Sugar House Creamery
Protein Providers to the High Peaks
Follow the Ausable River as it meanders through the craggy Jay valley from Keeseville to Keene, and it’s clear that the Adirondacks don’t make for ideal grazing or cultivation. However, a cadre of determined young farmers has staked claim on this rugged terrain. And the denizens of the High Peaks are taking notice.
“When we moved here in October 2012, this area was a farm desert,” states Margot Brooks, co-owner of the Sugar House Creamery in Upper Jay. “But things have really changed in the past few years. Now we’ve got a great cohort of farmers who are stoking this concept of collective marketing, joining forces to sustain each other’s businesses.”
For example, Sugar House Creamery produces milk and cheese, North Country Creamery makes yogurt, Mace Chasm Farm provides butchering service and a variety of meats while Blue Pepper Farm contributes eggs, chicken, pork and lamb. Another dairy in the area will churn butter and ice cream.
Margot Brooks and Alex Eaton spent five years at Consider Bardwell Farm, the renowned cheese mecca in West Pawlet, Vermont. But in 2012, they left the security of stable jobs as cheesemaker and farm manager and headed to the Adirondacks to create Sugar House Creamery. They recognized the market potential but had no idea how long it would take to establish their farm.
Fortunately the High Peaks were poised to embrace the food movement, and Sugar House Creamery has become a major player. “We all are helping to shape this region,” Alex Eaton notes. “Farms provide this foundation for community development. Here in the Jay and Keene valleys, businesses keep cropping up that support the farms and generate a buzz. Coffee shops, breweries and distilleries, small restaurants, retail stores with locally produced goods. There’s new energy coming into this area and we’re really proud to be part of it all.”
If cheese is a canvas for milk, then Margot and fellow cheesemaker Casey Galligan have painted several distinct and alluring tableaux. They make three styles that showcase the rich milk of their 12 Brown Swiss cows. Dutch Knuckle, their signature cheese, is an Adirondack mountain cheese: Cut a thick wedge, throw it in a backpack and head to the hills. It also melts beautifully over … everything! The 20-pound wheels age for nine months on locally milled spruce boards in the creamery’s cave. Pound Cake is their semi-soft cheese, whose rind is washed with Plowman’s Lunch, a hoppy pilsner from nearby Ausable Brewing Company. Little Dickens, a delicate soft round, tastes both fresh and fudgy.
Alex and Margot met at St. Lawrence University and graduated in 2008. Alex grew up in Cornwall, Vermont, while Margot was raised near Oneonta on a 900-acre dairy farm. “I had my own little herd of goats from third grade on,” Margot says. “I milked them by hand and made cheese in the kitchen with my mom. I would mix in herbs, wrap it up and sell it to locals.” Sounds like early job training!
“I had originally planned to be a large animal vet because I loved caring for animals,” she continues. “But I was daunted by the amount of schooling it required.” Come senior year in college, Margot hit the wall. “I was really depressed with the state of our planet and pretty much hated humanity. Yet I was always happy on the farm, working with my dad and milking. Farms always felt comforting, with their steady rhythms.”
So she landed a job making cheese at Consider Bardwell in the summer 2008. Alex went to work on another dairy farm—Margot’s family farm! “Yeah, I think he lived in my bedroom that summer,” she laughs. That’s where Alex gained his first exposure to farm work and he was hooked. “I’m so grateful to have been shaped by the Dan Brooks’ school of farming, and Laurie [Margot’s mom] is amazing as well,” says Alex. Alex eventually joined Margot in Vermont where they worked until 2012. “We loved it but wanted to venture out on our own while our bodies, minds and emotions could embrace starting up a business,” he says.
One night while perusing farmland online, Alex found a listing with a crappy old picture and terrible write-up and had a hunch. “We were in the middle of hay season but decided to take a road trip to the Adirondacks and check it out ‘just for fun.’ As soon as we saw that rock-solid barn and the hilly pastures, we knew this was our place. The one other cheesemaker up here was retiring, so we knew we could develop our following. And the additional buildings would be perfect for an Airbnb and to house future employees.”
