×

Cheesemaker Details Her ‘Conscientious Resourcefulness’

  • Liz Guenther, of The Three Cow Creamery in Corinth, Vt., takes the harness off of Bob, her 20-year-old horse, at her home on April 17, 2016. Guenther uses Bob for pulling firewood logs and other uses around the farm. Guenther has been farming with horses for years.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Liz Guenther, of Corinth, Vt., holds Blossom as an incentive for her calf Belen to come into the barn on a rainy afternoon on May 1, 2016, at her home. Guenther's cows raise their calves, letting them stay with the mothers until they are weaned. Dogs Molly and Ned were there as well. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Liz Guenther, of Corinth, Vt., works in her cheese room near her home on April 17, 2016. Guenther has several varieties that are in different stages of developement. Gueunther lives off the grid she uses a space near her home to house her cheese room, which has electricity. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Liz Guenther, of Corinth, Vt., walks down to her garden to pick ingredients for food she was making for the Hanover Farmers Market, on July 6, 2016. Most of the ingredients she uses come from her farm. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Blossom with her calf Belen stand in Liz Guenther's hay bedded barn. Rosemary, a 10-year-old cow was brought into the milking parlor to be milked on May 1, 2016, in Corinth, Vt. Guenther lets her cows raise their calves. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • With a bouquet of volunteer poppies from her garden Liz Guenther makes infused rose water at her home in Corinth, Vt., on July 6, 2016. She would be using the rose water to make jelly and for her tarts.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • In the hayfield on a hot day, Liz Guenther, of Corinth, Vt., looks under the hood of their farm truck with sons Sam Pollard, 20, left, and Silas Pollard, 17.The truck was releasing some smoke and they were trying to find out where it was coming from on July 4, 2016. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • At her home off the grid, Liz Guenther rolls out a butter pastry crust for a savory tart on July 6, 2016, for the Hanover Farmers market. Geunther cooks with her wood cookstove. On a hot summer day the house becomes very warm. Many of the ingredients come from her farm she also forages for wild mushrooms and other edibles. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Liz Guenther, of Corinth, Vt., stacks hay on July 4, 2016, in a field near her home. Guenther has been using the hay baler she used when she was 15, haying with her brother. Guenther had her two sons and a neighboor helping with haying that day. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



STORY BYAIMEE CARUSO
Saturday, August 06, 2016
Corinth— In the sluggish afternoon heat, farmer and cheesemaker Liz Guenther stands near her booth at the Hanover Area Farmers Market, fielding questions from shoppers.

Lisa Taback buys a rose jelly tart studded with wild black raspberries and asks how to make the jelly. Guenther, 52, describes the process and wraps up the pastry.

“That’s so beautiful,” Taback, a Los Angeles resident, says to her teenage daughter. “I want to make that when we get home.”

Handmade fruit tarts perched atop white trays. Sturdy wheels of raw milk Cheshire and blue Stilton. Crusty, thyme-speckled pork pasties nestled into a basket lined with crabapple-red cloth. It’s no wonder Guenther’s creations catch shoppers’ eyes. Yet, she says, looks aren’t the point.

“(People) say, ‘I love your aesthetic,’ ” said Guenther, who described her work in interviews at the market and her farm, Three Cow Creamery. “It’s not an aesthetic. It’s a conscientious resourcefulness.”

A self-described disciple of agrarian poet Wendell Berry, Guenther is guided by traditional farming methods, from how she treats her animals to the food she makes to sell at the Norwich and Hanover farmers markets, including terrines and beef liver pate. “When I (butcher an animal), I use everything, ears, nose, tail. That’s part of the closed circle.”

Talking with people at farmers markets provides a great chance for her to find out what people know and don't know, what they care and don't care about, and what they want more of, she said. That’s “part of loop, too.” 

In addition to meat animals and dairy cows, Guenther grows vegetable and flowers and forages for mushrooms and berries. Searching for ways to use what the 180-acre property provides, she turns to Julia Child and old European recipes, which “had a tradition of using everything.” She aims for resourcefulness, rather than frugality, and used the example of a pig’s head to illustrate the distinction: terrine with Marsala wine, or scrapple?

“What excites me is not what I can make, but what this little farm, this little household, can produce,” said Guenther, who has master’s degrees in art history from Williams College and Princeton University. Using those ingredients, “How many beautiful things can I make?”

A Hopkinton, N.H., native, she moved to the hillside property in 1988, after graduating from college. Her father had bought the land in the 1970s, and when he died, left it to her and her brother. Guenther had hiked the land with her father, with whom she was very close.

The property “means everything” to her, in large part because of that connection, and she has an affection for the land itself, she said. “The whole thing is protected and exposed to the sun from very early morning. It’s just the nicest place for animals.”

Over the decades, she’s held various jobs off the farm, including teaching art history at University of Vermont. For years, she also commuted to a PhD program at Princeton, but being pulled in two directions underscored “the great dilemma” of her life: farm, or teach and study art history? 

Having won travel grants and thousands of dollars in fellowships, leaving the program was the hardest thing she ever did, said Guenther, who intends to return to her research someday. But if she got a PhD, her chances of getting an art history job without having to relocate were “basically one in a million,” and she couldn’t leave the farm.

At that time, a decade ago, she had so much physical energy that she wanted to put it into farming. And she has.

