Drake Family Farms: Small-scale Cheesemaking
I interviewed Dr. Daniel Drake, owner of Drake Family Farms Cheese on the first evening of a severe winter storm—severe for California—and when we met in his office, he was fresh off a day of veterinary appointments. I asked if he needed to tend to his herd—or tribe—of goats instead of interviewing. He seemed surprised by the question, so I said, “I mean, are they in trouble because of the rain?”
“Yeah,” he said quickly. “Some of them are going to die tonight!”
It took me a few seconds to adjust to the shock of that frank reply. As a veterinarian, he’s blunt about the facts of animal care, and perhaps for my benefit added that some of the goats were just older and at the end of their life-cycle. He also pointed out that even though people speak in a negative way about corporate farms, one advantage is that the animals in those environmentally-controlled facilities never experience the hardship of weather. But in the shrinking farm region at the western end of the Inland Empire, the animals at these outdoor farms can experience distress during heavy rains, and many of his visits that day had to do with the unpleasantness of that reality.
Dr. Drake is honest and passionate about the business of animal husbandry and cheese: he’s entertaining and charismatic, he’s a free-associating storyteller, and he constantly reflects about his animals, the sustainability of his business, and its contribution to the local economy and food scene. Even though the past six years in business have been financially challenging, coupled with the many unknowns in the future of farming and cheesemaking (increased feed prices, for example), Drake says, “Right now I think we’re on a good track. The truth of the matter is we’ve survived the worst part of the rugged climb.” He adds, “We’ve come a long way—we have not arrived yet, but we’ve come a long way, and it’s amazing how far we’ve come.”
Drake Family Farms is in the old heartland of the Inland Empire between Ontario and Chino, a small reminder the remainder of the old dairyland and agricultural empire that preceded the tract housing lots that are continually built over old farmland. For Dr. Drake, it’s a rented property he picked up a couple of years after earning his DVM in 1999, and the ten acres is home to 354 milking goats (and a nearly 600-head tribe). He really began his “goat addiction” (as he calls it) as a 12-year-old in August 1984—on his family’s now 130-year-old farm in West Jordan, Utah. That herd is currently at 250 goats, and provided the original goats for the Ontario farm.
According to Dr. Drake, the farmstead cheese business cannot be done by one person and consists of three full-time jobs: taking care of the animals, making the cheese, and marketing the cheese. That last part has been something of a roller coaster for him. “My original business plan was to sell at farmers’ markets,” says Drake. “We’re in some good ones now, but it’s not enough to bankroll the business.”
The difficulty of getting into those farmers’ markets—which can sometimes take years—had to be offset by selling their cheese through other channels. A large grocery chain once offered to sell their chèvre, but because the packaging is in tubs and not plastic vacuum-packed tubes (which requires a $50,000 machine), customers weren’t aware of the product. “If we went to the store and did demonstrations and gave out samples of the cheese, it would sell,” says Drake. But because of distribution issues—transportation, storage, shelving—the fresh cheese was at the end of its shelf-life by the time it made it into the hands of customers. When that didn’t work out, other wholesale distribution channels—like local slow-food restaurant chains—have saved the day, despite unfair cost-cutting by European-owned companies (one company owns some of the most prominent Northern California creameries). “Mendocino Farms is our biggest customer,” says Drake. “They care about us. They want us to succeed. They love us and they take care of us.” Mendocino Farms uses Drake Family Farms cheese in sandwiches and a salad aptly named “Save Drake Farm’s Salad.” Los Angeles gastro chain Simmzy’s and the slow-food Sweetgreen chain have also picked up Drake Family Farm cheese for their locally-sourced dishes.
