Aged cheeses influenced by trips abroad.
George Malkemus and Tony Yurgaitis, former president and vice president, respectively, of shoe giant Manolo Blahnik in North and South America, and partners in life for some three-dozen years, acquired the 350-acre Arethusa Farm in Litchfield, CT, in 1999 with the dream of preserving open farmland in a town that the two had come to know and love.
“We imagined that we would have a handful of cows,” Yurgaitis says. “Before we knew it, our tiny herd had grown to more than 300 cows, with a full-fledged dairy plant and retail shop up the street in the village of Bantam.”
Over the past 20 years, the operators have come to see themselves as stewards of the land and of these animals.
“It must be in our DNA to care for something like this, and we are privileged that we could give our cows a great home,” Yurgaitis says.
History of the Farm
It was way back in 1868 when the Webster Family started a dairy farm and named it Arethusa after the small pink orchid that grew in a swamp on the land. The farm operated by delivering milk and dairy products locally.
By 1999, the farm had names, and Malkemus and Yurgaitis purchased it with an agreement with the descendants of the Websters to return the name “Arethusa” to the farm. In 2001, the couple purchased the first five purebred registered Holsteins for Arethusa Farm. Jerseys and Brown Swiss would soon follow.
“We’ve always taken immense pride in our cows and put great emphasis on providing them the highest quality of care that we can,” Yurgaitis says. “They, in turn, have provided us with some truly exceptional milk and we felt it was too good not to share more widely.”
A few years later, the Holsteins and Jerseys from Arethusa brought home top honors from the most prestigious world dairy show in the world. Their Holstein, Melanie, was named Supreme Champion of World Dairy Expo in Wisconsin. Her Jersey herd mate, Veronica, was Reserve Supreme Champion.
By 2005, a trio of new barns were completed and Veronica returned to World Dairy Expo to claim the Supreme Champion honors for herself.
During the period of 2009-2013, Arethusa Farm began bottling milk under their new label at a rented creamery in Bolton and selling it in local stores. The herd grew to more than 350. At the time, Arethusa Farm won the prestigious honor of Premiere Holstein Breeder at World Dairy Expo.
The next year, two buildings were purchased in Bantam, and the construction of Arethusa Farm Dairy began. Arethusa milk and yogurt became available in several stores in Litchfield County and two Whole Foods locations. The new dairy began production in January and a retail store was opened in July.
That’s when cheese, as well as ice cream, first joined the production line, made from Arethusa’s cows.
“While we started off bottling our milk and making some yogurt, cheese and ice cream seemed like obviously choices and we introduced both in 2011, shortly after opening our dairy plant and shop,” Yurgaitis says. “We’ve been very fortunate to travel quite widely and, in doing so, have always tried to dive into the local cuisine of the region. These trips greatly influenced our cheese preferences.”
The greatest challenge the two faced was total lack of experience—they had no formal education in either farming or cheesemaking.
“In a way this lack of experience can be beneficial because you’re able to imagine all the possibilities, rather than being hemmed in by convention,” Yurgaitis says. “We were fortunate to bring in a terrific team early on and have continued to build that team over time, bringing in expertise when needed, but continuing to learn a lot as a group.”
Today, Arethusa Farm has nine aged cheeses in its lineup.
“We’re proud of them all, but our favorites are still those most directly influenced by trips abroad,” Yurgaitis says. “The Arethusa Diva is a small washed rind greatly influenced by Taleggio, while the Arethusa Blue is a milled curd, natural rind blue, inspired by the Stilton we fell in love with during trips to England.”
Evolving Cheese Business
Cheese sales started small, sold only at Arethusa’s own retail shop and a handful of local retailers, but the company was fortunate that the Litchfield Hills are a popular weekend destination. Soon, weekenders were asking their cheesemongers and grocery shops back home for the products.
“Eventually, we had retailers from New York and Boston looking to carry Arethusa,” Yurgaitis says. “Today, our fresh dairy products—milk, butter, yogurt and ice cream—are sold throughout New England and the Northeast and our cheeses are sold at great retailers and specialty retailers around the country. It’s been fun to see our cheeses pop up in California, Texas and Florida as well as the places closer to home that we’ve been working with for years.”
One of the things that sets Arethusa apart from most in the cheese industry is that the company makes a full range of dairy products—bottled milk, butter, yogurt and ice cream in addition to nine styles of aged cheese with its own Arethusa Farm milk.
“This alone makes us different in this day and age, where many companies have become increasingly specialized,” Yurgaitis says. “We’ve always believed in the quality of our cows and the quality of the milk they produce and want to share this in as many ways as possible. Our customers have become as enthusiastic as we are about the extraordinary care we put into taking care of our cows, and they believe, as we do, that this level of care truly sets our lineup apart from the competition.”
Matt Benham, Arethusa Farm’s cheesemaker, noted with such a wide product lineup, it can be hard to pick favorites, but Arethusa Blue cheese has gained a fair amount of attention over the past couple years, winning awards at the 2018 World Championship Cheese Contest and more recently at the 2019 American Cheese Society competition.
“This cheese, like all of our cheeses, has taken time to develop and refine,” Benham says. “When we first started making cheese, we began with a fresh, spreadable farmer’s cheese so that we could offer our customers something quickly. In time, we introduced our Camembert, followed by harder cheeses that aged three or four or five months. Today, our cheese range in age from a couple of weeks to a couple of years.”
Some, like the company’s Tapping Reeve, are just so good at 18 or 24 months that it’s worth the wait, he noted. And if the company has learned one thing, it’s that you can’t rush anything.
“Success in any business depends on how you define it. We’ve found immense joy in seeing people enjoy our products,” Yurgaitis says. “In the early days, that was just at our little ice cream shop here in Bantam, but today it includes a café, a restaurant and two dairy shops—with a third on the way. Going back to the roots of our company, we’ve continued to expand so that we can share the bounty of the farm with more and more people.”
A Top Team
Arethusa Farm likes to challenge itself and its team to raise the bar each day.
“We’re thrilled to be able to share our milk and ice cream with people throughout the Northeast and share our cheeses across the country,” Yurgaitis says. “What started as a small dairy farm, has grown into a robust family of businesses with restaurants and ice cream shops. We’ve recently begun growing vegetables on the farm and have been working on a revolutionary approach to managing our farm waste and cheesemaking whey.”
He feels that Arethusa has managed to put together an amazing group of people, and he hopes that they love coming to Arethusa each day.
“Throughout the organization, we’ve tried to foster a collaborative environment where we can benefit from the ideas and experiences of all of our team members,” Yurgaitis says. “They have so much knowledge and enthusiasm to share, and it’s our job to make sure that their voices are heard. Cheesemaking, dairy farming—these are not easy jobs, but we hope to create a workplace where our team members feel valued and can recognize the contribution that they’re making to strengthen and grow the organization on a daily basis.”
The company feels that the commitment to excellence that made the farm so successful in its early days can be applied to a wide range of related pursuits and are thrilled to watch those pursuits grow and evolve in time.
“We’ve enjoyed the support of an industry and a customer base that really buys into the effort that we put in and the products we produce,” Yurgaitis says. “We would like to continue to grow the business so that we can share what we do with a greater number of people.”
And the farm and its cows remain at the center of it all.
“Even though people can’t always be on the farm, you can bring people together with cheese and remind them of the important role that farming plays in our lives,” Yurgaitis says. “As we go, we look forward to remaining hands on and keeping our high standards so that we can continue to be stewards of this land and of these animals that make it all possible.