LoveTree Farmstead’s Mary Falk makes some of the w
LoveTree Farmstead’s Mary Falk makes some of the world’s best cheese.
Photographs by Stephanie Colgan
WHAT WOULD A GREAT HORNED OWL WANT WITH A LAMB? Just the brains, really. One will fly in over the flock of dairy sheep and grab a young lamb in its talons, then make like a zombie, and fly away. Eagles eat the whole lamb. So do black bears, wolves, and the primary problem, coyotes.
But to lamb guardian and artisan cheesemaker Mary Falk, co-owner of LoveTree Farmstead in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, the predators that target her prized Trade Lake sheep—the creatures that provide the milk from which she makes her exquisite cheese—aren’t the true danger. The real danger lurks in the cities, where people don’t understand what complex ecology means, where people think you can kill your way to abundance and pleasure. Because if your pleasure is cheese, you should know that Falk makes what many call some of the finest cheese in the United States—maybe even the world. And she does it by nurturing a complex ecology of top predators, gentle grazers, and many much smaller creatures. “The University of Wisconsin sent a guy out here who was doing a predator count in the state,” she says. “He counted ours and said we were crazy.”
Falk doesn’t look crazy. She looks like Jane Fonda playing the role of a farmer who has been out in the sun all day. Her hair is the color of honey, her eyes like a light-green leaf in a sun-dappled forest. She came to the Twin Cities as a radio host, and she has the perfect voice for it, gravelly like Kathleen Turner’s, the kind of voice that makes you lean in to hear more. And when she laughs, her voice broadens and deepens into a welcoming boom. It even does this when she’s telling a rueful tale, like the time she let coyote hunters on her land and they mistakenly took out “the alpha bitch,” disrupting a long-established hierarchy. “She had been running things around here for 10 years, managing two packs of coyotes, keeping them away from the sheep. Once she was gone, all hell broke loose. We went from having perfectly well-behaved coyotes, as those things go, to civil war.”
There are many reasons for the great number of predators on LoveTree Farmstead, where Falk and her husband, Dave, have been raising dairy sheep since 1989. The St. Croix River isn’t far, and it’s a major reserve for great birds such as bald eagles and red-tailed hawks. The land around LoveTree holds eight lakes that act as a water road to the river, attracting all sorts of critters, and there is a string of state forests and wildlife reserves just north of LoveTree. Then there’s the fact that Dave and Mary like predators, insofar as they support the grand balance of nature. That’s why they keep half of their 130 acres as their very own “wildlife refuge.” This gives trumpeter swans, osprey, otters, and several less benign animals free run of the spring-fed ponds and rolling hills covered with lavender clouds of bluestem and yellow sparks of birdsfoot trefoil.
To combat the predators without actually waging full-scale war, Mary has assembled a sort of Dr. Doolittle–style SWAT team of protective animals. There are the lookouts: tall, shaggy llamas who spy predators at the perimeters no matter which way the wind is blowing. If the llamas see something, they let the guard dogs know. Mary’s guard dogs are a special crossbreed of Spanish Ranch Mastiffs, American-bred Italian Maremmas, and Polish Tatras. They are the size of a timber wolf and are fiercely committed to their lambs and ewes, among whom they live 12 months a year. On any given day, these impressive dogs can be seen poking their heads up a few inches above an ocean of wool, like seals in the sea. They can easily take down a coyote, and they can make a wolf think a lamb is more trouble than it’s worth.
The final members of the SWAT team are the border collies, who take on crowd management in the event of an attack, rounding the sheep into a tight flock.
By nature, the LoveTree dairy sheep don’t flock; they eat, outside, year round, making the sweet milk that Mary gathers and turns into cheese. On Saturdays, she sets up shop at the St. Paul Farmers’ Market and sells cheese to people who, curiously enough, have no idea that they are buying some of the best-tasting cheese in the world.
THE TASTE OF GENIUS
Tami Lax is the founder of Madison’s Slow Food chapter and owns two of Madison’s best restaurants: the famous white-tablecloth Harvest and the casual Old Fashioned Tavern. Before that, she was the chief buyer and forager for an even more famous Madison restaurant, L’Etoile. That’s where she met Mary.
“To this day, I’ve never had a cheese culinary experience like the day I met Mary,” she remembers. “I was at L’Etoile, and she brought in all these little samples. I don’t want to say it was life-changing, but I was absolutely speechless at every sample of cheese. The word ‘genius’ is the first thing that came to my mind, and it’s the word that has stayed.”
