Pioneer of Artisan Goat Cheese: Cypress Grove’s Founder MARY KEEHN

Cypress Grove Chevre, the Arcata goat cheese maker famed coast to coast for “Humboldt Fog.” Pictured with the cheese is company founder Mary Keehn, who started the business on a shoestring in 1983.

Learn how a small time producer spearheaded America’s goat cheese segment.

When Mary Keehn, a single mother of four and self-proclaimed serious hippie, adopted two of her neighbor’s goats back in the 70s, she didn’t have a business plan, or any plan, to start her own business.

“My start was serendipic and an offshoot of the land movement of the 60s and 70s,” she says. “Back then, I made my kids’ clothes, had a big garden and raised goats for milk with which I made cheeses.”

It wasn’t until 1983 that Keehn created Cypress Grove with a $10,000 loan from her family.

“It was a different, simpler time back then,” she says.

Fast forward 37 years later and, although now retired, Keehn can be credited as helping propel the American goat cheese segment into what it is today.

Cheese Connoisseur spoke with Keehn about her foray into the cheese world, the evolution of Cypress Grove and the creation of the company’s award-winning cheeses.

CC:  Tell me about your journey into cheese.

M.K.:  I was a marine biology major at the University of California at Santa Barbara but I later became more interested in genetics. In the 70s and early 80s, I focused on production and showing goats nationally. I had national champions of Alpine for several years. My goats actually set national production records, which was unusual in the show circuit. We’d go into the ring to show our goats but this was about conformation, rather than production based. It takes quite a few animals to have a genetically-diverse herd, which translated to much more milk than we could consume. At the time, I had a lot of goats and so much milk that I started a 4H dairy group. With my four daughters and their friends, we learned to make goat milk cheese and soap at home. I didn’t have a big plan to start a business at the time, I just followed the path as it presented itself. At the time, it was about using up our milk and going with the flow, no pun intended!

CC:  Talk about how Cypress Grove pioneered the artisan goat cheese movement.

M.K.:  Really there was no plan of pioneering anything. I started a company as a single mom with four kids, necessity being the mother of invention. I had goats and friends with restaurants who needed cheese. This was a good way to use my milk and make a living with flexible hours. I liked the life cheese making affords. It keeps the mind occupied, and it was fun working from home.

CC:  What challenges did you face along the way?

M.K.:  There was no support for small cheesemakers. The American Cheese Society conference my first year consisted of labeled cheese on three little folding tables. It was a different situation back then; there was no way to market or sell it. At that time, Brie was not only the rage in specialty cheese; it was the one and only type. People would literally back up when I offered them goat cheese.

There was a lot of education necessary, not just for consumers, but also for cheesemakers. Our equipment was all used, and we started with a 50-gallon vat pasteurizer. In the beginning, our customers were mainly the more cutting edge restaurants. At my first Fancy Food Show, I didn’t even have a booth. I went into San Francisco with cheese in my purse and the idea that I’d meet someone there who would like my cheese. A girlfriend introduced me to Columbus Distributing. I handed them my cheese, which was wrapped in three layers of plastic wrap. I don’t know why they took it, but they did. When someone takes you under their wing at the beginning, it makes all the difference. I think every successful business has something like that happen. And when you have a business, you realize how important doing that one thing for someone really is; you can pay it forward.

CC:  Cypress Grove started its own dairy in 2010. How did that come about and why?

M.K.:  When I first started, I had my own herd, which is why I started making cheese. I realized I couldn’t do both well. Goats need milking twice a day and a lot of care, so I sold my herd and started outsourcing the milk. Getting goat milk is difficult, since it’s not the milk people typically use in this country. Plus, it takes between eight and nine goats to provide the same amount of milk as one cow. We struggled for years getting enough milk before making the decision to start our own dairy.

Because certain diseases run through goats and affect them as they age, we bought vet-checked healthy baby goats and raised them for a year. Taking this route was more expensive but we knew we had healthy animals. Creating the dairy was about making a difference in the availability of milk but also the farmer’s ability to be profitable. When we started, there wasn’t any infrastructure. A lot of the challenge was about figuring out a good system that would work with the goats. We purchased equipment from several European countries. There were no medicines specifically tested or made for goats.

We sent our new herd manager to Europe to learn about dairies there before he started here. The dairy was established with 100 goats and now has over 1,400. Today, Cypress Grove is producing more than half of its milk through this dairy. Production is over a gallon a day per goat, compared to the state average of .6 gallons per goat.

