By Kayla Hawthorne, OCJ field reporter
Nick and Celeste Nolan operate a 25- to 30-cow dairy on their family’s homestead in Gallia County. The family of eight has been working on the farm for 13 years and making cheese for nine of those years, which is a full-time job for both parents.
The property was owned by Nick’s grandparents and was a dairy farm from 1947 until 1990. In 2001, Nick and Celeste moved their family back to the farm.
“Nick worked for General Mills in Wellston as a project engineer. And then in 2005, they outsourced his position and we had [already] bought the farm and [were] just kind of hobby farming,” Celeste Nolan said.
Their hobby farm included hay, Scottish highland beef cows and goats, which she called her “gateway animals.”
“We had just moved out here and were just kind of playing,” Celeste said. “We were buying what we could afford.”
After Nick lost his job, they decided to go all out and buy dairy cows to start milking. The goal all along was to make cheese at Laurel Valley Creamery.
“So we milked from 2005 to 2009 and then in 2009 is when we started making cheese,” Celeste said. “We milk mostly Jersey cows with some Normande crosses. We’re a grass-based dairy so that grass is our cows’ primary component of their diet. We take all of the milk from those 30 cows and turn it into cheese on the farm.
“You can’t make a living as a dairy farmer, period, in the state of Ohio anymore. Thirteen years ago it was different but not drastically different. It’s just hard with the Federal Milk [Marketing] Order and the competition — all of those things. We always had a hard time getting someone to come pick up such a small quantity of milk 13 years ago.”
“We decided to do cheese because, well it cost the least amount to get into,” Celeste said. “And then cheese is like the most non-perishable perishable. You can age cheese and you don’t have to have a market for it right away. So it enabled us to kind of build a market and build product at the same time. You can put cheese on the shelf and let it age and then figure out how to sell it, as opposed to fluid milk [which] you have to have a market for it the day you make it.”
To start the creamery, the Nolans needed to build an Ohio Department of Agriculture inspected cheese making facility. Nick used his food manufacturing background to build the cheese house and keep everything up and running. According to Celeste, the process was unique because, at the time, there were not many farmstead creameries.
At Laurel Valley Creamery, they typically make around 500 pounds of cheese per week.
“You normally get about a pound of cheese per a gallon of milk. That’s a rough estimate but it’s a good one to go by,” Celeste said. “Milk is 86% water, so the other 14 percent is what gets turned into cheese. The 86% is turned into waste.”
The creamery is licensed to be a raw milk cheese producer and a fresh cheese producer. To make raw milk cheese, the milk is cooled after milking, then warmed up just a little before starting the process of turning lactose into lactic acid. After the acid is formed, a coagulant is added to make the protein and fat bind together, which makes the cheese.
“Our gruyere and our country jack is made out of raw milk. All the other cheeses we make are fresh milk cheeses,” Celeste said. “And when I do those, the process is the same except I go up to 145 [degrees] and I keep it there for 30 minutes and I cool it down.”
Any cheese that is less than 60 days old has to be pasteurized (or “fresh”), according to Celeste.
“So I can’t sell anything less than 60 days old. Some of them I like to sell at 90 days but I sell them at 60 days anyway because of production,” Celeste said. “I just sold some 18-month-old cheese.”
The two raw milk cheeses are normally aged somewhere between three to eight months.
“There’s nothing wrong with them before [they’re aged] but they definitely are different. They’re more complex. They’re tastier. They have a not-so-basic flavor,” Celeste said. “They’ve really came a long way, you can tell.”
Besides cheese, the Nolans also have hotdogs made, which they call a Farmfurter, out of hogs and dairy beef that they raise on the farm.
“We cook those at the Athens farmers markets on Saturdays at a grill there. We sell frozen ones as well,” Celeste said. “We’re selling probably 10 to 15 pounds of hotdogs every week. We’ve had five different batches of hotdogs made since we started doing the hotdogs and the last one has been the best. Each time they’re getting closer and closer to what is the ideal.”
The family usually has five sows on the farm to raise hogs for the hotdogs. They finish out roughly 100 pigs per year.
“Up until this point, we’ve treated meat like a commodity,” Celeste said. “We’re going to work harder to direct market that, like build a brand with it the same way we have with cheese.”
The hogs are fed the waste from cheese making. They also feed spent grain from a brewery in Huntington, W.Va., that purchases their cheese. The beef that goes into the hotdogs is from their cull cows or bull calves. The bull calves that they don’t raise for meat get sold to local families.
“We try to raise a few for our hotdogs, but we need a little bit more infrastructure,” Celeste said. “A lot of moms will actually buy a couple dairy beef cows and feed them all year and then sell them for their Christmas money. I’ve got a few people that I do stuff like that with. We try to raise all of our own replacement [heifers]. In order to keep dairy cows milking, you have to have them bred. We try to have a calf per year per cow. Someday I won’t have a cow payment.”
Laurel Valley Creamery sells their cheese and hotdogs at farmers markets in Athens and Gallia counties as well as local food consignments stories in Athens, Huntington and Columbus. A long-term goal is to get a processing facility on the farm to make some dried, cured meats.
“We have a mobile food license so we do some pop-ups,” Celeste said. “We do an event at the Bob Evan’s Farm Festival every year.”
There are certainly environmental and economic challenges for the small farm, but Celeste said the emotional ones are probably the biggest.
“It’s doing it every day. Like milking twice a day for 13 years — there’s no time away, there’s no breaks. It’s a lot,” Celeste said. “And staying motivated to do it every day, or keeping everybody motivated to do it every day is the biggest challenge. We do everything ourselves. We milk the cows, make the cheese, package the cheese, deliver the cheese — all of those things. Everything is so much work and it doesn’t matter what time of year it is.”
But she welcomes a change in weather because it allows her to switch up the routine. Celeste also said that her favorite part about the creamery, the farm, and the business is the same as the challenge: doing it every day with her family.
“I like that the only person I’m reliant on is my family. And I like that I get to spend time with them every day, kind of,” Celeste joked. “I just feel like the things that we’re teaching the kids are beneficial to them in whatever endeavor that they’re going to move forward with.
“I hope that I have all this business and someone wants to take it over and grow it into an even bigger business that can support even more families. Just, I think, [my children] knowing that they’re important and knowing that their contribution is valued and important to our family is a good thing for them to feel included in it.”
Celeste is proud that she can show her children a life and give them skills that she did not have growing up.
“[It’s a skill] being able to feed themselves, and all of them will have that,” Celeste said. “I was not a farmer. Milk was in the fridge, that’s where it came from. It came from a store. It never dawned on me that it came from a cow.”
“Society doesn’t exist if we’re not feeding it,” she said. “If that’s the only thing they learn then that’s good enough.”