Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese
Travel Stage: Kentucky
Summary: We try our first boondocking location using our “Harvest Host” membership. We wind up at Kennys Farmhouse cheese in South Central Kentucky where we learn a lot about cheese, dairy cows, and farm operations – plus save a pony’s life and do some landscaping.
Harvest Hosts is a RV membership program that connects RVers with farms, vineyards, and other agricultural locations. It is a membership we’ve been thinking about getting for a while now, and we finally pulled the trigger when we ventured to southern central Kentucky, on our way north from Nashville.
Nestled in the rolling grassy hills of Kentucky is a farm with 140 head of dairy cows and a small artisan cheese making factory. After several miles of narrow windy hilly roads (our favorite) we arrived and met Kenny Mattingly, who owns and operates the farm with his wife Beverly. He immediately invited us to come see how their cheese was made the following morning.
We eagerly agreed and then situated ourselves on their property – surrounded by curious young heffers who will join the milking lot when their older. (We would learn so much more about the cows during our stay.)
How is Cheese Made?
Tom and I didn’t realize how dairy-ignorant we were before coming to Kennys farmhouse cheese . We were so excited to get this opportunity because this is EXACTLY one of the reasons we wanted to do this adventure! To learn and grow, become more aware of our world. We like many of you out there love cheese, so to learn what ACTUALLY goes into making it was quite fascinating and enlightening. At a high level, we knew that cheese was made from milk, and milk comes from cows. It also had some living stuff in it that made it what it was. Now we know it goes a bit more like this:
Slightly more complicated, eh?
We suited up in hairnets, lab coats and booties to join Kenny in the cheese making room. Two large vats were in the center of the room. One was stirring its contents: light yellow liquid with small white chunks. The other looked like it was just full of milk. Pipes ran all over the place with valves and gauges every few feet.
Kenny greeted us and in between checking all those gauges and valves, temperatures and pHs of the vats, he explained the general flow.
1) The cows
When we visited 140 dairy cows are raised and cared for on Kennys Farmhouse cheese property. They are checked daily to see if they are in heat. If they are, fertilization is attempted. If the cow becomes pregnant she is gradually removed from milk duty and put on “maternity leave” about 2-3 months before the baby is due. Babies are born, and the females are raised to replenish the herd when they are of milk producing age. Males are sold typically to feed lots (you did know where hamburger and steak came from, right?). When the females stop producing milk, they are “culled” from the herd and also sold. Kenny said typically dairy cows produce milk for 3-4 years. His cows generally produce for 6-7 years.
Kenny’s cows are grass and silage fed. The silage is made from a combination of hay, grain, and nutrients to ensure the cows get all the energy and nutrients they need for their milk production. All the cows are all milked twice per day, 3AM and 3PM, and each cow can produce about 75 pound of milk per day. They are milked by a machine attached to their utters after workers hand-clean and sterilize them. We watched this process, and it is amazing the amount of milk that comes out of one cow!
2) The Milk
About 1/3 of Kenny’s milk is sold to a milk distributor, but milk production is nowhere near as profitable as cheese. Kenny said that this is because milk prices have not changed in 30 years. With pressure to keep costs down and production high to make slim profit margins, we could see how dairy operations primarily doing milk cannot afford lower producing cows (shorter useful life) or perhaps feed better quality diets. Kenny has chosen to add value to this milk by making it into artisan cheese which results in a higher margin. He dreams of someday converting all of his milk into cheese. The milk flows from the collection machine through tubes right into the pasteurizer machine. The pasteurizer raises the temperature of the milk to 160 degrees F for at least 30 seconds and then cools it back down to a workable temperature. The pasteurization is to kill any bacteria in the milk that may be harmful. From the pasteurizer it is pumped into the vats to be made into cheese.
Fun Fact: Kenny used to make lots of raw milk cheese but per FDA requirement changes in recent years he can only make certain low-risk cheeses with raw milk – hard, drier, aged cheeses, like asiago.
3) Ripening, Renneting, Cutting, and Cooking
The vat keeps the milk at a specific temperature for the cheese being made. Once in the vat, a starter culture is added to acidify the milk. Once the desired pH is achieved, an enzyme called rennet is added which coagulates the milk protein into cheese curd. You’ve heard of cheese curds, right? After the milk is coagulated, Kenny takes a giant cheese slicer and drags it through the vat to cut the curd mass into tiny pieces. This releases the whey that is trapped inside the curd mass. The whey is a cloudy liquid. You’ve heard of whey, right? That protein stuff in your energy shake? The is super processed and filtered whey.
4) Draining, Salting, Pressing, Drying, Waxing
Once the cut curd is cooked, the whey is drained from the curd. Kenny has a special drain in the floor of the cheese shop for the whey which is added to the cow manure pile and makes for excellent fertilizer. Pressing the cheese with a mechanical press removes the last of the whey from the cheese.
Salting seasons and helps preserve the cheese, as well as aids in the drying process which develops a protective rind. Depending on the cheese it is waxed for additional protection.
In the back were stacks of containers in the shape of curling stones from which Kenny was removing large wheels of freshly pressed cheese. He shaved off some edges for us to try. Yum!
Fun Fact: it takes 10 pounds of milk to make 1 pound of cheese! So a cow that produces 75 pounds of milk a day can make 7.5 pounds of cheese!
5) Aging and Bacteria
Then the cheese is aged so the flavor can develop – just like good wine and bourbon! With cheese, it’s all about the bacteria. We walked into a room devoted to bleu cheeses, and that where things started to get funky. Normally when you see mold on food, you throw it away. With cheese making, you control it. You want the bacteria to do its work, but not run away with the cheese. We met a guy named Will who was cleaning the cheese wheels with a vinegar solution and brushing off the excess mold.
All the cheeses were routinely cleaned and rotated, and the room was kept as a stable temp and humidity to promote the desired growth for the desired flavor of cheese.
In addition to the “bleu room” there was a “white room” with other varieties of cheeses undergoing the aging process and another room where other treatments where being done on the cheese, i.e. soaking in sour beer or coffee – yes, coffee!
6) Packaging & Storage
Once aged to perfection the cheese is packaged and stored until shipped. All the storage rooms and the treatment rooms were built into the hillside so they are underground to help with the cooling and insulation.
7) Taste Testing
While Kenny and his team have recipes they follow for their signature cheeses, there is always a chance something doesn’t go quite right. This is why every new batch of cheese is taste tested to ensure quality control. After walking through the behind-the-scenes process, we got to do a little taste-testing ourselves!
Kenny’s Cheese Varieties
Kenny’s makes nearly 30 different types of cheese. They make American style, European style, Cheddar, and many Signature cheeses (secret family recipes!). We ended up buying the Chipotle Colby and the Norwood – which was an intensely flavored white cheese – but honestly they were all amazing. Check out all Kenny’s varieties at their Website. You can taste Kennys farmhouse cheese if you visit too!
A Helping Hand
We ended up staying at Kenny’s Farm for 6 days instead of the customary 1 or 2 nights at Harvest Host locations. This was because of a certain miniature horse we found (other blog post) and because we offered to do some work for Kenny.
We finished the landscaping project that had been started previously in front of the cheese shop. It involved building the retaining wall, filling the dirt, planting the shrubs and flowers, and laying down landscape fabric and stone on top.
We left Kenny’s Farmhouse cheese with lots of new friends, a new appreciation of artisan cheese, and a beautiful new landscaped garden!
If you haven’t already, you should consider joining Harvest Hosts! You’ll find unique and fun places to stay like this one (not all of them put you to work :D). Get 15% off your sign up using the promo code in the following link: Harvest Hosts.
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