As the chief cheese buyer for her restaurants, and a former American Cheese Society judge, Lax has tasted as many Wisconsin cheeses as anyone. “Mary’s easily one of the top three cheesemakers in Wisconsin, there is no doubt in my mind,” she says. “The originality of what she does—each of her cheeses has such a unique flavor profile. Such depth, such texture—her cheese is always a mind-blowing experience for me, even years later.”
Steven Jenkins, another fan, wrote the book on cheese, literally. His 1996 book, Steven Jenkins Cheese Primer, is the definitive reference for Americans who want to understand cheese. “Mary is the most talented, drop-dead cheesemaker of my career,” he proclaims. “Her Trade Lake Cedar is an American treasure. What she does to get her sheep’s milk—my God. Her sheepdogs have to protect that flock from eagles, bears, wolves—it’s a wild wonderland. That she’s not a superstar and as rich as some bogus so-called ‘celebrity’ chef is criminal.”
Jenkins’s beef with celebrity chefs is this: He feels that artisans like Mary do all the work, and chefs get all the credit. “All chefs do is pick over and buy what artisans and retailers have spent 20 years working on.” In Jenkins’s view, these poseur chefs are aided and abetted by “hackneyed food writers who keep talking about terroir. What lunacy this idea of striving for terroir is! Cheese is either well made or it’s not. It’s either made by somebody who has that magical spark or it isn’t. You can’t actively imbue your foodstuff with terroir. That happens by God and the supernatural, and it’s a natural outgrowth of your talent as a cheesemaker.”
Terroir is indeed a popular idea in food right now, and it looks to be growing in importance. The idea is this: If a food is from a specific place, and only that place, it will taste of that place. What makes Italy, Bordeaux, and Wisconsin different are the plants, trees, soil, bedrock, rain, rivers, ponds, and lakes there, all the way down the life chain to the tiny microscopic molds and microflora that, incidentally, make cheese possible.
The idea of terroir finds its fullest flower in wine writing: Austrian riesling vines plunge their taproots 40 feet under the ground to retrieve water, and in the process somehow come back with the taste of slate. That idea of terroir is almost entirely responsible for the difference between $10 and $400 wines. But terroir is a critical underpinning of cheese as well. For instance, Roquefort, the famous blue cheese, came about because of the specific natural interactions of a certain little part of southern France, called the Larzac Plateau, where there is a plain of red clay that isn’t much good for tilling but is very good for grazing. Sheep were fed there, and their milk turned into cheese, which was stored in natural limestone caves of the region that happened to provide an excellent medium for growing a wild, bluish mold indigenous to those caves, a mold now named Penicillium roqueforti, which is cultivated and distributed worldwide.
Cheddar cheese came from a similar but different interplay between the milk of cows from a certain part of southwestern England and wild molds in the caves of the Cheddar gorge. Gruyere cheese has the same story in Switzerland. Today, around the world, and especially in the United States, most cheeses are a sort of 40th-generation carbon copy of that original moment of lightning in a bottle: They’re made with commercially cultivated strains of the original molds and bacteria and milk that has been pasteurized, then named after that original tangle of animal, plants, and cave.
AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL
To make an American cheese with the significance of Roquefort, Cheddar, or real Swiss Fribourg Gruyere is not easy. It requires three things: one, a belief that making such a cheese is possible; two, the willingness to do what it takes to make it happen; and three, an essential erasure of the modern world.
LoveTree Farmstead is where Mary effectively erases the modern world. There are the wolves and great horned owls, of course, but more germane to cheese production are the untilled, herbicide-free, pesticide-free fields of wild grasses, nettles, sedges, and assorted plants on her land. The dairy sheep rotate through the fields, contained by mobile electric fences—her one concession to modernity. The Falks move the sheep into one meadow, with their attendant animal SWAT team, then the sheep and lambs advance, often standing single file like a herd of munching Rockettes, slowly chewing. At the end of the day, the Falks retrieve them, milk them, and then move them into another field.
I toured these fields with Mary one day—fields with names such as Little Eden and Beer Can Stand—and with each footfall a hundred little bugs would hop and skitter: grasshoppers, crickets, odd little leaf jumpers. It sounded like we were walking through a bag of potato chips. “A guy from the USDA came out here to take soil samples for a statewide census of what’s living in the soil,” Mary says. “He said we had more worms than anybody.”
