hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues October 2021


A farmstead cheese maker rebuilds

Consider Bardwell resumes scaled-down operation after safety scare


The self-service farm store in the barn at Consider Bardwell Farm is open again now that the farm’s cheese production has resumed. The farm suspended operation in 2019 after a contamination scare. Joan K. Lentini photo


The self-service farm store in the barn at Consider Bardwell Farm is open again now that the farm’s cheese production has resumed. The farm suspended operation in 2019 after a contamination scare. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


Two years ago, Consider Bardwell Farm was in the midst of expansion.
What had begun in 2004 as one of the region’s first farmstead cheese-making operations had grown gradually as it won acclaim for its artisanal goat’s milk cheeses. By 2019 it was buying more goat’s and cow’s milk from other farms and adding staff as it produced more varieties and larger quantities.

Then a food-safety scare cost the farm more than $200,000 of its inventory. The loss nearly shut down the business for good. The Covid-19 pandemic thwarted a plan to resume operations in 2020.

This year, though, Consider Bardwell is back and rebuilding. But its scale will remain smaller than before.

“We’ve pulled back on production,” said Angela Miller, who owns the farm with her husband, Russell Glover. “We returned with a fresh new business plan.”


A 19th century tradition
Miller and Glover bought the 305-acre farm in early 2001, originally as a weekend retreat. When she’s not on the farm, Miller is a literary agent for authors of books on food, food politics, and cheese in particular. Glover is an architect trained in Great Britain.

The notion of making their own cheese at the farm emerged as Miller learned about the history of their West Pawlet property.

“It was the first dairy co-op in Vermont,” Miller said.
In 1864, Consider Stebbins Bardwell, who owned the farm, a tool business and a slate quarry, saw neighboring women struggling to keep their farms going while the men were away fighting in the Civil War.

“He invited the farms along the road to become a co-op and bring their morning milk,” Miller said.
Bardwell processed the milk into butter and cheddar cheese, and a railroad that ran through the property took the products to market. The Nelsonville Cheese Factory bought the business a few years later. Cheese making continued until the late 1930s, when the Depression put an end to it, Miller said. The farm continued as a dairy operation until 1994.

When Miller and Glover arrived seven years later, the expansive white barn, silos, brick house and outbuildings were standing, but the land was grown up in brush. It was ideal for goats. Miller and Glover started with six Oberhasli goats, a variety of Swiss Alpine, and hired a French-trained cheese maker.

As the herd grew, the farm expanded its production to cows’ milk cheeses, taking advantage of the rich Jersey milk from neighboring Indian River Farm. Indian River was one of the original members of the 19th century co-op and supplied the organization’s first cheese maker.

After Consider Bardwell Farm resumed making cheese in the current century under its new owners, the farm’s handmade goat’s and cow’s cheeses won national and international awards. Consider Bardwell sold to restaurants, cheese shops and grocery stores including Whole Foods. It also sold directly to customers at farmers markets.

“We used to be at 15 markets in New York City,” Miller said. “We had a warehouse, a manager and salespeople. It just grew and grew and grew. We became a nationally known brand.”
Miller and Glover also wanted to be good stewards of the land. Consider Bardwell was the first farm east of the Mississippi to enroll in the federal Grassland Reserve Program. Nearly 300 acres at the farm are permanently conserved as grassland. The hay and pasture is certified 100 percent organic by the Northeast Organic Farming Association.

Miller and Glover have partnered with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service to protect the Indian River and its tributaries and to improve wildlife habitat. The farm is Animal Welfare Approved, and in 2013 it shared a joint award from the Vermont Sustainable Agriculture Council as the state’s Sustainable Agriculture Farm of the Year.


Contamination scare
Two years ago, Miller and Glover decided to expand. They were making seven varieties of cheese and shipping 120,000 pounds a year. Their goat herd was up to 140 milking does, plus kids and bucks.

“We hired more people and were buying milk,” Miller said.
They spent their cash reserves on the expansion but expected to make it up during the year’s last quarter, historically their most profitable.

Then they discovered a pathogen, Listeria monocytogenes, in routine testing of a batch of raw milk washed rind goat cheese. The milk for that batch had come from an outside supplier.

Listeria occurs naturally in moist environments, including soil, water and decaying leaves. Unlike many bacteria, it’s not slowed by refrigeration. It can contaminate food, especially raw foods, and cause an illness called listeriosis. Recent outbreaks have been tied to raw sprouts, cantaloupe, raw milk and cheeses, smoked seafood and cold deli meats and hot dogs.

Pasteurization kills listeria. With modern sanitation, it’s rare in commercial dairy products. State dairy officials said the occurrence at Consider Bardwell Farm was the first detected in Vermont in at least 35 years.