Margot and Alex’s parents encouraged the young farmers to pursue their dream. Dan and Laurie Brooks had equipped their daughter with a passion for dairy farming, and Max and Susan Eaton offered legal and financial advice along with physical help in the construction process. In fact, Alex’s parents moved just down the road and his brother now lives a few miles away. “I guess they realized that if they ever wanted to see us again, they’d have to uproot to the mountains!” says Alex.
The couple closed the deal on the 22-acre farm and moved to Upper Jay in October 2012. “We honestly thought we’d have the creamery up and running by the spring,” says Margot. “We didn’t even make a business plan until that first winter up here. We had no clue it would take so long.” To help with the mounting bills, Margot waitressed at two local restaurants (ADK Café in Keene and Liquids & Solids in Lake Placid) and Alex worked at Dartbrook Furniture in Keene. “I would help with the contractors during the day and then waitress at night,” Margot says, “and Alex sold furniture during the day then jumped in during the evening hours and on weekends.”
The couple signed on their bank loan in June 2013, which provided six months of operating capital and covered the new barn, cheese cave and cheese production equipment. “We called the contractor from the bank and he had the excavator digging in the ground within an hour,” Alex says.
Summer 2013 was total chaos. “As they excavated what would become our cheese cave, we had a crater 14 feet deep and a pile of dirt bigger than our barn,” Alex recalls. “The creamery needed septic and drainage, which meant more digging. We had to walk along this little plank over a five-foot-deep trench to get from the house to the barn.” “And even though we had five years experience milking cows and making cheese,” Margot adds, “it was still pretty overwhelming at times. I don’t think I could tackle that again now.”
Margot and Alex started their herd that first summer, with three pregnant heifers. One of them calved late that summer, which gave Margot enough milk to use as she developed her cheese recipes on her kitchen stove. “We chose Brown Swiss cows because their protein and fat content lends itself to the cheeses we make,” Alex says. “They also have sturdy legs and feet that can handle our rugged terrain, and they deal well with the cold.” Margot adds, “We’re keeping our herd at 12 because it suits our scale. We like farming and making cheese, not managing people and spending all our time marketing.”
In general, Margot and Casey milk the cows and focus on cheesemaking while Alex oversees farm maintenance and keeps the equipment running. “What’s cool about our size is that we all can do each other’s jobs,” Alex explains. “If Casey is away, I step in with cheesemaking. And we all love working with the cows. That’s the best part—we get to dabble in all aspects of this farm. On any given day, I engage in animal husbandry, graphic design and bookkeeping.”
Although the cows and dairy occupy most of their time, marketing their products affords them ample opportunity for people connections. “Rather than work with a distributor, we deliver our own cheese to Albany, New York City and Boston,” Margot says. “It’s important for us to get to know the people who sell our cheese and for them to get to know us. Ideally they come up here to the farm and see this part of the operation. It’s the complete opposite of industrial cheese production.”
The farm also offers two Airbnb options: the guest suite and the carriage barn, which has a kitchen so guests can cook at “home.” These tastefully appointed and spacious accommodations are adjacent to the farmhouse but completely private so guests can come and go. Having the bed and breakfast was part of their plan from the start to help cover expenses, and the lodgings are popular through summer and fall.
Their farm store, open seven days a week on the self-serve system, draws customers from Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Jay and Keene. Margot and Alex keep it stocked with milk, cheese, eggs, the farm’s beef and veal, and yogurt from North Country Creamery. “Our store is all about protein!” Alex says. They also sell at two summer farmers’ markets, Keene Valley and Saranac Lake.
From Columbus Day through Memorial Day, Sugar House Creamery hosts “The Snowy Grocery” every Sunday from 11am to 2pm. Their farming cohort brings their products—more meats, root veggies, other value-added items—and sets up a micro-farmers’ market inside the farm store. “It’s an important reminder to our neighbors and visitors that farm-raised food doesn’t disappear in the dark months,” Margot says. “Kids love playing in the barnyard and visiting the cows.” These popular Sunday events provide a welcome antidote to winter isolation as people socialize and stock up for the week ahead.
Engage and educate! Margot reminds customers that “Where there’s milk, there’s meat. You can’t eat cheese but not support meat growers.” Intentional eating doesn’t have to be overly intellectualized; just have fun making deliberate, and delicious, choices. “Food is the gateway to improving your life,” Margot says. “Once you start to eat healthy, farm-raised food, you can never go back.”