We take care of them through every stage of life, since health always makes a difference. Because we focus on the details of raising babies, weighing their feed, paying attention to how they’re fed and raised, we have a steady supply of good milk. We grew the herd organically and brought in male goats for diversity. This keeps the herd healthy by breeding them. It made all the difference. We have goats milking through because we don’t need so many babies. Having babies annually is hard on animals, so letting goats milk through the full year is easier on the goats and gives us a steady supply of milk. We keep them in small groups their whole life, so they grow up with a family in their individual pens. Our farm is Certified Humane and has been since we started. There is a lot of attention to detail, from buying the right hay from the right farm to which mineral supplements to use. We even play soft jazz music in the milking parlor. Also, we’re able to pay our dairy people a living wage and provide health benefits like we do for the creamery. Now the company sends the surplus kids out to other producers to give them healthy starts.

CC:  How has the pandemic impacted Cypress Grove and the cheese industry as a whole?

M.K.:  It’s sad, because we know it has affected every person in some way. We’ve been operating with an ISO-certified management system FSCC 22000 for many years, focusing on food safety. It’s very comprehensive and detailed, even more so than HACCP. Because we operated under these standards for so long, it has allowed us to pivot when there is a heightened risk. This includes maintaining 6 feet of distance between employees and staggering breaks. COVID has brought home the idea of how connected everyone is. People talk about transmission of the virus, but you can’t help but think about transmission of caring. When one of us suffers, everyone does, and we’ve seen newcomers really struggling. As an established company, during the pandemic, we are fortunate to be able to give back to the community. We’ve donated a lot of cheese to food banks and other local businesses in our area.

CC:  What kept you in this business for so many years?

M.K.:  I love it; that’s the simple fact. There is the creativity of cheese design and production, the love of business, the cheesemaking community, animal husbandry, and the people. Creating jobs in our rural community is really appreciated. Cheese attracts very special, creative people who care about the process, from land to table to nutrition. It’s a special group. And my passion from the 60s resonates with me at these times. It’s important to take care of the land. Modern cheesemaking requires a good degree of precision. My dad used to say, ‘the world doesn’t need any mediocre thing’, so for me it’s about doing it well. And cheesemaking requires that; you can’t take any half steps. When I look at all the cheesemongers and all the detail required from beginning to end, it’s quite remarkable.

CC:  Discuss what was behind the creation of Humboldt Fog and some of your other well-known cheeses.

M.K.:  Humboldt Fog came to me in a dream, as many of my ideas do, and I try to listen to them. On my first trip to France, a cheese marketer took us on tours of tiny French family cheesemaking operations. I woke up on the plane heading home, and you know how things come to you in goofy ways through dreams? I saw a picture of Humboldt Fog, and it was a soft ripened cheese we had heard so much of on the tour. Then we were traveling to Humboldt County in California, which is where the name came from. It took me time to figure out how to actually make this cheese. I had brought home four cheese molds in my suitcase when I returned from France. That’s all we had, because in those days, we couldn’t easily get cheese molds. We came up with predraining the curds to put into molds, which made a really unique cheese. Typically, these would be ladled in. With necessity being the mother of invention, there was a lot of this for us who started artisan cheesemaking early on. We didn’t have anything as far as tools or the knowledge of how to do it. We certainly didn’t know the basics of French cheese production. One of the reasons Humboldt Fog became popular is it really tasted good, despite the fact that, at the time, people didn’t like fresh goat cheese much less soft ripened. It was one of the first made in this country. But I struggled with the marketing efforts. It was when New York Times food critic Florence Fabricant wrote an article about Humboldt Fog that shifted things for us. I think of the media and how much it can do for a startup company; it’s remarkable. All of a sudden, our cheese was something to pay attention to.

Truffle Tremor was, at first, going to be a fresh cheese. Going back to my first trip to France, I loved eating truffles and wanted to incorporate this ingredient into a cheese. I first mixed fresh goat cheese with truffles, but that bright acidity of the cheese and the earthy truffle flavor was a fight in my mouth; it didn’t work at all. I’m a little stubborn, so rather than throw it away, I patted the cheese into molds and put it into our aging room. I found this was the ticket to connect the flavor of truffles and texture of goat cheese. It really worked.

For our Purple Haze, a friend gave me fennel pollen, and I had begun growing lavender after my trip to France. The combination of the complex fennel pollen and sweet lavender worked. I was always thinking of unusual combinations to try, so we wouldn’t copy another cheese. It’s fun always trying to come up with something creative. (See sidebar for a comprehensive list of Cypress Grove’s awards.)

