Robert's Internship Story
Last year, Kathy Fields at Flint Hill Farm taught me how to make cheese from her goats and cows. I met her in August and after we talked about my personal goal to make cheese, she proposed an internship (free labor) during which she'd help me learn more about cheese making, two days a week for three months. I started that week!
I'll give you a little background about myself so you can see why this made sense for me. I'd been laid off a few months earlier from my software development job of 20 years. Rather than jump back into the corporate rat race, I decided to take the opportunity to follow my dream and become a farmer. I decided to build a sheep creamery on the sheep farm where I lived. I had made a few cheeses during the past several months and realized that cheese-making was complicated, subtle, and difficult to do well. I needed help. So, Kathy's internship was a perfect match.
Each morning at Flint Hill, I worked the daily operations of the Flint Hill creamery. I started by milking 15 goats in the morning using a bucket milker machine. This produced several gallons of goat milk which I'd transfer to the bulk refrigeration tank. I didn't milk the cows, but Kathy did, producing several additional gallons of milk each day. I learned to prepare the bucket milker for milking, milk the animals and transfer the cow and goat milk into separate refrigeration tanks.
Then I'd move to the kitchen and work on the dairy products Kathy needed that day. Usually we'd make a cheese such as cheddar, mozzarella or Manchego on Thursday, and on Friday we'd package dairy products. We also made cultured milk products, yogurt, kefir and butter milk. These cultured milk products are fast sellers and we made and packaged a lot of it. One nice aspect of these liquid milk products is that they can be sold the same day they are made. The hard cheeses, on the other hand, have to be aged for two months before selling them. During that time, the hard cheeses have to be flipped every few days and checked for mold and cleaned as needed. The liquid milk products could be made, cooled, and put on the store shelf the same day - good for cash flow!
I spent a lot of time packaging products for the Flint Hill Farm store. To package the hard cheeses, we cut the cheese into 1/2 pound wedges, weigh them, shrink wrap them, create a label with the name and weight of the slice. For example, a 30 gallon batch of milk makes about 25 pounds of cheddar cheese, so we'd package this into 50 1/2 pound portions. You might think this is a little repetitive, and it is, but the time I enjoyed the most during the internship was the regular time yapping with Kathy and the other cheese interns in the kitchen. Cheese making requires concentration and focus, but when you do it all day, there is lots of time to chat. And we got to know each other during these cheese-making and chatting sessions. Wearing our hats and hair nets, working in the shiny steel kitchen, washing and sanitizing the utensils and countertops repeatedly each day, my co-interns and I became cheese makers. We talked about cheese and life (perhaps a good title for a book?). It is a wonderful feeling to share a dedication to making excellent cheese with others and investing your time which builds a sense of trust and friendship.
Throughout each day, I was surrounded by the team of volunteers at Flint Hill Farm. The farm is a complex operation with Kathy at the center. There were two other cheese-making interns at Flint Hill while I was there, Mollie and Jane. Jane had recently "graduated" but returned to the Farm occasionally to visit and help. Mollie was a rookie intern like me; she and I worked together. We did everything from milking goats to flavoring, packaging, and making cheese.
Cleaning up was an integral part of every activity. After transferring milk, the milk lines had to be cleaned and sterilized. The same was true for the bulk tanks, the milking equipment and pasteurizer. Fortunately, there were documented procedures for setting up and cleaning each piece of equipment. Sinks, counter tops and floors had to be kept clean throughout the day. Most of the surfaces in the creamery are stainless steel and provide a satisfying sparkle. This may seem unimportant but keeping the food preparation area clean is critical to the making of safe and healthy cheese; not to mention it helped me learn many FDA regulations for commercial kitchens.
One of my most memorable experiences during my internship was the opportunity teaching cheese making classes to guests of Flint Hill Farm. Yes, I had quickly become the teacher! Kathy often has overnight guests who visit the farm to experience farm life and learn to make cheese. The guests brought unique life experiences and reasons for coming to Flint Hill and working with them in the cheese kitchen allowed me to get to know them and learn about their personal experiences. Teaching cheese making also boosted my confidence in cheese making.
Each morning, Kathy gave me the agenda for the day - what cheese we would make, what type of milk to use (cow or goat), and what items she wanted packaged for the store. Sometimes it was a challenge to finish everything. Multi-tasking was essential; e.g. packaging a yogurt while a cheese is cooking. You've got to finish a cheese batch in a single day for it to be successful. Once or twice I stayed late because I didn't manage my time well. My phone's "Timer App" was a super helpful tool to keep me on schedule with the multiple tasks of operating the creamery.
The team of helpers at Flint Hill has many colorful and unique individuals. My co-intern, Mollie, makes cheese at home and wants to learn more about the farm-to-plate cheese making process. Mollie speaks Mandarin, and we had fun because I spent a month in China. Jen is the lifeblood of the farm, feeding the animals and managing the chores around the horses, chickens, and goats. Kathy is blessed to have Jen. Lenny and Dennis are regular fixtures at the farm. Lenny has a wonderful sense of humor, dead pan, the kind I love. Dennis is a machinery genius, and visits the farm bringing various large equipment, fixing things before they break. He loves his backhoe! Kathy is the nexus of the farm and coordinates customers, volunteers, visiting school children, vendors, employees, and family. She sees and talks to more people each day than I see in a week. She wears a Bluetooth earpiece to never to miss a call. This was the Flint Hill Team!
What did I get out of my cheese internship at Flint Hill? I certainly achieved my goal of learning how to make cheese; and also seeing where I need to learn more. I learned about the mission of a farm, which translates to a detailed business plan, marketing plan, and the operations to support it. I gained first-hand experience working in a creamery and learned to overcome the hiccups associated with the operation. Without question, the experience will help me start a creamery on my farm. Most importantly, each morning I enjoyed coming to Flint Hill to work with Kathy and the team and was able to contribute to the success of Flint Hill and evolve into a cheese maker. I appreciate and value the opportunity Kathy gave me to work at her farm and learn from her.