It’s easy to imagine why. Many plants need animals to distribute their seeds by physically carrying them through their digestive tracks or on their fur and by tamping seeds in the soil with their feet, piercing the top crust of soil and pushing the seeds into the earth. In the LoveTree fields, chomping, pooping sheep play the roles that deer and bison did on the prairie. Then the sheep turn those wild plants into milk. The milk retains the taste of fringed blue aster, Indian paintbrush, and purple prairie clover, making it much different from the milk of cows raised in Switzerland or California or on a confinement dairy-cow lot down the highway.
Mary gathers that milk and, in its raw state, separates the curds and whey.
The importance of making cheese from the raw milk of ewes who graze one particular patch of land can’t be underestimated. Humankind’s understanding of the microbiome—the cloud of bacteria, yeast, protists, and fungi that circulate in, on, and all around us, from the deepest cave to the top of the tallest building—is in its infancy. Recently, scientists from the Human Microbiome Project announced that each and every one of us has 100 trillion microbial things living in and on us, turning food into usable nutrients, moisturizing our skin, and defending our lungs against invaders. Without them, we’d be dead.
Without the right ones, or enough of them, we might just be sick. Research into whether our microbiome plays a critical role in human health is just beginning, but preliminary research suggests it plays a role in everything from obesity to asthma and autoimmune diseases. Research into the flavor complexities of aged foods such as prosciutto, salami, wine, and especially cheese suggests that microbial complexity correlates to the complexity of the finished product’s taste. But how does the native complexity of a stand of predator-filled woods in northeastern Wisconsin affect the taste of cheese?
To find out, Mary had her husband take out part of a hill with a Caterpillar. It was a red clay hill, and Dave is comfortable doing things like that, because he used to build silos for a living. “She looked at me and said, ‘We’re going to put cheese underground,’ ” Dave remembers. “I had never heard of that.”
Once the hill was gone, Dave constructed a concrete room with ventilation leading out to the woods. Over the years he took that hill apart with a Caterpillar several more times, eventually discovering that the best shape for a cave was round, like a silo. It’s best because of the way the air circulates, in a circle up to a ventilation hole, and for the way the moisture drips down from a pitched, round roof, keeping humidity even throughout the space.
When Mary shapes her individual cheeses, she brings them to her cave to age. (The whey from the cheese production is also blended into the guard dogs’ food, perhaps strengthening the dogs’ attachment to their flock.) Many of Mary’s cheeses are pure sheep’s milk, but some are a blend of sheep’s milk and her outdoor-pastured cows’ milk. The cows are descended from a Scottish Highland-Angus-Jersey cross and are majestic animals with soaring horns that make them look like bulls, but they’re actually milkable ladies. In the cave, the young cheeses are hand-rubbed—a treatment that encourages a rind to form on the outside—and are then flipped every day or so, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for many months, depending on Mary’s own personal sense of when a cheese is ready. It is inside this humid, refrigerator-like, woods-connected silo of a cave that the cheeses become what they will become.
What they become is absolutely unique, a true American original cheese unlike anything that has ever been made, or tasted, on earth. Her Trade Lake Cedar looks like a rock or mushroom; the rind tastes earthy and ashy, an umami non-fruit world of hay and mineral, whereas the interior is tangy and chalky and meadow-like. Her dry Gabrielson Lake tastes a little like Parmigiano-Reggiano, but is freaked with little crystals of concentration and tiny red lace points of mold.
The cheeses come and go, and Mary often makes one-of-a-kind batches that reflect some event on the farm, some week of too much milk or too little. “When I think of Mary’s cheeses, in terms of a world analog, what comes to mind are principally the cheeses of Sardinia and the Pyrenees,” Steven Jenkins tells me. “Though Mary’s are more graceful and unctuous.” And they’re essentially only available to people in the Minneapolis and St. Paul metro area. But she isn’t very well known, even among foodies. In fact, an informal poll of people I know outside of the restaurant industry suggests that almost no one has heard of LoveTree.
“It’s funny, there’s a sort of Minnesota paradox when it comes to something on this level,” says Lenny Russo, chef at Heartland and owner of the only market to which Mary will sell. “The Minnesota paradox is, people who live here think it’s the best place in the world, even if they’ve never been anywhere else. At the same time, there’s this inferiority complex, where something not from here immediately gets a leg up. If you say this is one of the best cheeses in the world, there are a lot of people here who just won’t believe you. But they’ll pay a super-premium for something from France or Italy that essentially comes from a factory. This indigenous inferiority complex is what will probably keep her from succeeding the way she should. If she was making this cheese in California or New York, she’d be world-famous.”
