Keeley McGarr’s cheese house in the basement of her grandparents’ home at the family farm is one of a dozen stops along a brand new Cheese Trail in central New York State.
Modeled after the wildly popular Wine Trails snaking up and down the shores of the Finger Lakes, it attracts tourists and locals to taste and buy artisan products at the point of origin.
Most important to McGarr, it’s helped jump-start her fledgling business, allowing her to join two siblings as the third generation to perpetuate the McGarrs’ dairy enterprise.
“More than anything, I want to keep this farm in business,” she says, looking over the registered 200-head Holstein and Jersey grazing herd. “But I knew if I came back [after college], I’d have to do something different.”
It didn’t take long for her to discover a passion for cheesemaking, fueled by courses and internships in Vermont and Ireland. More than five years of study, practice and business planning later, McGarr launched Keeley’s Cheese Co. in King Ferry last March. The opening coincided with the debut of the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail, showering her with extra press attention.
“I’ve had two to three times more business because of the Trail,” she confirms.
While the pairing of wine and cheese is a no-brainer for many “trailing” customers, McGarr also washes one of her semi-soft cheeses in the Dry Riesling wine produced by neighboring grape farmers. As a result, the award-winning King Ferry Winery became an automatic market for her product.
But the luck of the Irish and coincidence can take you only so far. McGarr’s dad, Dan, had the foresight to help his children build equity in cow families as they grew to adulthood. This meant his daughter brought $20,000 to the table when she went shopping for business loans.
She also evaluated the farmstead cheeses already available in the region and chose a unique product that creates a niche market. Her Irish washed-rind process yields a semi-soft cheese, mild and creamy on the inside, sharp and pungent on the outside. She offers both raw and pasteurized varieties in addition to the wine-soaked wheels. The washed-rind cheeses age in one to two months, so her production-to-sale turnaround is speedy.
McGarr’s five-year business plan secured a $75,000 loan at 6.35% interest from an entrepreneur-friendly commercial bank in September 2009. She immediately set about purchasing equipment ($25,000) and renovating the farmhouse basement ($30,000), as well as paying her dad for a year’s worth of milk at $26/cwt. ($20,000). She also developed her own Web site, made business cards and package labels, bought cheesemaking supplies, and leased (to own) the farmhouse from McGarr Farms.
“The response has been amazing,” McGarr says. “Ninety-five percent of the people who taste this cheese like it, and I’m selling on average 70 lb. to 80 lb. per week. I hope by mid-2011 I’ll be making a decent paycheck.”
In addition to the four-times-a-year Cheese Trail events, McGarr sells cheese wholesale to several area wineries and specialty shops in Ithaca, Aurora, Skan-eateles and Brooklyn. She charges $15/lb. retail when she sells at numerous seasonal and year-round farmers markets (assisted by her mom, Connie) and by appointment or chance from her tasting room in the farmhouse.
As McGarr breaks up curd in the swirling vat, faces peer into the tiny basement window and request a tasting. These are Englishmen, visiting family in a nearby village. Without missing a beat, McGarr pulls off her hairnet and long apron and scrambles upstairs to present her Pondhopper and Brida con Vino varieties—crackers on the side, rind fully edible—while chatting about her business, her process, her family and farm.
“For now, I like to meet the people I sell to,” McGarr says. She is equally excited about production. Using 5% of the herd’s 4% butterfat milk, she makes 150 lb. of cheese once a week in a marathon all-day process. She also breeds the herd of cows at McGarr Farms and still milks a six- to seven-hour shift twice a week.
Her car is a cheese shop on wheels, packed with maps of the Wine and Cheese Trails (see left) and an ever-growing list of the bed-and-breakfasts that cater to the tourist trade.
More challenging than she expected was renovation of the house in winter and achieving a consistent recipe, McGarr says.
More rewarding than expected has been the public’s embrace of her European style of cheese and the resulting sales volume. And the original stone-wall construction of the farmhouse basement turned out to provide the perfect environment for aging.
Her relationship with the King Ferry Winery, maker of Treleavan Wines, pleases both parties. Christopher Couch, the winery’s operations manager, says, “We couldn’t be happier about the Cheese Trail and about Keeley getting a nice premium for her cheeses. We started out buying six blocks at a time—now it’s 10 to 14. It’s fantastic to have Keeley’s business in the area. We like to show people what else can be done out here.”
The future may lead to employees, distributors and a larger cheese house. McGarr, in perpetual motion, says, “I’m optimistic.”