Say Cheese 

For the Tanners of Bonnie Blue Farm, a retirement filled with work and goats.

In 1999, Gayle and Jim Tanner left their farmhouse on six acres of land north of Sacramento, California, for 110 acres of pastures, woods, dirt roads, and a babbling creek in a secluded hollow in Waynesboro, Tennessee. Traveling the 2,200 miles in an RV — the couple's home for the first year — they brought along 11 goats and two Great Pyrenees named Sugar and Belle.

"We came here to retire," Gayle says. "Our six acres in California seemed to get smaller and smaller because of urban sprawl, and we knew we had to get out eventually."

One look around the Tanners' farm, now 330 acres, and you'll see that retirement wasn't the only thing that brought them to this remote spot. For almost two years, the Tanners have run Bonnie Blue Farm as a goat dairy and farmstead cheese business with more than two dozen goats in the permanent herd.

The couple built the farm from the ground up after buying the land in 1995. For the first four years, the Tanners took an occasional trip from California to Waynesboro to tame the land, which had no structures beyond a pre-Civil War chimney. The green-roofed barn, built for those first 11 goats, was the first building to go up.

"We couldn't move here without a place for the goats," Gayle says. Although the barn has since been expanded to make room for a growing herd, it's still in its original location. The couple eventually finished a cabin, which visitors can rent, and they've added a milk parlor, a herd-keeper apartment above the barn (where the Tanners live), and a cheese studio where Gayle spends many hours crafting goat cheese, called chèvre, and feta.

Getting to the farm from Memphis is an easy three-hour drive east on Highway 64 plus a few miles on gravel and chert roads. Crossing beneath the farm's towering sign, it's hard to remember bustling city life. Goats, wildlife, the Tanners, and Sugar, the remaining herd dog, are the only company for miles around.

These days, Bonnie Blue Farm's herd consists of Sannen (of Swiss origin) and Nubian (of Middle Eastern and North African origin) dairy goats. The goats are milked twice a day, at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. If Gayle is making cheese, her work might continue until midnight. The milk parlor, adjacent to the barn, allows six goats to be milked at the same time. The brightly lit room is spotlessly clean.

While the goats dig their heads into buckets of grain, Gayle starts milking. To minimize bacteria contamination, she cleans the goats' teats and milks the first few ounces by hand into a small bucket. Then she attaches the automatic pumps, which are connected to portable five-gallon tanks. She pays attention to every goat's needs. Some milk from one teat faster than others, and Gayle makes sure the goats get enough time to empty their udders.

The milk is only pumped once — from the goats into portable tanks. "After that, we carry the tanks next door and transfer the milk into our 100-gallon bulk tank, where it can stay for up to 72 hours, cooled to between 33 and 44 degrees," explains Gayle. "When we transfer the milk to the cheese studio to be pasteurized, we don't pump it out of the tank. It can flow down into the portable tanks, and we take those to the studio."

click to enlarge p._47_food_feature_1.jpg

Although the process is laborious, Gayle knows that too much agitation can break down the components of the milk and make the cheese taste "goaty."

"You want to be gentle with goat's milk," she emphasizes.

But Gayle's not just careful with the milk. The petite California native takes great pride in caring for her herd as well. Although there's not a trace of farming in her family, goats have always fascinated Gayle. Her first goat was a present from her mom. She got it for her 21st birthday.

"They are very sweet animals and very productive animals too. That's what I've always liked about them. You can make great things from goat's milk, and you don't have to kill the animal," Gayle says, as if still somewhat amazed at the thought. Jim Tanner, originally from Kentucky and a former building contractor, got his first goat when he was 12 years old. He remembers farm animals as a part of growing up. The two met when Jim was hired to fix Gayle's California farmhouse. "He never left," she says with a chuckle.

Gayle was initially a hobby cheese-maker. It wasn't until she was in her mid-40s that she felt she had a talent for making cheese beyond her home kitchen.

"I'd always made cheese from the milk of my goats, just never for sale," she says. Her perspective changed when she donated some of her homemade feta for a benefit dinner.

Lars Kronmark, one of the chefs at the dinner and an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, California, tasted Gayle's feta. He demanded to meet her.

click to enlarge Gayle and Jim Tanner of Bonnie Blue Farm - ERIC WILSON
  • Eric Wilson
  • Gayle and Jim Tanner of Bonnie Blue Farm

"He invited me to the Culinary Institute to teach a demonstration class in feta making, and I got to take a few classes at the institute in exchange," she says.

It took a few more years before the Tanners decided that farm life was the life they wanted.

Lucky, Coco, and Manners are the only goats left from the original herd. After their morning milking, the goats eat a breakfast of alfalfa hay.

"This smells so good," Gayle says as she digs her nose into a bushel of pale-green hay. While the goats enjoy their breakfast, Gayle cleans out their den.

Gayle makes cheese every other day, after four or five milkings. In her cheese studio, she turns into a different person. She exchanges her farm clothing for a chef's jacket and tucks her shoulder-length hair under a soft, black cap. She seems a little more serious.

The studio smells of brine and plain yogurt, a slightly sour aroma, normal for a place in which chèvre and feta cheese are made year-around. The 52-gallon pasteurizer sits in one corner; tub sinks, refrigerators, and counters line the wall. Most dairy farms use pasteurizers that can hold several hundred gallons of milk, and it took the couple a long time to find equipment that would work for their small farm. They finally found what they were looking for from a manufacturer in Holland.

Gayle pasteurizes the milk gently at 145 to 147 degrees for 30 minutes. Once it cools to 86 degrees, cultures and rennet are added. Curds start to form and cheese making begins. About 12 hours later, the curds are cut and scooped into mesh bags or molds to drain. Once drained, salted, and dried, about 24 hours later, the cheese is ready to be packaged for sale. Gayle has a record sheet for every batch she's made since the farm started producing cheese for sale in April 2006. It's a way of maintaining quality control and a tool to replicate the conditions that turned out an exceptionally tasty batch.

Bonnie Blue Farm's goat cheese doesn't taste like goat cheese available at grocery stores, not even the pricy brands. A tangy acidity and various degrees of creaminess are what most people associate with goat cheese. Gayle's cheese is remarkably mild, and, at first, not tangy at all. If the acidity of mainstream brands is startling, Bonnie Blue Farm's chèvre surprises with its smoothness and a finish that doesn't choke the personality of the milk.

The cheese reflects the locally grown alfalfa hay, the goats' daily walks with ample time to graze the pastures, the gentle pasteurizing, and the Tanners' great care with the animals and the milk. Gayle hopes that by next spring she will have cheese caves for products such as Gouda and cheddar, which need to age in a cool and consistent environment.

For the Tanners, however, it's not just about good cheese. It's about the animals and their farm life. This year, Bonnie Blue Farm won the Tennessee State University extension program's Tennessee Small Farmer of the Year award in two categories: alternative enterprise and innovative marketing.

"All this seems very idyllic for people who come to visit. But they don't realize that this is nothing but farm, goats, milk, cheese — every day, all year long," Gayle says. "For us, there's nothing we'd rather do."

Bonnie Blue Farm cheese is available at the downtown Memphis Farmers Market this Saturday or through the farm's Web Site, www.bonniebluefarm.com.

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