Drake Family Farms makes farmstead cheese—the business owns the animals that make the milk for the cheese. Dr. Drake knows that carrying a label of “farmstead” and “artisan” means consumers may be more critical of products, but emphasizes the importance of being in “total control of the whole process”—and of having well-cared-for goats and the 1,000 or more gallons of milk they produce each week. “There are a lot of people more demanding of their food,” says Drake. “They want to know it’s responsible, and they want to know where it came from.” During my visit, I witnessed goats jumping up and down with excitement as their caretakers tended to them. The farm’s official business plan of keeping happy goats—because animals in that state of mind will give the best milk—is not a deft corporate marketing strategy; it’s a reality. Drake’s business also attracts employees who love the product and share the farm’s core values. That includes those who sell his cheese at area So Cal Farmers markets. The following are their products:
Chèvre—Soft and delicate, my favorite version of this cheese is plain because you can clearly taste the barley grain and grass feed that the goats are eating. Some complain about the “goaty” barnyard flavor of goat cheese, but either I’m used to it, or this cheese is so fresh, that that flavor is barely perceived. The chèvre also comes in flavored varieties like Garlic and Onion, Herbs de Provence, and Jalapeño. All are deliciously spreadable.
Bloomy Rind Glacier—Their take on a traditional brie, Glacier is not as soft as other bries, but it does ripen slowly to the center in its traditional paper cheese wrapper. The beautifully-grown rind contributes a deep mushroom flavor to the paste which has a firmer texture that I usually associate with a Crottin de Chavignol. I like eating brie (actually, all of these) alone and without impediments, but I am positive Glacier would bake out nicely with some herbs and would be an absolutely stunning soft bread dip at a party or family dinner.
Mt. Baldy—This is by far my favorite Drake Family Farms cheese. It is shaped like a Crottin de Chavignol, but gets a layer of ash before the mold has bloomed. For some reason, it is softer and the paste maintains more of the grainy flavor of the chèvre (perhaps because it is wrapped in plastic). It is not quite as tart and acidic (and triangular) as a Valençay, but it is something close in texture. This cheese, like all good cheeses, is different at different stages. When this one is young, it is white, fresh, and not overly complex in flavor. When it is older and wrinkly, the ash-rind shows through and it has usually picked up some beautiful tongue-numbing blue molds which make the flavor more complex than its younger counterpart.
Idyllwild—This is a hard, aged goat cheese in the style of a Portuguese queijo São Jorge. Young, it is reminiscent of an aged gouda, sliceable almost rubbery, and somewhat soft. The paste is pretty neutral, but after eating a chunk the flavor of the goat cheese becomes more apparent. When this one is aged longer, it serves as an excellent stand-in for a ground Parmesan, minus the acid and pineapple notes found in Parmesan. When it is more aged, I love this cheese as a final garnish on omelets or other dishes that require some panache.
Feta and Mozzarella—These are workhorse cheeses that are very close to their non-goat counterparts. For me, the Feta is delicious and edible—not too salty and a much better alternative to the cheaply-made, salt-heavy salad-topper found in the supermarket. My wife loves the mozzarella the most. Pasta filata cheeses are supposed to be fresh and simply, but this version of a favorite is flavorful. You could add it some home-made artisan pizza, enjoy it grated into some antipasto salad, or just cut it up and eat it plain!
The future looks bright for Drake Farms Cheese, even though this is the first year he’s sold all the cheese he’s made. Even though this positive direction in this risky business “changes your whole mindset,” Drake reminds me that breaking even and making payroll is not everything. “I’m six years into this at this facility and I haven’t made any money,” says Drake.
He likens the business to the Stockholm syndrome, but always seems to return to his love for the animals. “Goats are addicting,” he says. “They all have personalities. They like attention, most of them.” And despite the all-consuming nature of the cheese business, he humorously reminds himself of the larger priorities: “If I had to choose between my family and the goats,” Drake says, “I’d have to say I’d choose my family.” Though at times, he says, his wife might disagree with that. The hardships of local farmers are important considerations to keep in mind—if consumers say they want to buy and value locally-made food products, they must sacrifice something too: higher prices, perhaps, or the lively scent of livestock wafting over their recently-built housing tracts.
Drake Family Farm cheese can be found at the following SoCal farmers’ markets—most markets are open 8-1:
Riverside Farmers’ Market (Saturdays)
Claremont Farmers’ Market (Sundays)
Pasadena Farmers’ Market (Saturday)
Santa Monica Farmers’ Market (Wednesdays)
Hollywood Farmers’ Market (Sundays)
Santa Barbara Farmers’ Market (Saturdays)
Ojai Farmers’ Market (Sundays)
Temecula Farmers’ Market (Saturdays)