STATESVILLE — From down in the hollow, they come.
Answering Jeff Holton’s call from the top of the hill, Laverne and Norah lead the rest of the Jersey cows, coming back to the barn for more hay and water.
Ophelia, Lacey Louise, Maebell, PJ (for Peggy Joyce), June and Hickey also are in the group.
“People really, really love that,” Holton says. “They like to know we call them by name and they’ll come to us.”
This small group of Jersey cows are Holton Hollow Farm’s production crew. They provide the raw milk for the artisan farmstead cheese Holton and Debbie Overcash make in a two-room annex to their small barn.
There’s nothing fancy about the operation. Holton hauls in the milk by the bucket, and the whole cheese-making process comes down to him and Overcash doing everything by hand.
Old-timers also might call the farmstead cheese they make and sell as just plain farmer’s cheese. It’s buttery smooth, sweet, not too salty or stinky. Its flavor changes in shades with the season and what kind of diet the cows are on.
“The cheese should be a reflection of the region you’re in,” Holton says.
Holton Hollow Farm sells the artisan cheese at farmers’ markets in Salisbury, Mooresville, Bermuda Run, Statesville and Conover. It also shows up at a few restaurants and wineries in the region.
A quarter-pound wedge sells for $4; a half-pound, $8; and a pound, $15. You also can purchase it by the wheel, which usually weighs 6 to 8 pounds, though they will make smaller wheels around the holidays as gift sizes.
Not many people with their own dairy cows are making cheese any longer. According to numbers from the N.C. Department of Agriculture, Holton is one of a half dozen farmers in North Carolina licensed to make cheese on site from cow’s milk produced at the same place.
Meanwhile, upwards of 40 N.C. farmers are making goat cheese these days.
Holton Hollow Farm encompasses 20 acres northeast of Statesville. You have to drive back a long, unpaved lane called Matthew Drive (for Holton’s son, Matthew) to reach the barn.
“I don’t have a level place anywhere,” Holton says. “It’s all hills and hollows.”
A third generation farmer, Holton started making cheese about three years ago. “It’s getting a little bit better every year,” he says. He taught himself the process by reading articles, tapping the knowledge of others in the business, taking a short course through N.C. State University and learning a lot through his own trial and error.
Overcash’s help proved invaluable. She took what he knew about cheese and pushed it to a higher level, Holton says, adding, “I wouldn’t be here without her.”
When all eight of his cows are producing milk, Holton says, he and Overcash are making about 60 pounds of cheese every three days. They aren’t really set up to be any bigger.
The actual cheese-making day lasts about eight hours in a stir-it-up-and-wait process. On those days, it pays to be a multi-tasker, Overcash says.
“You’ve got to not mind waiting around,” she adds.
The raw milk from the cows goes into a cooling tank at 38 degrees. After three days, the milk heads to a rectangular vat, where it is heated in the low 90s. A starter, or a good bacteria, is added as the heat is turned off. Then comes a vegetable rennet, and the coagulation process begins, leading to curds and whey.
Curds are the coagulated part of the milk from which cheese is made. It forms when milk sours and is different from whey, the watery part that separates from the curds.
Holton feeds the whey to his pigs. He says the raw milk they start with translates to 90 percent whey and 10 percent curds.
Overcash does a lot of stirring, waiting and flipping of cheese curds. Sea salt is added in one step. The more whey that is removed, Holton says, the less acidic the cheese is.
Every step has to be given the right amount of time. The cheese curds are constantly “knitting,” and eventually the stacked curds go into a mold and are squeezed with a wooden press. Again, more whey is released.
The molded cheese wheel is placed into a cooler for a day, then hand-dipped into black wax for sealed protection.
The waxed wheel has to go back into a cooler at 50 degrees for at least 60 days, because the milk is not pasteurized. Holton and Overcash usually wait 90 to 120 days before they cut into a wheel for wedges of farmstead cheese.
The wedges sold at the markets are wrapped in paper and labeled with a scene from Holton Hollow Farm. Holton says it’s important to keep a good protective wrap on the cheese. As a raw-milk product, the cheese will absorb other odors in a refrigerator, if not protected.
Overcash says customers from Salisbury Farmers Market say they’ve had Holton Hollow Farm cheese that lasts a month or more.
This is a slow time, with only two of the cows producing milk, so Holton and Overcash are making cheese every four days, not three.
Holton says his pastures are not fertilized with chemicals, nor are pesticides used. The cheese is antibiotic and hormone free, he says, but it can’t be considered organic, because the cows eat some commercial feed.
“Salisbury is very in tune with this kind of food, and they look forward to it,” Overcash says of her experience at the farmers market.
Janet Allgood helps the couple by selling Farmstead cheese at the Mooresville market.
“They like that it’s low in sodium and creamy,” Allgood says of customers. Besides eating it by the slice, they say the cheese is good for cooking and grating over salads.
“We have a lot of repeat customers,” Allgood says. “They really like this.”
Overcash says Allgood is a good representative to have at markets because she has seen the whole cheese-making process and can explain it to customers, who always have questions.
Holton says high feed and fuel prices are making things tough, especially since the farm hasn’t raised the cost of its cheese.
But back to the cows: As Jerseys move in and out of the small herd, Overcash and Holton give them their names alphabetically. They’ve been through the alphabet once — “X” and “Z” were difficult, Holton says — and the next Jersey will have a name starting with “B.”
So a “C” name can’t be far behind.
Holton Hollow Farm, located at 154 Matthew Drive, Statesville, will sell cheese on site, but it’s good to call first at 704-873-0644. Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or email@example.com.