Michigan’s Great (Lakes) Cheese Secret

Idyll Farms creates outstanding goat cheese while doing its part to save the planet.

With goats grazing on approximately 200 acres of Leelanau Peninsula lush grasses, trees, leaves, brush and wildflowers, Idyll Farms is a world-class goat farm and creamery located in Northport, MI, a small village perched on the edge of Lake Michigan.

The company’s certified-humane alpine goats are pasture-fed through managed intensive rotational grazing, which is not only great for the pastures, the goats and the sustainability for the earth, but helps Idyll Farms to create amazing cheese.

“And by doing everything in-house, from pastures to creamery, we meticulously coordinate our entire process in order to make some of the world’s healthiest and tastiest award-winning goat cheese,” says Amy Spitznagel, who owns the company with her husband, Mark. “We knew from the beginning that we wanted to make our operations world class, sustainable and make the healthiest cheese possible that was good for us and the planet. This determined our direction and influenced all our decision making.”

In the Beginning

Surprisingly, neither Amy or Mark Spitznagel had any sort of farming or cheese background other than the fact that both their parents tended home gardens. He was a hedge fund manager and her career experience included teaching, theater and travel.

“At the time we bought our farm, our family was living in Los Angeles, and we had just bought a log cabin in the village of Northport where Mark grew up,” Amy Spitznagel says. “We loved the agricultural farm-to-table movement happening in Leelanau and wanted to be a part of it.”

An old cherry and apple farm came up for sale near the log cabin and the couple made the leap and bought it, not exactly knowing what they wanted to farm but knowing that they wanted their children to know where food came from.

“As we went over our options, considering the area—primarily the cherry capital of the world but the last couple decades, Michigan’s wine region—and the terrain (rolling hills), we discovered that raising goats would be fun for our young children and making a value-added product like goat cheese would fit into the area, as well, pairing well with wine and all the other farm-to-table products of the region,” Spitznagel says. “We knew from the start we wanted a world-class product so we set out searching for the right match of consultants and employees that would get us there.”

Since the entire industry—goat farming and cheese making—was new to them, the Spitznagels depended on hiring the right experts and consultants to get them up and running.

“Goat cheese is such a niche business in the United States, and some other American goat cheese producers we reached out to for advice were guarded about sharing information,” Spitznagel says. “We ended up hiring French consultants to get us started making an old world, authentic product.”

Unfortunately, the standards, regulations and practices of goat cheese making in France are very different than in the U.S., so they found themselves installing systems, gutting them and replacing them with equipment and facilities that would work with the FDA and MDAD regulations.

“American palates are also very different than the French palate, so our cheeses needed to appeal to those unfamiliar with goat cheese as well as the more sophisticated consumers,” Spitznagel says. “The products we started making are not necessarily the ones we are selling today.”

The couple created the goat farm carefully, combining goats they purchased from a couple of farms and developing a breeding program to become a closed herd.

“Finding expertise caring for and treating goats was also new to the Midwest, so we have had to reach out internationally for staff, training and advice,” Spitznagel says. “We have started from scratch, learning about distribution, marketing and packaging. We are proud of how much we have accomplished and learned in less than 10 years and feel we are at a great place in our development.”

Today, Idyll Farms distributes its cheese through Gourmet Foods International, Cherry Capital Foods and Carmela Foods.

Best Practices

Being situated in the Great Lakes, in the middle of the largest fresh water supply in the world, provides Idyll Farms the fresh water needed for the lushest pastures, which is why the company’s tag line is “Great Lakes Pastures. Great Goat Cheese.”

“We practice regenerative agriculture, rotational grazing methods where we move the goats around the pastures, giving the goats the highest quality forage and increasing the soil’s fertility,” Spitznagel says. “This method sequesters carbon, improving the earth’s environment.”

Additionally, Idyll Farms utilizes mobile electric fences, dividing its pasture lands into plots and carefully managing when the goats go on each plot, when the grasses are at the right stage in their growth cycle for optimal nutrition for the goats.