About 1,600 people annually come down with listeriosis, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and an average of 260 of them die. At most risk are adults age 65 and older, people with compromised immune systems and pregnant women. The mothers don’t usually die, but listeriosis can cause miscarriages, stillbirth and newborn death.

Consider Bardwell Farm tests every batch of cheese before it’s shipped, Miller said.
“It’s expensive, but it allows you to sleep at night,” she said. “None of that batch ever went out.”
The farm recalled previous batches of that variety, even though they had tested clean. Two other varieties of raw milk washed rind cheeses had been aged in the same cave. Though there had been no problem with those cheeses, Miller and Glover recalled them as well. Their other cheeses had lower moisture and aged longer, which effectively kills the pathogen.


A wedge of goat’s milk cheese rests on a copy of farm owner Angela Miller’s book in this photo taken in 2018. Joan K. Lentini file photo >


Shutting down, regrouping
All together, the farm destroyed $200,000 worth of its products. There were no reports of illnesses traced to the farm, and after four months, the recall expired.
“No one got hurt, or worse,” Miller said.

The farm worked with state and federal agencies to ensure facilities were sanitary and ready to start up again.

But the money had run out. When Miller and Glover had to meet payroll out of their own savings, “it was time to take a step back,” she said.

They let their employees go and dispersed the goat herd.
“We shut down at the tail end of October and reorganized our funds,” she said. “We planned to reopen in March.”

Instead, the pandemic struck, and the reopening plans were put on hold.
“I’m glad we didn’t” reopen, Miller said. “The whole world had to learn to live a different way.”
She said the farm’s “secret weapon” was Glover, who not only can run “any piece of equipment on the farm” but is also “very resourceful at writing grant proposals.”

The farm was able to get help from the federal Payroll Protection Program and Small Business Administration as well as from state grants to qualified businesses, including a Vermont working lands grant. Those grants are for farmers who use good conservation practices, so the farm’s conservation measures paid off, Miller said.

The couple had opened an Airbnb vacation rental in one of the farmhouses before the pandemic.
“It was a lifesaver,” Miller said. “It did fabulously during the pandemic. People were desperate to get away.”

The farm allowed pets, and guests were “pretty considerate” about following the rules, she said.
“We were able to start making and selling cheese in July of 2020,” Miller said. “We were only shut down for nine months, but at a horrific time in the world.”

Along with new batches of cheese, the farm had some unaffected stock from 2019, and collaborated with Grafton Village Cheese to age and sell some of its cheddar.
“We want to continue the collaboration,” Miller said.


Pared-down operation
For the time being, the farm is only making three varieties of cow’s milk cheeses, with milk supplied by Indian River Farm. Milk for the washed rind cheese, the variety more prone to contamination, is pasteurized. The other two, which are cheddar types, use raw milk.
“Raw milk cheese has more taste of the land,” Miller said.

The staff at the farm has dropped from 20 to 10 or 12 full- and part-time employees. Miller and Glover pitch in as needed. Cheese production this year is expected to reach 30,000 pounds, or 25 percent of the 2019 level.

“Everything is more conservative now,” Miller said. “We opened an e-commerce section on our website, but we’re sticking mostly to the Northeast. We’re not looking for a wholesaler in California.”

The farm ships to the lower 48 states, and it participates in farmers markets in Dorset, Rutland, Londonderry and Bennington in Vermont and in Shelter Island, N.Y. There’s also a self-service store at the farm.

The plan is to build back to 60,000 pounds of cheese per year. Miller brought 10 of her goats home and would like to return to goat’s milk cheeses, but “there’s not a rock-solid plan yet,” she said.

“I’d have to find reliable staff,” she explained. “I want to build a closed system with all the animals on the farm born here, and all the [goat’s] milk produced here so I know their genetics and medical history.”

In any case, the farm will never have 140 goats again, Miller said. Does can have two or three kids at a time.

“Kidding time was rough,” she said.
The new staff includes cheese makers, a facilities manager, a consultant for public relations, a commissioned sales person, a milk hauler, and a person to handle social media and digital marketing. Miller and Glover also hired a microbiologist from the University of Vermont to ensure food safety.

“Most cheese makers spend a good 20 percent of their revenue on food safety,” Miller said.
Because of those expenses, Consider Bardwell’s cheese isn’t cheap. Prices start at $7.99 for an eight-ounce container of cheese bites and go to $28 for the 12-ounce Dorset Mini.

“There’s still a price resistance to these expensive cheeses,” Miller admitted. “A customer has to be someone who would spend $25 for a bottle of wine.”

But she is determined to press ahead.
“I’m very proud of what we did here over 10 years,” Miller said. “I’m loath to give up on that dream, and I’m stubborn.”

Visit www.considerbardwellfarm.com for more information about Consider Bardwell Farm and its cheeses.