About Utah: A cheesy way to save the farm

Published: Sunday, Dec. 1 2013 10:00 p.m. MST

Grant and Russel Kohler stand inside their 2,000-square-foot cheese refrigerator, the "cheese cave."

Lee Benson

MIDWAY, Wasatch County — Two and a half years ago, when Grant Kohler and his son Russel decided to make cheese, the idea was to save their dairy farm, not become legends in their own time.

That’s just the way it’s working out.

This past August, in Madison, Wis., the very heart of dairy land, the Kohlers’ cheeses made like Jennifer Lawrence and stole the awards show. Two of their cheeses, a cheddar called “Cascade Raw” and a Hispanic-style called “Queso Fresco Verde,” won second-place awards in the American Cheese Society’s national competition, and — drum roll please — their Monterey Jack they call “Wasatch Back Jack” was named best in the land.

The competition, held yearly since 1983, attracts specialty and artisan cheesemakers from all corners of the country. This year a record 257 entrants submitted 1,794 products for judging.

Grant and Russ have been wearing wide smiles ever since — but, then, Grant and Russ are always wearing wide smiles, especially now that it appears their grand cheese experiment will allow them to keep on farming.

* * *

This story goes back to 1929, when Albert Kohler, Grant’s grandfather and Russ’s great-grandfather, bought several hundred acres of beautiful, flat, pristine farmland in the northern end of the Heber Valley just west of the Provo River. Ever since, the Kohlers have raised hay, cows and children there, operating a full-fledged family dairy farm. Albert gave way to LeRoy, Grant’s dad, and LeRoy gave way to Grant, and now Russ stands in the succession line, followed by his 2-year-old son Zach.

But over the years, operating a dairy farm became more and more like running a grocery store. Slowly but surely, as the economy rose and milk prices didn’t, the smaller dairies gave way to the big dairies that could produce more efficiently and corner the market.

In his lifetime, Grant — and he’s only 53 — has watched the number of dairy farms in the Heber Valley drop from 130 to three, including his.

If the farm world had an endangered species list, dairies would be on the top line.

The Kohlers watched many of their fellow farmers sell out to developers, but they didn’t want to do that. “Build houses and that’s your last crop,” so goes the farmer logic.

They didn’t want stucco houses next door, they wanted their land. They loved living on it, they loved working it, they loved the way it bonded their family and kept them healthy and gave them a work ethic.

“You don’t farm for the money, you farm because you love it,” says Grant.

After noodling over all sorts of possibilities, he and Russ decided they’d try making cheese, and not just any cheese, but artisan cheese, the really good stuff that appeals to discriminating connoisseurs.

Their plan was to sell the cheese, along with milk, butter and their other dairy products, right there on the premises, at the creamery they would build within eyesight of the cows that make it all possible.

Father and son, both graduates of Utah State University, went back to their alma mater and enrolled in its artisan cheese short courses. After that they put their engineering degrees to use and designed and built their creamery, including a “clean room” where they bottle the milk and make the cheese, and a 2,000-square-foot refrigerator they call the cheese cave.

In April 2011 they ceremoniously placed their first batch of artisan cheese, a cheddar, in the cave.

They then spread the word that not only were they open but that the public was welcome to take tours of the clean room, the cheese cave, the whole farm if they wanted. They instituted cheese-tasting events on the second Friday of every month. They started hosting, along with Domino’s Pizza (one of the nation’s largest buyers of cheese) a “Day on the Farm.” Last year more than 1,500 people showed up.

“We want people to know milk doesn’t come from the store,” says Grant. “We pride ourselves on the cow-to-consumer philosophy.”

Their fan and customer base has grown exponentially. The creamery (hebervalleycheese.com) attracts people from all over. Many out-of-town visitors who have second homes in the area — some of them on ex-dairy farms — have put it on their “must shop” list. The Kohlers’ raw milk has a cult following; they sell an average of 40 gallons every day.

Their secret? That would be pampered cows. The Kohlers' cows are treated like teenage movie stars. They get pedicures and manicures. Nutritionists come on a regular basis to check them out and regulate their diet. They don’t eat corn feed because of studies that show how much junk is in corn. They eat flax seed. “They eat better than we do,” says Grant’s wife, Caralee.

Happy cows, the Kohlers believe, produce great milk, which translates into, among other things, terrific cheese that cheese-lovers want to buy.

“I think the future of small farms is niche marketing,” says Grant. “So we kind of threw all our eggs in one basket. It’s either do or die.”

So far, it’s do.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: benson@deseretnews.com

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