Brothers produce artisanal cheese in East Bethany

Aug 5, 2011

EAST BETHANY - Two brothers with degrees from prestigious universities believe they have found their calling in life, and it's far from the ivory tower.

Trystan Sandvoss, 32, and his brother Max, 31, are up before sunrise feeding and milking their herd of goats. They use that milk, which is high in protein and solids, to produce their line of artisanal cheeses, products that have become very popular at five farmers' markets since late May.

This is a lifestyle based on work and careful attention, said Max, who earned an English degree from Harvard. "I love working with the animals, setting my own schedule, and making a product that people really love."

Max and Trystan turned a former horse stable on East Road into a home for 49 goats and a creamery for cheese-making. It was 18 months of hard work, with little revenue coming in while they developed their herd, their cheese products and a market.

Their early-morning routine inspired the name of their farm and business: First Light Farm & Creamery. Trystan, who earned degrees in history and religion from Northwestern, said the name also speaks to new beginnings and endless possibilities with the dawn of a new day.

The two brothers grew up in suburbia in the Hudson Valley. In their 20s, they worked at four different creameries in the Pacific Northwest, serving as apprentices to artisan cheese makers. That part of the country in Oregon and Washington seemed too saturated for a new creamery, they said.

So the brothers looked to Western New York, where their mother Joyce was married to their stepfather, Alexander dairy farmer Dick Barie.

Trystan and Max bought the former horse farm 18 months ago and went to work growing their herd, acquiring a milking parlor and designing their own production facility.

They milk 23 Nubian goats, and also buy organic Jersey milk from their neighbor, Brent Tillotson, whose herd produces high-quality milk with lots of butterfat. Tillotson's farm is about 3 miles from the Sandvoss farm.

"For us, good cheese is all about good milk and optimizing the temperatures," said Trystan.

First Light batch-pasteurizes its cheese, warming it to 145 degrees for 30 minutes. That differs from ultra-pasteurization, when cheese is heated to near-boiling temperatures.

With the batch pasteurizing, Trystan same the milk structure and flavor are better maintained.

The brothers last year visited 50 markets, traveling to sites across upstate. They originally planned to sell their cheese at 10 farmers' markets, but demand has been so strong they are selling at only five, with two in the Buffalo area and three in Rochester. Harrington's Produce on Clinton Street Road in Batavia also sells the cheeses.

"People love it," said Sue Gardner Smith, manager of the markets in Brighton and the South Wedge. "It's extremely well-received. It's a unique product."

Market customers also like the brothers, who are friendly and passionate in discussing the cheese-making process and their sustainable practices, Gardner Smith said. That includes using a cheese-making byproduct, whey, to feed pigs and utilizing a rotational grazing system for the goats, with some grain as a supplement. They also package their cheese in biodegradable containers that look like plastic.

"They're doing exactly the kind of operation that we hope to encourage in our markets," she said. "They are doing what our area needs--young people with energy and vision. They've done a terrific job of putting it all together."

There is a trail of artisan cheese makers in the Finger Lakes. First Light is about 40 miles west of the closest creamery in the Finger Lakes. The Sandvoss brothers don't believe there is another small batch cheese maker in Western New York that raises its own goats, milks the animals and uses its own raw product.

The Sandvoss brothers make cheese in 116-gallon batches. They have designed their own production facility, a project that was more than a year in the making. They fetched pieces of equipment from all over upstate, Vermont and Ohio to create their own creamery.

And they have been experimenting. So far they have four flavors of chevre and three types of curds. But more products are in the pipeline, including Monterey Jack from organic Jersey milk, chevre brownies and goat milk fudge.

Trystan and Max both said they enjoy the market scene, getting peoples' feedback to the cheese.

"We've been selling everything we make and we're trying to make more," Trystan said.

The Sandvoss brothers have more goats that will soon be mature enough for milking. Right now the farm doesn’t have any employees, but as the business grows, they said they would welcome interns and would willingly share their knowledge. They praised the Northwest cheese-makers for taking them on as apprentices.

"There's a culture of mentoring in the farming community and we want to continue that," Max said.