Artisan Cheese Pioneers:
In Their Own Words: Lettie Kilmoyer

Volume 135, No. 40  - Friday, April 1, 2011

Lettie and Bob Kilmoyer are the founders of Westfield Farm, Hubbardston, MA, a farmhouse cheese operation best known for its surface ripened Blue goat cheese, Hubbardston Blue. Lettie Kilmoyer spoke at the 1994 American Cheese Society conference.

“The man who created Hubbarston Blue is Bob Kilmoyer (Lettie’s husband). He had all the ideas for the product in the first place and I was the record keeper, and I dare say, the washer upper of all the equipment, and of course, I had to get my two cents in there, also. We had, many times there were disagreements about temperature control, etc.

I do feel a bit intimidated talking about the “history” of Hubbardston Blue, when you think of Roquefort being first made in 1070 AD and being protected in 1677, when you are talking about something that is a thousand years old, a hundred times older than Hubbarston Blue, I don’t think it is even fair to say we are a history, but maybe a short story, so far. and we hope that one day history would be an alright word for it.

For those of you that don’t know us, we got into the whole farming of goats and cheesemaking quite by accident. It has been said that our place is a cottage industry whose industry has taken over the cottage. …every square inch of our house and barns and cheesemaking facility has been taken up. My husband’s office is in the hallway, my office is in our bedroom; we have a refrigerator in the living room; and we have five employees who live in the house with us.

It’s the one way we have been able to grow and make Hubbardston Blue, well, you’ve heard a lot about cost, and not being able to charge for the cheese the hours and time you put into it …

We became cheese lovers in 1981, and ... were experimenting with the Hubbardston Blue with one gallon, maybe two gallons of milk at a time. So we were able to make six or 12 cheeses, and we did that for at least a year, keeping meticulous records. A very crude method, we didn’t even have the separate aging room…(sic)

We would separate the milk according to the type of cheeses, fresh or Blue, then add the penicillin roqueforti. To this day no one knows how we can get away with making our fresh with our blue, but we do. We made our own little cave by putting them in a basket covered with saran, putting a little hole in the top and then watch the moisture to see if we needed more air.

We purchase starter from a lab, then use it to make a mother culture, and from the mother culture make the culture we are going to be using, renewing it every three days and keep that going, sometimes for as long as six months.

You can tell when you have a good culture, and when it is good, you want to keep it going as long as you can, you are reluctant to give up a good culture. It is possible to do, but if you forget to make the culture, you are really in trouble for the next day, and you used to be able to go and buy buttermilk which has cremoris in it, but these days they add a thickening agent and all the whey will come streaming off the bags, and I don’t recommend it.

Had we known more about cheesemaking we would never have tried to make this cheese. We did not want veins, so we put the blue on the surface. Our skills at that time on a scale of one to 10 would have been a minus 20. After doing this for probably two years, and seeing some success, and hearing some good reports from cheese shop owners who said “we can sell this,” but also know that we had not yet developed a consistent product.

It has certainly caused contest confusion...We understand that one year it was discarded totally because it didn’t look like anything anyone had ever seen, and they said this must be spoiled.
—Lettie Kilmoyer, Westfield Farm

We had a French gentleman who visited us and everything was wonderful, the goats, the fresh cheese, but then we tasted the Hubbardston Blue he said, you will never succeed with this cheese. We were too far along in the process to give up, we just needed to get consistency. We now make 200 cheeses a week.

Ripening begins to show at three weeks, we try and assure the stores about three weeks of continued ripening so they have time to sell. In spite of our problems along the way, we have had chefs who were willing to buy the mistakes for about a dollar to make their sauces.

We did not make a profit on the cheese until today, but it helps sell our fresh cheeses, and there are other rewards. We think of it as advertising, as it has given us national recognition, so we no longer have to market as we did in the beginning, and it has enabled us to get our other cheeses into the marketplace, where we might have gotten told “we have no room.” To get the Blue, they will order a larger order by filling it out with our fresh cheese, and also the Blue log.

It has certainly caused contest confusion, the first time we entered the cheese. We understand that one year it was discarded totally because it didn’t look like anything anyone had ever seen, and they said this must be spoiled.
Another year they deducted all these points because it had no veins. Afterwards, they were kind enough to make a new category, Surface Ripened Blue.

Doing the farming, the animals, the cheesemaking and the marketing as one business, along the way we began to realize, no wonder the industry has farms, and then milk supplied to the cheese plants. It evolved that way for good reason. Several of us who came along in the 80s and tried to go backwards, not knowing any better, started as we did, with animals and cheesemaking, gave up the animals to concentrate on the cheesemaking. Many times we considered doing just that. We decided we would not go that way, in fact, we are adding animals...

I started talking about ...history but we have to think about the future if Hubbardston is going to be around long enough to have a history. Bob and I have a combined age of over 110, one must think of
what will happen, and how we went through all of this without ancestors or books to teach us, and our children have no interest, nor can we blame them, so we are taking steps to think of how to sell our business to someone who has the same passion as we do, as we think only an owner would have the passion to get up and turn the cheeses late at night, and go out and make the culture.

And of course, we ask ourselves, who could that be? Who would buy our business and move in with five employees? So we are working on making it more attractive, and offering to take as much time as needed to train the person, and not just how to make the cheese but the whole running of the tiny little business, which is a world unto itself. Most people have the problem of volume, we decided to not have the volume to be able to watch the quality ...be able to manage it.

People do not understand how many hours it takes to make an aged cheese. There is a limit to what they will pay. I am not complaining about this. I think we have had return in other ways. We were warned early on that you have about three seconds of a person’s time in the supermarket!”

(Westfield Farm was bought by the Stetsons, who continue to win awards. -

Dan Strongin is managing partner and owner of Edible Solutions, a consulting company focused on helping companies making great food make a profit. He will be writing a monthly column in Cheese Reporter. Strongin can be reached via phone at (510) 224-0493, or via e-mail at dan@danstrongin.com. You can visit and blog with Dan at www.managenaturally.com.

 

Other Strongin Articles written for Cheese Reporter

dot In Their Own Words: Fritz Maytag
dot In Their Own Words: Paula Lambert
dot Show Me the Money: Cost Accounting
dot Cost Accounting Chokes, Part 2: Inventory

dot Cost Accounting Is Choking Your Business, Part 1
dot It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over
dot Raw Reason
dot A Story For The Holiday Season, Part II
dot A Story For The Holiday Season
dot Truth In Labeling
dot This Too Shall Pass or "What were we thinking?"
dot Marketing Language That Resonates
dot When Will We Ever Learn?
dot Cheese Competitions In The Context Of Marketing

dot Economy
dot Even The Best Laid Plans Go Astray
dot Root Causes: Communication
dot Partners
dot Diamond Cutting:
dot
It's What You Don't Know That Can Hurt You
dot Integrity and Ethics
dot Pricing:  The Perceived Value
Designing the Effective Sell Sheet
Common Sense
It All Begins in The Mouth
Of Cars...

The Gathering Storm
As Our Industry Evolves, So Should Our Terminology:

Other Cheese Reporter Guest Columnists
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