“We need the pastures to be dry enough that the parasites are not crawling out of the soil and the goats avoid digesting them, mitigating the use of toxic deworming medication,” Spitznagel says. “We manage the amount of time the goats are in each plot so that they don’t eat the grasses entirely down to the ground, giving the grasses a chance to grow back again, all the while watching the goats for signs of bloat.”

The soil on the land is tested regularly, and adjusted appropriately, to make sure the conditions are ideal to support the pasture grasses. Next, whey from the cheesemaking process is sprinkled over the pastures as fertilizer, along with an organic compost made from the waste material from the goats’ barn.

“All these things contribute to the health of the goats, their milk, our cheese and, ultimately, our earth,” Spitznagel says. “It contributes to why we have won more American Cheese Society goat cheese awards than any other producer in 2017 and 2019. To date, we have won 25 American Cheese Society awards, seven World Championship Cheese Awards, five U.S. Championship Cheese Awards, and a Good Food Award.”

Say Cheese

Every day in its newly-minted cheese make rooms, the company’s expertly-trained cheesemakers use old-world techniques and recipes to transform the fresh milk, using natural enzymes, bacteria and cultures.

“Our cheeses are gently hand ladled into molds so as to not disturb the fat molecules, allowing them to coalesce into award-winning cheeses,” Spitznagel says. “It takes just four days to transform Northern Michigan’s great lakes pastures into the freshest goat cheese form, with the result being a fluffy, white, marshmallow-like, sliceable, rindless round with a citrusy smooth, creamy tang that melts in your mouth.”

Spitznagel notes the company’s Idyll Pastures and Idyll Pastures spreadable are the freshest cheeses that it offers.

“They come in different flavors, and they are also our most versatile and accessible cheese,” she says. “They have a longer shelf life (120 days from when they leave the creamery) so they are the easiest cheese for markets to carry and keep in stock. When people ask what pairs well with them, my answer is, ‘what doesn’t pair well with them?’ All of them are award winners.”

Among Idyll Farms’ offerings are Mont Idyll (with a soft ripened rind delicately painted with vegetable ash), Idyllweiss (dual milk made with Idyll Goat milk and a splash of organic cow cream), Idyll Gris (a fluffy and light paste), Idyll Puck (ash-ripened), Camembert and Temptation, a raw milk tomme-styled cheese.

It Takes a Village

For Idyll Farms to continue with the success it has had, it takes the collaboration of the company’s creamery team, farm team and office team who work together to care for the goats and produce and sell the cheese.

“This is the unique bonus of being a farmstead producer,” Spitznagel says. “Our cheesemaker can ask the farmers what the goats are eating in the pastures and modify their diets to adjust the qualities of the milk she desires for the cheese. Does she need more fat content in the milk? She will ask the farmers to add a little olive oil to the goats’ diet or move the goats to a different pasture that is growing more alfalfa.”

Many of the staff members cross train in different capacities so they can fill in where needed, which has also added to the positive working environment.

Because Spitznagel is not on the farm day to day, sometimes some of the news is not always shared with her if issues get resolved easily on site—which they normally do. For instance, one time she learned one of the goats escaped by reading the police blotter of a local paper. But she trusts her team and knows they will always handle things like that.

“We look for staff that have a strong work ethic to get all the hard work done and also demonstrate the creative ability to think of efficient ways to improve our operations or product,” Spitznagel says. “We live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, and the farm is literally idyllic.”

Idyll Farms has grown in an organic way and constantly strives to make products that people will buy to improve their health and the earth in doing so. Looking ahead, Spitznagel hopes to see Idyll Farms’ products available nationwide and for Idyll Farms’ goat cheese to become a staple in the average household. “Farming is hard work. Cheesemaking is hard work. Having the right people to do the hard work and also think on their feet is important,” Spitznagel says. “Learning from mistakes and having no ego about correcting mistakes. Being flexible and able to pivot quickly when needed. These are the foundation for success.”