows, the overhead for small, local farms is steeply on the rise. And, even though Ed-Mar has won multiple awards for milk quality from the Dairy Farmers of America, their milk gets mixed with every other supplier, making all of their hard work both indistinguishable in the finished product and subject to the prices the co-op is willing to pay.

Cheese production

Eddie desired more than this, however, and he wanted to keep his dairy local and small-scale while making it profitable. So about three years ago, Eddie delved into cheese making.

Eddie was connected with Patrick Kennedy of Cloverdale Creamery, a cheese maker in Taylorsville. Patrick loved making cheese and Eddie wanted to turn his milk into cheese. It was a perfect partnership.

Moreover, Ed-Mar doesn’t pasteurize its milk. Since the milk truck from the co-op comes every other day, they only need to chill their milk on-site; the processing plant takes care of the rest. This works out great for Patrick, though, because his passion is raw milk cheese.

Raw milk cheese differs from cheese made from pasteurized milk, also known as fresh or soft cheese, in a number of ways. Since pasteurization purges milk of bacteria, it can be made into cheeses for immediate consumption. Soft fresh cheeses include mozzarella, cottage cheese and cheese curds. Additionally, most large-scale manufactures in the U.S. produce fresh cheeses like American and Jack.

The barn at Ed-Mar Diary Farm (Photo by Anthony Wyatt)

The barn at Ed-Mar Diary Farm (Photo by Anthony Wyatt)

The more traditional raw milk cheeses must be aged for a minimum of 60 days before they are ready. As a result, making them requires much more hands-on work, and they must be made in smaller quantities. Cheese makers cut the curds in a certain way at precise intervals while the whey settles, wheels of cheese are stored at exact temperatures for a specific number of days and some cheeses require turning and rind washing as they age.

Although it takes more time, aged raw milk cheeses have more intense flavors than their fresh counterparts, and they are the mainstays of cheese boards everywhere.

Something that sets their cheese apart is that Patrick produces English style cheeses uncommon for the area. Although these old-world recipes may be recognizable to connoisseurs and more traditional Wisconsin and European cheese makers, they are virtually unheard of around the Tri-State.

“They’re not something that’s generally on the market,” Maggie, cheese production manager, explained. “It’s not the Cheddar and it’s not the Gouda or the Jack that’s common in the Midwest.”

Ed-Mar Dairy Farm currently produces five different styles of cheese. Their flagship flavor is Maddie’s Gold, a Double Gloucester-style hard cheese named after Eddie and Marcy’s daughter. They also have three cheeses made in the Cotswold style: Banklick Cream, Banklick Pub and Garden Herb. The Banklick Cream, a creamier and more subtle-flavored cheese, provides the base for the Pub, which includes chives and onions, and the Garden Herb, which includes rosemary, thyme, basil and other seasonings. Finally, Ed-Mar makes an American-style Kenton County Colby for the less adventurous palate.

Currently, the dairy uses one day’s worth of milk for cheese a month, with milk from the other days going to the co-op. Ed-Mar hopes to phase out milk production to the co-op and move towards solely focusing on their cheese.

“I hope to make it 29 or 30 days a month for cheese,” Eddie said, “and only one day for the co-op.”

They also hope to expand their selection by including more varieties of cheeses.

Becoming a locavore favorite

The newest member to the team, marketing manager Rachel Wade, has helped jumpstart Ed-Mar’s fame in the area.

Made in small batches from high quality, locally produced milk, Ed-Mar cheese is quintessentially artisanal. As a result, they have found a great market for their product at local restaurants, especially those focusing on farm-to-table cuisine.

Metropole in Cincinnati, Greyhound Tavern in Fort Mitchell and Bouquet in Covington all feature Ed-Mar cheese in their restaurants. Additionally, Ed-Mar cheeses can be found at Jungle Jim’s, Brook’s Meats, Brianza Gardens and Winery, Butcher Betties at Friendly Market and The Gruff, among others.

As word about their cheese spreads throughout the area and more restaurants and stores use and carry their products, Ed-Mar’s future looks bright. While they are committed to remaining a small-scale dairy farm with no more than 50 cows, they hope to expand cheese production and begin doing more of the work on-site.

The most immediate goal of the farm is to begin aging their cheese in an on-site cheese cave. Not only will this help cut transportation and storage costs and allow them to keep better track of their inventory and ship products quicker, but it will also give then the chance to get more experience with the cheese-making process. All three avid lovers of cheese have seen Patrick at work and want to be more involved in the art and science of crafting the perfect aged cheese.

Having an in-house aging facility also makes Ed-Mar more attractive to visitors. The dairy currently has its cheese for sale at the farm on Saturdays. Having more of the cheese production on-site will hopefully bring more visitors to the farm and allow buyers to see the craftsmanship that goes into making the cheeses they enjoy.

Maddie's gold cheese (Photo provided)

Maddie’s gold cheese (Photo by Sean Pronay)

Ed-Mar also promotes their cheese by participating in local events and festivals. Next February, for instance, they plan to take part in Jungle Jim’s annual cheese festival, and they hope to begin hosting weekend brunch events at the farm.

By far the most important way that Ed-Mar gains notoriety is through participation in the Kenton County Farm Tour. Ed-Mar has been one of the most visited locations on the tour, with over 1,500 people coming to see the dairy, sample the cheese and take hayrides. Other local vendors set up tables at Ed-Mar for the tour, including Ryan Raised Farm and Sun Sugar Farms.

This year’s tour will be held on September 17.

With demand increasing for their cheese and with their name becoming more recognizable in the area, Ed-Mar Dairy Farm hopes to continue to grow their cheese production and become a mainstay in the local farm-to-table food movement. And, with their commitment to artisanal craftsmanship and small-scale production, Ed-Mar will continue to value high quality and local production above all else, always remaining Kentucky Proud.

To find out more about Ed-Mar cheese or to order cheese, visit their website or Facebook page

For more information on the Kenton County Farm Tour, check out their Facebook page.

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