This is the first in an occasional series celebrating and introducing readers to the folks who grow and produce the food that we eat: South Carolina farmers.
Earle Boller had me at the first couple of lines in his email: “We are small farmstead cheesemakers. We make our cheese from milk produced by our own grass-fed Jersey cows.”
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Cows. Cheese. Roadtrip! Boller and I traded emails and set up a time for me to ride over to Timmonsville to check out his dairy and cheese operation. What I found is a small family farm (80 acres) owned by Earle and Alice Boller operating in what I would call a “closed system.”
By “closed system,” I mean:
• They raise the Jersey cows. The Bollers chose Jerseys because of the higher fat content of their milk. The cows graze on grass in the fields during the spring and summer and are fed hay in the fall and winter. No antibiotics. No steroids. The couple started small and it’s taken them about five years to raise a herd of twenty cows.
• The cows are milked twice a day. The milking process is also a closed system: meaning the milk goes directly from the animal into the cheesemaking process, all full-fat, no pasturization. Whatever milk is not used to make cheese is bottled and sold in small batches of raw milk or made into butter. Whey, a by-product of the cheesemaking process, is fed to the Boller’s pigs (a Berkshire/Tamworth cross) and chickens.
• The Bollers only use milk from their farm to make their cheese. This last bit is the most important because, while yes, there are other cheesemakers in South Carolina, at this time the Bollers are the only farmers/cheesemakers sourcing their own product. No other milk from another farm is brought in to Middle Sparrow Ranch. And, Earle is proud to point out, his milk and cheese production is USDA and DHEC certified. He deals with two inspectors, one for the milk, one for the cheese.
The amount of cheese the Bollers produce depends solely on the cows. From March to September the cows are eating grass in the fields and are naturally producing more milk during the warmer weather; from November to early-March, the weather is cooler and the cows are feeding on hay and, as it is the natural cycle for animals to slow production and store energy in the cooler months, the milk production (and therefore the production of cheese) becomes smaller during fall and winter.
This grass-versus-hay diet also affects the color and flavor of the cheese: spring cheeses tend to be yellower in color because of the grass and a bit bolder in flavor; cheese made during the cooler months tends to be lighter in color and milder in flavor because of the hay.
Earle Boller was raised on a “farm-ette,” as he calls it, a small 10-acre farm in Maryland. He worked at commercial dairies in Maryland and New York state for a number of years before going to work for a recycling company. That job eventually transferred him to Summerville and then to Florence.
While in Summerville, he met Alice, who had grown up near Charleston. The two married and decided that, rather than working for a corporation, they wanted to do something else for a living. Earle’s father had retired and purchased some land in Timmonsville. With Earle’s dairy background, the natural choice was to go back to his roots and begin raising cattle. This time though, he and Alice decided to try their hand at making cheese.
They experimented for a while before getting a product that they were happy with: a mild cheddar cheese that’s been aged between 90-120 days, the Pee Dee Classic.
A peek inside the aging room shows shelves lined with rounds of cheese in various stages of the aging process. There are cheddars encased in red and yellow wax, cloth-wrapped cheddars beginning to bloom mold (to be aged one year), pepper jacks that contain organic jalapenos grown near Charleston, farmer’s cheese, and experiments such as beer cheese (containing curds soaked in a craft beer from Florence), gouda and gruyere.
‘The cows come first’
The Bollers say they would be happy remaining a small-scale operation, selling a quality product at an affordable price and living sustainably. “The cows come first,” says Earle.
Already, you can find Middle Sparrow Ranch cheeses in health-conscious markets in Charleston, Florence, Greenville, Spartanburg and Myrtle Beach. Rosewood Market in Columbia carries some items in its cheese case.
When I visited in early August, Alice was putting the finishing touches on a roadside stand that will feature their Middle Sparrow Ranch cheeses, limited amounts of raw milk, cream, butter and fresh eggs and other local products. She and Earle are also planning for a big open house party in October and Alice hopes to host school tours at the ranch after the first of the year so that children can learn a little more about where their food comes from.
After I had a short tour of the ranch and met the cows (Mrs. Figg is the Boller’s first and a likeness of her in a pink bandana is part of the ranch’s logo), I did get to taste three varieties of cheese: the mild cheddar, a pepper cheese and farmers cheese. I admit that I ended up purchasing a couple of wedges of each.
The mild cheddar was just beginning to get that cheddar-y tang that defines the name. At home, I’m slicing it and eating it with crackers. I would love to come back later in the aging process and taste a sharper variety.
The buttery-tasting farmers cheese is almost smooth enough to smear on a toasted slice of sourdough bread. Yummy.
And the pepper? It’s made with organically grown jalapenos. My sister took the larger wedge when we were splitting up the spoils. It’s great on a cracker, even better with a cold beer.
Hmmm ... speaking of which, I think I need to pack a cooler. It feels like another roadtrip is in order.