The award-winning Sequatchie Cove Creamery just garnered its latest recognition: A full-page article in the current Wine Spectator magazine by cheese writer David Gibbons hailing the Marion County artisanal cheesemakers as "The New Titans of Tennessee Terroir."
Terroir is a French word used in the wine industry. It's "the combination of factors including soil, climate, and sunlight that gives wine grapes their distinctive character," according to Webster's Dictionary.
"We're really excited about it," said Padgett Arnold, who helped launch the creamery in 2010 with her cheesemaker husband Nathan Arnold. "I've got so many calls and emails, it's been kind of crazy. I think Wine Spectator really has a big following."
It's the sort of recognition that has helped the creamery grow, in just five years, from a husband-and-wife operation with one cheese in its lineup to a business employing the Arnolds, one full-time worker and four part-time employees who make six different kinds of raw-milk cheeses.
Creamery employees ship the cheese FedEx to "turophlies," or cheese connoisseurs, around the country and also sell it at area farmers' markets for an average of about $18 a pound.
About 90 percent of the creamery's business is shipping wholesale cheese orders to high-end grocery stores, distributors and upscale shops and restaurants for about $12 to $17 a pound.
The retail price in a grocery store averages around $30.
The creamery is on track to produce 40,000 pounds of cheese this year, Arnold said.
"That will double our production from 2014. We're experiencing a tremendous growth spurt," she said.
The Arnolds see themselves as farmers first who saw cheese as a way to "add value" to milk production.
"We started out in Sequatchie Cove really working on the farm," she said. "We developed this cheese business along the way. Nathan turned into a cheesemaker slowly, over a number of years."
Value-added farms grow
"Value-added" farming operations are growing in Tennessee, state officials say, while traditional dairies are losing ground.
In 2012, Tennessee had 3,551 value-added enterprises, an increase of about 30 percent over the 2,719 operations in 2007, said Megan Leffew of the Spring Hill, Tenn.-based Center for Profitable Agriculture, a partnership between the University of Tennessee and the Farm Bureau.
Meanwhile, Tennessee saw a nearly 50 percent decrease in the number of Grade A licensed dairies in the 9-year span between 2002-2010, according to "The Tennessee Dairy Industry and Its Value-Added Opportunities," a UT Institute of Agriculture paper.
Visit www.sequatchiecovecheese.com or call (423) 619-5867.
"Most of the value-added [products] are for niche markets," Leffew said. "I think value-added agriculture, when is works, is a way to generate revenue for farms."
The Center for Profitable Agriculture offers publications, workshops and conferences to help Tennessee farmers learn about selling value-added products. Other examples besides cheese include beef, pork, lamb and poultry that farmers sell directly to consumers after the animals are slaughtered and butchered at an approved facility.
"We have a lot going on [in Tennessee] with value-added meat processing," Leffew said.
The downside to a value-added operation is the amount of work it takes, from managing employees to marketing and shipping product to keeping up with regulations, she said.
"It's challenging, just like any small business," Leffew said.
Arnold said she and her husband have stopped keeping track of how many hours they put in.
"I lost count a long time ago," she said. "Nathan works as many hours as it takes."
The herd of roughly 40 Jersey and Jersey-Holstein cross cows that the Arnolds use to make their cheese need to be milked seven days a week. The cows, which graze in the idyllic Sequatchie Cove about 30 miles west of Chattanooga, are owned by Bill and Miriam Keener. The Arnolds bought the creamery business in 2014 from the Keeners.
One part-time employee's job at the creamery consists of wrapping the Shakerag Blue cheese in Chattanooga Whiskey-soaked fig leaves and putting wax wrappers on the Bellamy Blue cheese.
"By the way, we're looking for fig leaves right now," Arnold said. "I'll trade them for cheese."
All of the cheeses require at least 60 days' aging, which is an FDA requirement. That's considered to be how long it takes for acids and salts in the cheese to kill any raw-milk pathogens.
The creamery bills its products as handcrafted, raw-milk cheese. Farmstead cheese is another description that fits, Arnold said. Farmstead cheese is made with milk from a farmer's own herd on the land where the animals are raised, according to the American Cheese Society.
"It's not just cheese that's generic and faceless. It's attached to a place," she said. "This whole business that we have developed was founded on the story of this place."
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.