Cheese brings smiles for Evergreen Lane Farm & Creamery

In the past decade goat cheese has been one of the fastest growing cheeses in the specialty food product market. Michigan has more 1,000 reported milk goat operations. Zinta Aistars talks with the cheese makers at Evergreen Lane Farm & Creamery, where milk from goats (and cows) comes about through a cooperative effort.
Cheese! You can’t say it without smiling.

Especially if it is artisan goat and cow’s milk cheese made by the expert hands of Cathy Halinski at Evergreen Lane Farm & Creamery at 1824 66th Street, just south of Fennville and up the road from Saugatuck. It’s in an area some would call middle of nowhere, but Cathy and husband Tom Halinski call home.

The Halinskis found home in an old country house, shaded by century-old trees, with several outbuildings, sheds and barns, 40 acres of land that stretch a half-mile deep from the road, and eight acres of apple orchards. They moved there in 2000 with the thought of turning the place into an organic farm.

"Cathy found the place driving by," says Tom Halinski. "We moved to this area in 1996 from Chicago, to a place with a couple acres, but it was a gated community, and we weren’t allowed to have the ducks and horses we wanted."

Because the Halinskis kept a boat docked in Saugatuck, they looked for work there in their area of expertise: informational technology.

"The jobs we found here were actually better paying than in Chicago," Tom Halinski says. But the couple found they wanted more than just the neat gardens allowed in a gated community, and the farm they came to call Evergreen Lane Farm and Creamery fit the bill. It even had a goat wandering the house.

"Our dogs found her in the house when we went to look at it," he says. "She was starving."

They bought the house, they bought the farm, they bought the goat. Bailey became the matriarch of the goat herd the Halinskis would keep at Evergreen.

"We started breeding the goats," says Cathy Halinski. "That’s how I got interested in cheese. We had all this goat’s milk."

Bailey lived to age 12, and died a couple years ago, but her legacy in cheese and kids lives on. Evergreen Lane Creamery opened its doors to the public in 2008. Today, the barn is filled with kids, newborn goats, while the does still lie in the hay, heavy with waiting. It’s spring, and the nights are long with does giving birth.

"That’s where our partnership, our business model, is unique," says Ron Klein, owner of 46-acre Windshadow Farm & Dairy in Bangor. Klein and his wife Suzanne handle the breeding of La Mancha, Nubian, and Saanen dairy goats, bringing the kids to Evergreen Farm when they are a day or two old. The partnership between the two farms is called Meadowland Divas, a cooperative division of labor and resources.

"The most important part of cheese-making is your milk source," Cathy Halinski nods at her partner, Ron Klein.

"And the converse is true," says Klein. "You can have great milk and be feeding it to your pigs. We’re doing the animal husbandry, and that’s freed Cathy to do her cheese-making."

"It’s like a marriage!" Cathy grins, looking over at Klein.

Klein and his wife, the real one, Sue, who keeps a day job as an attorney, get up every two hours or so during nights to care for the newborn kids. Even with the division of labor, the work is hard and at times seems never-ending. Once transported from Bangor to Fennville, the playful little goats are penned up and fed through an automated feeder.

"Great innovation," Klein says. "Before that, we had to feed them all using bottles and buckets with nipples. What hair I have left, I was pulling out."

Tom Halinski opens the barn door to show the automated feeder, a large container with cows’ milk pumped through tubing that ends up in large nipples that the goats can suckle through openings on the other side of the wall. They line up at the wall, little tails wagging, leaping over each other.

"You can taste it in the cheese," Cathy Halinski says. "The sun, the grass--"

She walks to the next building, a bright purple cabin where the cheese magic happens. Evergreen Artisan cheeses include six hard and soft varieties: Fresh Chevre ($7 per 5.5 oz.), a simple and spreadable goat cheese; Tribute ($25/lb.), a hard cheese made from goat’s milk over different seasons for different qualities and named for a special goat; April Showers ($22/lb.), a soft cows’ milk cheese with a rind that is similar to Camembert or Brie; Mattone ($22/lb.), a Taleggio-style hard cheese from cows’ milk; Poet’s Tomme ($22/lb.), a cheese that is washed with a microbrew called Poet’s Stout as it cures; and Pyramid Pointe ($22/lb.), a somewhat salty cheese with a rind that is cured by using pine ash and salt.

Halinski learned to make cheese at Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheesemaking and worked with Margaret Morris of Glengarry Cheesemaking, Inc. in Ontario, Canada.

"At this point, Cathy has learned how to create a new cheese simply from tasting a cheese she likes," Klein says.

Halinski enters the purple building where the cheese is made, but gets no further than the front door, where a careful process begins of removing shoes and outer clothing, putting on protective booties, caps, and white coats before entering the production room. There, her assistant, Dulcee Boehm, is already at work over the pasteurizing equipment and cheese vats, adding rennet and cultures similar to yogurt to thicken the milk.

PH levels are precisely monitored. "We watch the milk curdle." Halinski smiles. "Then it goes into molds, drains for two days. Young cheeses cure for 14 to 21 days in the curing room next door. The older cheeses might age for months."

Shelves in the curing room are stacked with cheeses, the cool air fragrant with flavorful promise.

The fine artisan cheeses can be sampled and purchased at the Evergreen Lane Farm & Creamery Tasting Room, open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday. Call 269.543.9900 for more information. In Kalamazoo, the artisan cheeses can also be found at Food Dance, Rustica, and at many other retailers and restaurants in the region.

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.

Photos by Erik Holladay.