| By Jen Nathan Orris |
Growing up on a farm isn’t always idyllic, but the three women who run Cane Creek Creamery in Fletcher couldn’t imagine their childhood any other way. Sisters Mollie Hembree and Alma Nesbitt are cheese makers at the creamery, and their sister Amanda Sizemore markets their European-style cow’s milk cheeses on this fourth-generation farm.They remember all the hard work they did with their brothers and sisters on the weekends and after school, and also the joys of growing up as part of a farming family. “We milked cows, and fed calves, and picked up hay. We did a little bit of everything, but it was a lot of fun,” says Mollie, the middle sister. Her older sister Amanda adds, “I think once farming is in your blood, it’s just always there.”
Their family’s farm story stretches back to 1903 when their great-great-grandfather, George W. Nesbitt, bought farmland in the Cane Creek community. He used a horse and plow and organic methods to grow vegetables, and passed the farm down to his son, John. When the flood of 1953 washed their crops down the creek, John bought Holstein cows and transformed the produce farm into a dairy.
The dairy continues today, now with 350 milking cows and 600 head of cattle (the family raises their own calves as replacement stock). In 2016, Amanda, Mollie, and Alma turned their attention to cheese. They now make several different types, including feta, cheddar, Brie, and a soft Trappist-style cheese with a mild, buttery flavor. They see the cheese as a product that can add value to the dairy’s steady supply of milk.
“We’re a small farm, and in order to survive for future generations, we’re trying to find a way to do value-added products because we are competing on a global market with milk,” Amanda says.
The price of milk fluctuates frequently, but Cane Creek Creamery can set a fixed price on its artisan cheese. Small-batch cheeses lend themselves to local sales rather than national or international markets, which makes their cheese a product that is produced by and for the local community. Sizemore explains that they are “trying to figure out how to keep the farm going in some capacity, and it’s going to have to be more diversified.”
In 2005, they added produce (now certified organic) back into the family farm and currently grow a range of vegetables, including kale, Swiss chard, heirloom tomatoes, fennel, squash, zucchini, and more. Amanda spearheaded the venture with her husband, Jeremy, when she returned to the farm after studying at Clemson University and working for the state of North Carolina. “I wanted to come back to the farm,” she says. “I was driving around inspecting farms all the time in regulation and I was like, man, I miss home; I miss our farm.”
Mollie chose a different path. She studied to become a dental assistant at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, and continues to work part-time at an orthodontist office. Learning how to make cheese was a new adventure that strengthened Mollie’s ties to the family farm. For her younger sister, Alma, making cheese is a full-time job. “I like the process and the feel of it,” she says.
Making and caring for artisan cheese is especially labor-intensive. The creamery’s Trappist-style cheese must be hand-wiped and washed with a salt brine solution every two days, a two-hour task that falls on Alma’s shoulders. Each style of cheese requires its own process and aging time, some as long as nine months, and between Alma and Mollie they get the job done.
The public is invited to peer into their aging room during ASAP’s Farm Tour – June 24 and 25. Dozens of wheels of cheese and several pieces of cheese making equipment can be viewed through windows inside the cheese. Visitors can pet calves from the dairy, see the farm’s tractors, taste a wide range of cheeses, and purchase ice cream for the full Farm Tour experience.
2016 was Cane Creek Creamery’s first year on ASAP’s Farm Tour, which was held just a few weeks after the creamery opened. The sisters say it was a very busy yet rewarding day. Now the creamery is more established and the family looks forward to adding more activities for visitors this year. “There were a lot of people that came out and got to try the cheeses we were making, and now we’re making even more,” Amanda says. “So this year, we hope to do even a better job of it and have more things for them to do.”
Amanda talks about the benefits of agri-tourism events like ASAP’s Farm Tour, both for the creamery and the public. The tour helps spread the word about the creamery, produce farm, and dairy, and also helps people better understand where their food comes from. “I think we have a major disconnect between our food and the source of it, so it would be great if we could make that connection for our community.”
Amanda sees herself and her eight brothers and sisters as part of a “transition generation” that is ushering the family farm into the 21st Century. A combination of innovative ideas, cherished traditions, and a strong work ethic are apparent in every wheel of cheese produced. By diversifying their business and welcoming the community to their creamery, they’re building a thriving farm that can be passed down to the next generation –and the ones after that. “It’s an effort of love and a lot of work, but that’s our goal,” Amanda says. “We want our kids to grow up on this land and have fun on it, and our great-grandkids one day.”
ASAP’s Farm Tour
Want to meet Amanda, Mollie, and Alma, and see Cane Creek Creamery for yourself? The creamery is one of many farms on ASAP’s Farm Tour this summer. Meet barnyard animals, see rows of your favorite veggies, and stand in a field of flowers on the tour. Several farms are only open to the public during ASAP’s Farm Tour, making this a unique opportunity to see how your food is produced. Several Western North Carolina counties are represented during this inspiring two-day, self-guided tour of local farms.
The 2017 tour will be held: Saturday & Sunday, June 24-25, Noon – 5 pm. Passes are available at www.asapconnections.org