By Carolyn Ossorio
We were three hours from Seattle and at least a half an hour from cell coverage when we hung a right at the Willapa Hills Farm sign. We continued down a long driveway toward a farm nestled on the banks of the Chehalis River — 100 acres of beautiful timbered hills and lowland pastures populated by over a hundred milking ewes grazing in the fields.
Willapa Hills Sheep Dairy and Farmstead Cheese owner Amy was there to greet us and she flashed me that universal mom smile of understanding as my brood and I tumbled out of the minivan (Amy and her husband Stephen have three children: Willem, 10; Lucas, 8; Lillian Grace, 6).
In 2005 Amy, a naturopathic physician, and Stephen, who worked in faith-based non-profits, left behind city life to raise their family and milking sheep at the historic Stannek family farmstead.
I’ve often had a similar dream. At home we have our own “working” farm: A half-acre for our dog, cat, gerbils, guinea pigs, chickens and rabbits to graze upon. The chickens were attacked and eaten one night by raccoons and the guinea pigs by our neighbor’s dogs… Farm life isn’t easy or for the faint of heart.
My daughters — Sophie, 13 and Amelia, 9 — are anxious to experience what it’s like to work on a real farm, or, more specifically, what it is like to help farm animals being born and to milk animals for food.
I figured it was beyond time to get these kids to a real milking farm the day Amelia ran into the house and blurted out, “Mom! I just milked Roxy!”
Roxy, her rabbit, had recently given birth to a litter and Amelia had been heavily involved in the breeding process.
“How exactly do you milk a rabbit?” I asked. I had seen Roxie’s “teats” and the feat seemed nearly impossible.
“Like this,” Amelia said, pausing to lift her hands into the air, she pinched her thumbs and pointer fingers together into micro crab pincers and wiggled them up and down.
“I wanted to see for myself what bunny milk looked like,” she explained matter-of-factly.
Amelia’s curiosity is infectious.
“What does it look like?” I asked her.
“It looks clear, kinda like tap water that’s a bit cloudy.”
I’m always thrilled when my kids are curious about how stuff works, and part of what I love about being a mom is figuring out how opportunities and wasy to encourage their curiosity that don’t include buying a goat.
That day spent on the Willapa Hills Farm our farming curiosity was sated. We learned how to make cheese, milk sheep, collect eggs from chickens; we caught and released a frog down by the Chehalis River that runs through the property; we toured a shipping container that Amy and Stephen transformed into the new Willapa Hills Country Store that sells cheese and wine; and watched a pack of pony-sized wooly white “working” dogs whose job it was to fend off coyotes.
Willipa Hills Fresh Sheep Milk Cheese With Marinated Tomatoes
One to two fresh rounds of Willapa White or other fresh lactic-style sheep milk cheese (cut into 1/4 inch round slices)
8 large tomatoes (cut into 1/4 inch thick slices)
2/3 cup olive oil
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 chopped green onion
4 Tbsp. capers
2 cloves of crushed garlic
1 to 2 tsp. salt to taste
Fresh ground pepper to taste
Fresh chopped basil to taste
Fresh parsley to tastes
Place sliced tomatoes in a glass serving dish or deep plate. Set a sliced round of Willapa White onto each tomato slice. Spoon dressing over tomatoes and cheese and marinate for several hours in the refrigerator.
We also learned how the Whole Foods Local Loan Producer Program has been instrumental in making Amy and Stephen’s farming dreams come true.
That day on our visit to the farm we had the pleasure of meeting Denise Breyley, Whole Foods Market Forager for the Pacific Northwest region. Denise grew up on a small family farm in Ohio and has worked at Whole Foods Market since 1985. Denise’s job is connecting Whole Foods customers to the people who grow, raise and produce the products stocked in Whole Foods stores and sharing their stories.
“The Local Producer Loan Program provides low-interest loans to help local producers flourish. In addition to featuring local products in our stores we’re putting our money where our mouths are by providing up to $10 million in low-interest loans to independent local farmers and food artisans. We’re proud to support small producers who need a hand, not a handout, to help them make their dreams reality.”
As a mom of five, I spend a lot of time in grocery stores. I love supporting local farmers and artisans. I became curious about Amy and Stephen’s story after reading about them at Whole Foods and devouring their delicious award-winning Big Boy Bleu artisanal cheese spread.
For farmers like Amy and Stephen being discovered by Denise at their local farmers market where they sell their cheese was as life-changing as a small-town musician being discovered by Simon Cowell.
“The Whole Foods Market Local Producer Loan Program has opened up a world of possibilities for us. The equipment we purchased from the proceeds of their low-interest loan more than doubled the shelf life of our artisan spreads, significantly expanding our potential market area and enhancing their accessibility for consumers.”
“And as for Denise… We have a very select group of family and friends who I call the ‘True Believers’ and Denise is one of them. Denise has been unwavering in her belief in our products and in us as small producers. As we have faced any number of challenges, Denise has always had our back. She is family and any success we achieve is in part thanks to her unwavering support!”
Interested in making your own cheese? Here are some terrific suppliers for families who want to make cheese at home:
The Cellar Homebrew (online store that sells cheese-making supplies and kits)
Get up close to your food! Visit a local farm near you:
Learn more about supporting local small producers:
Information on Whole Foods Market Local Producers Loan Program
Carolyn Ossorio writes about life in the city with her five children in her column for the Renton Reporter as well as regularly blogs for the Huffington Post about her love of cookin’ and trippin’ around the Pacific Northwest with her family. Forks in the Road is her family’s latest adventure — part cooking show, part field trip and 100% inspiring and relatable. Find Carolyn at pippimamma.com or on Facebook.