by Phil Vogelzang
A Profile in grass farming: Mystery Bay Farm’s Rachael Van Laanen and Scott Brinton
Walking around these 5 acres of rainswept Marrowstone Island as I did recently on a windy March morning, it’s easy to understand why folks around here are so enthusiastic about Mystery Bay Farm’s fresh chevre and ricotta cheeses. Ever since Rachael Van Laanen and Scott Brinton became full time grass farmers and goat milkers here on the island, people have been talking about, and eagerly buying their cheese. It’s not easy starting a small scale dairy operation from scratch but since starting out about 5 years ago, Rachael and Scott have shown that they have what it takes to do it right. Handmande chevre and ricotta made nine months out of the year. Their long waiting list to sell their cheeses at retail shows they’re on the right track. The couple is especially grateful for the independent local investors that they found willing to support and finance their effort. And the cheese? Well, they’ve sold out every bit they’ve been able to produce since that time. With only 12 doe goats “in production” their output is pretty small, especially when compared with other large scale dairy operations. Some would call their cheese production miniscule. But Rachael thinks she’s got it just about right. For her that is.
Like most things in nature, goat milk production naturally goes into decline in the winter. Some producers use special techniques to coax milk from the reluctant does. But it’s tough on the milking herd and for Rachael just not worth it. Given the demands of twice daily milking, she finds quite a bit of relief in the knowledge that her does will “dry up” come November. Female goats or does, experience what’s called “seasonal estrus” which means they’re only fertile in certain times of the year. This usually means around September for Rachael’s animals. “You can milk your goats year round” she says. “But it’s hard on the animals, as their natural rhythm causes them to dry up in winter time. To do otherwise just doesn’t make sense. And it just isn’t viable long term.”
Rachael grew up in Boulder, CO, the daughter of an electrical engineer and computer sciences mom. But her heart was in the garden. And she saw the world through the lens of an ecologist, even before beginning college at University of California at Santa Cruz. After graduating with a degree in ecology, she and her future husband, Scott Brinton, also an ecology major, moved to the Pacific NW about 5 years ago to pursue her passion of pursuing agriculture through ecology. After talking with Rachael about her motivation for making an unusual career choice, it comes down to the fact that current corporate agricultural systems are geared towards one number only – yield. To her, this approach is not viable in the long term and has caused tunnel vision about the whole purpose of agriculture. What is success? How do you define it? Our society currently defines it as ever increasing yields by greater and greater application of fossil fuel based inputs like energy and pesticides. But as Rachael likes to say, “there are consequences to the system that are not viable”. She would rather switch the lens through which we view agriculture to one that defines success in a much more qualitative way. One that focuses on the overall quality and health of the agricultural product. Using parameters that do not overlook the long term viability of the soil and water, but rather enhance and enrich it. This ecological approach seeks to take advantage of the vibrancy and resilience of natural ecological systems and follow the dynamic nature of the ebb and flowof the seasons.
The most obvious and grounded example of what she is trying to do is in the grass and hay they feed their flock. It’s well known that the intrigue and mystique of cheese relates to the uniqueness of the flavor that each cheese holds. This, she says, is the result of the air, soil and grass that the animals live in and consume. And for a dairy based on an island surrounded by the Puget Sound, it’s only natural that the cheese they make has a distinct maritime flavor, one which many of her customers have noted. Grass is also somethinghusband Scott Brinton enjoys talking about. One of the key parametersof goat milk production is maintaining control of the quality and taste of the grass and hay they feeds their animals. With his small 1960’s era hay baler, Scott can affordably bale up hay from many of the smaller hayfields on Marrowstone that the larger volume hay professionals don’t want to bother with. This lets them pick and choose both the type of grass hay and the perfect time to harvest the hay. And it gives them the ultimate control over what their cheese ultimately tastes like. The fact that they bale their hay with old fashioned natural twine, rather than standard polypropylene plastic twine, demonstrates the lengths they’re willing to go to keep focused on “the big picture”.
Rachael understands this isn’t easy stuff to get across. She laments the tendency of traditional agricultural training to “dumb down” ecology and to ignore the many ecological approaches available to farming. “The bright kids were always encouraged to go into something other than farming” she says. As a result, the detailed knowledge needed to run a complex operation like a small scale goat dairy has been lost, or is being lost. She points to other small scale dairies and creameries in Jefferson County as a reason for optimism. These cohorts, she says, are important to gaining that critical mass of knowledge needed to support a viable agricultural economy here. “Producing a food like cheese carries with it a real responsibility” she says. The health of her family, friends and customers depend on it. And she takes this knowledge and responsibility seriously.
These attitudes become clear with a single glance in her milking and dairy facilities. It’s clear an intense and intelligent mind has been at work here. Everything is neatly put in place. The floor is cleaner than an operating room. Everything is scrubbed clean and spotless. Nothing random or left to chance here. One hears about slipshod production methods in small scale operations, but no evidence here. The place looks and smells clean as a whistle.
Mystery Bay currently offers fresh ricotta and chevre cheeses. Their chevre is available rolled with a variety of fresh herbs grown on the farm and also packed in basil infused olive oil with fresh thyme. Their cheeses are sold retail at the Chimacum Corner Farmstand, Nordland General Store, Red Dog Farmstand and the PT Food Co-op. They also sell directly to the public at both the Chimacum and PT Farmers Markets.