But Mary isn’t even as famous here as she should be. The only places to buy LoveTree farm cheeses are at the St. Paul Farmers’ Market (year round), Heartland Market, the summer Kingfield Farmers Market, and the LoveTree farm, at their new farm store. You can also taste them at the LoveTree farm on Pizza by the Pond days. Every Sunday, from 2 pm to 8 pm all year long (weather permitting), Mary trades in her shepherd’s crook for a pizza peel and melts some of her LoveTree cheeses on top of her four-day-fermented pizza dough, made with flour from Great River Organic Milling, just down the river, and mixed with a sourdough culture developed from her cheese.
Before the pizza-farm events, she forages for such idiosyncratic toppings as fiddlehead ferns or wild wood nettles, or she trades ingredients with neighboring farms or friends from the farmers’ market. Try the plain cheese—it’s as bold a plain-cheese pizza as you’ll ever have in your life. I’ve also tried the wild watercress, which tastes like something straight from Sardinia, iron-y and green and fresh. I’ve also had the Old Man Dave, which comes with different sausages from the day’s farmers’ market or is topped with meats from a neighboring farm, Beaver Creek Ranch, and vegetables from nearby Burning River Farm. The pizzas are delicious, but more than that, they’re exquisitely true to their place. The whole scene reminds me of one of those ridiculous magazine features where writers are eating some salad of wild-foraged greens and locally grazed but unnamed cheese on an island in Corsica that no one could ever get to. But this is in Wisconsin, not too far from a Dairy Queen. The pizza oven is located in another part of the hill that Dave bulldozed, then lined with tire bales, built out with logs from the property, and roofed.
THE POLITICS OF CHEESE
I talked to Mary in the pizza enclosure one hot day, as some strange beetle gnawed loudly on a log overhead, occasionally sending down a shower of sawdust. She was terrified about the raw milk crackdown that's happening nationally and in Wisconsin. She's convinced that they're coming for the cheesemakers next.
Currently, raw-milk cheeses are allowed in the United States if they’re 60 days old or older. She'd of course like to be making younger cheeses, as she has now and then and sold as "fish bait: not fit for human or animal consumption." She has sold it at the St. Paul Farmers' Market, where presumably avid fisher-people snap it up. "We don't have much money or many material things. All we have is what comes from nature," she says. "And that's a good thing. All you have to do to have raw milk and raw milk cheeses is regulate it. I’m not afraid. My milk is much cleaner than pasteurized milk."
The way the state of Wisconsin regulates its milk is by counting absolute numbers of bacteria, the standard plate count. Milk, after it has been already pasteurized, can have an SPC of 20,000 bacteria per milliliter. Milk destined to be made into cheese is allowed to have an SPC of 1 million bacteria per milliliter. Mary says her raw milk is consistently measured with an SPC of less than 10,000 bacteria. If any, or all, of these numbers sounds high, you might have an incorrect notion of how many bacteria actually surround you and everything you see. Adults have two to three pounds of microbes—that is, bacteria, yeast, and other tiny creatures in and on us—at all times; they're also currently in your garden and on your walls and on everything you can see, except the moon, sun, and stars. Heavily pregnant women's whole microbiome changes, with digestive microbes moving to the birth canal; the act of being born is also a biological christening with necessary bacteria.
The way Mary sees it, good cheese does not repudiate its connection with nature; rather, it is the land from which it comes, from the wolves and eagles to the invisible microbes, that makes the caves of France taste like the caves of France and the caves of Wisconsin taste like the caves of Wisconsin. "I remember that first time I felt the cheese in the vat: What is that? That's the curd firming up. And that understanding: This is the milk I have, so how can I get to the flavor I want? Why are people so afraid of nature?"
She launches into a complicated scientific argument about how the cheese-making process destroys pathogens, about how the fact that food has microbiology at all is a foreign idea to many. We understand antibacterial soap, but we don't understand that without the microbiome of bacteria on our very own hands, our skin wouldn't work; it would crack and split. We understand killing bacteria in food. We don't understand that bacteria are not an outside thing, they are part of the thing—they are part of the wolves and the flowers and us. She leans back and listens to a blue heron baying from a nearby pond. "But I don't know if most people even understand where cheese comes from," she muses. "It's easier to be afraid than to learn something. Between the politicians and the coyotes, I prefer the coyotes."