CC:  In addition to its cheese, Cypress Grove is known for being an employee-friendly company. Why is a company’s culture so important?

M.K.:  Listening to employees is so important and often overlooked. One of Cypress Grove’s practices is taking employees to lunch three to four times a year and asking them to tell us one thing we’re doing really well and one or more things we can improve on. We keep those lists over the years. I remember one thing someone said was they wish we had more than two tape guns, because someone always hid the good one. Giving our staff members the opportunity to tell us how to improve in a nonthreatening way, over food, is a great gift to everyone. At our lunches, we talk about what we did and what we couldn’t do and why. This proves everyone has equal value, even though they’re doing a different job than you. A staff member once told me that they could make more money working somewhere else, but they liked it here because she had a voice.

It’s especially important as a business grows to keep in touch with employees. Some of my favorite memories are our celebrations. I believe in celebrating a lot, so once a month everyone gets together for lunch. Our first one was a potluck but then we had it catered. We all sat together, and each department talked about what they were doing. It was a time to ask questions. We always started with a game and had silly noisemakers. It may seem dorky but it was educational. Sometimes we’d bring in cheese from different companies to see what others were doing. These gatherings gave us a sense of being on the same team.

We had a guy from the electric company doing service in our building, and he told me he could see how everyone had such a heightened sense of responsibility. It’s up to the bosses and owners to make your employees know they are appreciated. Excellence is on the margins, and that’s something not everyone gets. We would bring creamery employees to the Fancy Food Show. They didn’t need to go from a sales or marketing perspective but we’d take them so they could see how what we do fits in the world. At one show, someone came up to one of these employees and told them their role at the company was very important. It changed the way they felt about their job. Providing opportunity wherever you can is key. After 35 years in the business, I have a ton of these types of stories. It’s important to remember the sweet spots, not the rough spots. That hasn’t been truer than today.

CC:  What makes the cheese industry unique?

M.K.:  Specialty cheese attracts creative people, especially when you’re dealing with goats rather than cows. The process begins with the land and truly goes right to the table. That’s the special aspect of it and was my passion starting in the 60s. It still resonates with me today, especially during these times. You have to take care of the details and be careful of everything you do. Cheesemaking requires a good degree of precision. I also love the almost unlimited variety.

CC:  What do you love best about cheese and the industry?

M.K.:  I like everything about the cheese business. It gave me the opportunity to be very creative. With cheesemaking itself, every detail is critical. The most important person is the one who washes dishes, as they can really do damage. There are so many great people, from employees to customers, who have the ability to contribute to the economy here. We’re in a rural area, and we are one of the largest employers in the region. All my daughters were involved in the business while they were growing up. I now have seven grandkids, and we can travel anywhere and learn about cheese. In addition, there is unlimited variety. Innovation is still possible after hundreds of years. You start with a few ingredients and can come up with useful products, but you have to take care of the land, products and people. Just like you can’t have unhealthy goats and produce good milk and cheese. You have to take care of the animal and make her happy. At Cypress Grove, we play soft jazz music in the parlor when milking, and we don’t wear red in the goat barn. There are so many things you can implement to make a difference. If you’re going to do innovative things with cheese, it turns it from good to great. For me, it’s fun to think of all the innovative things we can do.

CC:  Why did you decide to step away from the business?

M.K.:  It was a gradual step away from the business My husband Roger became sick with cancer about eight years ago. When he passed away in 2013, that was the time I realized everything would be fine without me. It was bittersweet. I was barely involved in creating the Fresh Goat Cheese Cups line, and they did such a nice job with the fun flavors and package design. It’s lovely to see the company carry on with the same attention, focus and enthusiastic young people. I love how many jobs it provides. Seeing the staff’s families and their babies who are now adults is so rewarding.  Some employees have been there for the last 18+ years! I myself have seven grandkids and have fun with them. One of my granddaughters is currently living with me full time. It’s been great keeping in touch, going to lunch with folks and still giving feedback. Although I’m totally retired now, I’m still bound by heart to the business.

CC:  What future do you picture for the industry moving forward?

M.K.:  It’s hard to say even about tomorrow. There is movement toward vegetable- and plant-based cheese, which is growing. Russ Parsons from the Los Angeles Times used to have me send cheese to Julia Child for her birthday; that was really sweet. Just to have a link like that, it’s like the world becomes smaller. What really matters is how you treat people and the impression something you create with care has on someone else. Many people think there are benefits to being bigger. Cheese is a very natural food that is simple, varied and complex. I’m pretty confident it will be around to feed people physically and emotionally for a long time.

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