A former farm, the property had fallen into disuse, likely in the 1930s, and by the time Guenther and her husband moved there, just half an acre was open. The couple, who later divorced, lived in a tent, and later in a 17-foot Airstream trailer. One winter, they stayed in a neighbor’s cabin, all the while working to restore the land. 

“A huge part of what I love to do, and the way I think about farming, is to try to find the old bones of this farm,” she said. “Seems to me it’s a really sweet, graceful kind of farm.”

Rather than imposing a predetermined plan on the land and animals, she’s always listening and learning, Solving for Pattern, Guenther said, using the title of Berry’s well known essay. “I’m always looking around. How is the grass growing? How does the soil feel? … You have an idea of what you want to do, and then you see how it fits the land, the size of the fields, the climate, how long the summer is,” when she needs to hay, make cheese, butcher animals or wean calves.

Over time, she’s seen that calves nurse heavily and bond with their mothers for about six weeks, and then start to ease off. If she adhered strictly to nature’s rules, she’d never wean them, Guenther said, but she interferes as little as possible “with the natural life of cows.”

There’s still more land to clear, but Guenther says she’s seen improvements. What was once filled with juniper, lichen and strawberries has become lush pasture. The soil is springier, thicker.

“This is my huge triumph,” she said, gazing at the hillside in front of her house. “It took 20 years to turn that into a field.”

A first generation farmer, Guenther considers herself a beginner. Yet growing up, she had some exposure to farming. Her family kept sheep, pigs, a donkey, and horses as a hobby, and she and her brother, Pete, started their own haying business, with some of the same equipment Guenther still uses. The siblings visited various farms, including the Owen farm in Hopkinton, where Guenther’s good friend lived and she took horseback riding lessons.

The family had an old barn, an old house and not much land, but they managed, said Guenther, who received her first lessons in milking and making butter there. Their small scale farm and diversity of livestock have served as a model for her.

Over the years, more of her income has come from farming. Guenther had been making cheese, butter and yogurt for years, and in late 2014, after a long application process and numerous inspections, she became certified to sell her cheese legally. 

Although it’s the life she’s chosen, it’s not easy. Guenther also has two other jobs, making color woodblock prints for a local artist and gardening, and most days she works from 5 a.m. until at least 9 p.m. Her affection for the land keeps her going when it gets hard, she said. And she has help, from neighbors and her children.

“I’m extremely grateful for my two helpful sons,” Silas, 17 and Sam, 20, who are “a huge part” of keeping the place running, said Guenther, who pays them for their labor, and their friends sometimes pitch in, too.

A $3,500 Farm Viability Enhancement Program grant helped her set up the cheese room, and provided business planning. Several “cheese angels” have each given her “a tidy sum” toward the business, and other community members provided her with a low-interest loan. Her first lessons in cheesemaking came years ago from fellow farmers, and she’s frequently consults with Vermont cheese guru Peter Dixon and an award-winning cheesemaker in Ontario.

Help from her neighbors Joe and Sarah Nolin, sheep farmers who own the building where she makes her cheese, has “made the difference, probably, between standing and falling,” said Guenther, who purchased equipment for the site and had it inspected.

Sarah Nolin said they were “really happy” to be able to form a partnership with a neighbor.

“She’s done a lot of work on (the cheese house),” including installing heat and painting, Nolin said. “It’s nice to see it in use.”

Her “very little farm business” isn’t making her rich quickly, by any means, said Guenther, who sells her camembert at Cedar Circle Farm in East Thetford. But cheese sales are starting to pay her taxes and bills. And she’s been able to cut back her gardening hours. 

Eventually, she’d like to turn her attention to farming full time, and may expand the number of cows she’s milking from three cows to five. And there are any number of improvements she hopes to make.

“If I live to be 108, I’ll be set,” Guenther joked.

She’s still working to “close the circle,” or cut back on the creation of waste and “inputs” to the farm, which include hay and a little bit of grain. She buys flour for her pastries, and with no cream leftover after making cheese, butter. And then, there are the non-business related items.

“My kids eat potato chips. We throw out potato chip bags,” she said. “It’s not some noble thing.”

Yet much is recycled and repurposed. Guenther renders lard and tallow for baking. She cooks the blood from slaughtered animals and feeds it to her chickens. Whey from the cheese goes to the pigs; meat scraps to the dogs, cats or chickens; unusable bits of vegetable to the cows. Firewood from the property fuels the woodstove, which she cooks on, and solar panels provide the electricity.

She rarely trucks live animals on or off the farm, which saves on fossil fuel usage and works out better for the animals, she said, and avoids certain shortcuts that can be made, usually for farmers’ convenience or to make more money sooner.

“Unless it’s a threat to my life,” Guenther handles all of her animals. She handmilks her cows, which is enjoyable and doesn’t take much time, and doesn’t steer her bulls or dehorn her cows.

“I love to not … torment or maim animals,” she said. But, she added, that doesn't mean the farm is a petting zoo.

At the Hanover market, a picture of Arlan, a bull she butchered last year, was displayed next to a plate of beef pasties. 

“People say, ‘I don't know how you do it,’” Guenther said. “I say, ‘It’s hard, and sometimes I cry. But it’s part of the cycle.’ ”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.