Few people have fueled my respect for cheese more than Nat Bacon, head cheesemaker for Shelburne Farms. Two years ago I spent some time with Nat on this farm, in the "make room," and it forever deepened my understanding of the hard work and elbow grease that goes into filling our plates with food. So, late in July, I jumped at the chance to have my small ecotourism company, Taking Root, host a farm tour to one of Vermont's biggest and cheesiest weekend events -- The Vermont Cheesemaker's Festival. Shelburne Farms is magical in its beauty. But there is something deeper than natural beauty here. Their ethic of sustainable agriculture and their, "Dream of using the farm's resources to inspire stewardship," seems to permeate from the ground up and take root in each and all of the farm's staff. And our July weekend of cheese reminded me, once again, of the deep connection that we have with our food, and through our food, to farmers and to farms.
Our group was hosted to a rare opportunity to engage in a hands-on experience working with Nat as he made his daily cheddar. Nat Bacon goes from watching and measuring, to mixing, salting, and checking temperatures. There is something very tactile about processing cheese in this way. It is actually a very intimate experience. Somehow it is this intimacy that puts the people, like Nat Bacon, at the very center of the cheese making process. Nat says it is the physical part of the process that really connects him to the tradition of cheese making and cheesemakers that has passed from generation to generation. The cheddaring process, in many ways, has stayed basically the same for 300 years and even though Shelburne Farms' production is considered large for a farmstead cheese operation each batch can still be traced back to Nat Bacon's 10 fingers and roughly 110 cows the farm is milking right now.
When Nat speaks, he speaks slowly and deliberately to our group, "Making food is an incredible right. But it is also a responsibility." The irony of this spiderman wisdom is lost despite Nat's bright eyed Peter Parker appearance and my absolute certainty that cheesemaking should be seen as a transformative superpower. At Shelburne Farms the responsibility of making food is traced directly back to the people, the animals, the land, and the ethic that holds them all together. Most cheesemakers will make in one day what Shelburne will make in a year. Still, Shelburne is large for a farmstead operation, pushing the boundaries of the model that we think of as local and sustainable agriculture.
One of the reasons that the local food movement is so exciting and vibrant is because it provides a direct line for us to connect to our most basic needs. The knowledge base and the executive skill to fulfill those basic needs have been slowly lost and taken out of our day-to-day existence. Local food, farms, and processes like cheesemaking become a direct line to the artisans of the past but also a link to the farmers and the land the feed us today. Through cheese, Shelburne Farms and the Vermont Cheesemaker's festival are preserving culture and a tradition.