Schoch Family Farmstead: Tradition Trumps Intensification

Nestled in the foothills just outside of Salinas, CA, sits the Central Coast’s last surviving dairy farm, Schoch Family Farmstead. The Schochs (pronounced ‘shock’) are not only the last dairy farming family in the region, but they are also Monterey County’s last producer of Monterey Jack, one of the few truly American cheeses.

Until recently, the Schochs delivered 75% of the milk their 85 cows produced to a regional processor. Cheesemaker Beau Schoch used the rest to make raw milk cheese and yogurt in the farmstead’s on-site creamery.

In mid-August, the Schochs received news that the neighboring farm, located just 20 minutes from Salinas, had decided to close its doors. Too small to justify bringing a 6,500-gallon tanker out to the farm to pick up their milk, and too big to process all they produce, Schoch Family Farmstead has since decided to scale down milk production and ramp up processing capacity.

Dairymen through and through, their story is one of resilience. A strong focus on herd health and milk quality has enabled the family to keep farming the land they love, while respect for history and tradition has kept Monterey Jack in the region of its birth.

Farm History

Schoch Family Farmstead sits perched atop a sloping hill overlooking the agricultural city of Salinas. Although it doesn’t look out of place, it is somewhat at odds with the landscape around it. Salinas is at the mouth of the Salinas Valley, just 8 miles from the Pacific Ocean. The 90-mile stretch of lowlands, which is partially framed by the Gabilan Range, has been gifted with a combination of lush, fertile soil and a microclimate that’s perfect for vegetable and greens production.

The valley’s climate is also perfect for dairy production, which is why there once were twice as many cows as people living there. Today, however, the region is better known as “The Salad Bowl of America,” mainly because it produces the bulk of America’s leaf lettuce (61%), celery (57%), head lettuce (56%) and broccoli (48%).

According to a Soil Conservation Service report, by the time Swiss emigrants Adolph and Ernest Schoch purchased the land for their farm in 1944, dairy production was already in serious decline. While there had been more than 25,000 dairy cows reported in Monterey County in 1924, that number fell to just 1,400 animals by 1951.

Rather than pay for Grade-A milk production qualification, many dairymen chose instead to shift to vegetable production. The Schoch brothers, however, opted to continue doing what they did best: dairying.

Today, the farm is operated by three brothers, the grandsons of Ernest Schoch, Ty (49), Seth (47) and Beau (45), along with their father, John, and uncle, Ron.

The farm is a true family operation. At 74, John, with the help of his son Seth, still does much of the milking. Seth takes care of herd health and feeding the cows, while his Uncle Ron is responsible for gathering cows for the twice-daily milking. Beau produces cheese and yogurt in the farm’s on-site creamery, while Ty is responsible for the aging, cutting, packaging and delivery of cheese, as well as milk bottling.

The resulting products are sold at local farmers markets and to nearby restaurants. It wasn’t always this way, though. In fact, cheese was never part of the original plan.

Birth of a Cheesemaker

While cheese making was never part of the farm’s original plan, Beau must have found the craft intriguing enough to sign up for a course. In 2006, along with his brother Seth and a chef friend, Beau took a short cheesemaking course at California Polytechnic’s Dairy Technology Center. Little did he know that the course would be the first step toward becoming the cheesemaker he is today.

In 2006, Beau was working off-farm as an engineer for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), helping the region’s farmers adopt more environmentally sustainable practices. Cheese making was nothing more than a hobby at that time. After work, he’d head to his parents’ house and make small-batch recipes on the stovetop. It didn’t take long before he purchased 8-gallon, stainless steel, double boiler pots in order to scale up operations.

Cheese Connoisseur Beau Schoch slips fresh cheese into a vat of brine. The brine will add a full, salty flavor, while discouraging bad bacterial growth on the surface of the cheese.

Small-batch production is tough work, though. “Giant pots are very hard to clean in a small sink, so I was getting in the shower to clean them,” Beau laughed. “So, there I am, at my parents’ house, it’s 10 o’clock at night, and I’m naked in the shower cleaning pots. I knew there had to be a better way.”

As his passion outgrew production capacity, Beau began shopping around for equipment to build a creamery on the farm. What he quickly discovered, though, was that his passion was going to cost him “a good chunk of change.”

In search of an affordable solution, he and his parents traveled to Illinois to check out a plug-and-play creamery on wheels. The 53-foot trailer just needed water and electricity hook-up to get the operation off the ground. Beau wasn’t convinced it was the right move, though.

Two years after completing the course, Beau expressed his frustration to the local California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) dairy inspector during a routine milk audit. The inspector suggested Beau speak with Rebecca King, owner of a newly founded farm just up the road.

Rebecca had a 100-ewe operation and was planning to open her own micro-creamery, Garden Variety Cheese. After some discussion, she agreed to let Beau rent out the creamery part time. Still working for NRCS, Beau would rush home two days a week to help his brother transfer fresh milk, still warm from the udder, into a 120-gallon stainless steel tank. He’d then cart the tank over to Rebecca’s creamery and make cheese until 10 at night. The arrangement helped the new entrepreneur secure income and gave Beau the space he needed to practice his craft.

“It was a good little partnership,” he reflected.

Building a Dream, Securing a Future

While the partnership with Rebecca carried on for more than four years, Beau knew the time would come when he wanted his own creamery. In 2012, just six years after his first exposure to cheese making, Beau and his family decided to invest in an on-farm creamery. It was a big investment, but one they thought would steer the family farm in a more financially secure direction.

“We kind of started seeing the writing on the wall during the financial crisis of 2008,” says Beau. “We were one of the last little dairies on the central coast, we didn’t have the land base to get bigger and more efficient, and it was kind of that ‘get big or get out’ mentality in agriculture in general.”

At $45,000-$60,000 an acre, Salinas Valley is home to some of America’s highest-priced agricultural land. For the Schochs, diversification made more economic sense than intensification, and Beau was certain there was enough market demand for locally produced, traditionally made dairy products.

Instead of erecting an entirely new building, the creamery was retrofitted into an existing barn. While the outer façade retains its authentic, rustic feel, inside the facility is laboratory clean. It has to be if they want to continue selling raw milk products.

While most U.S. states have banned the sale of raw milk, raw milk for human consumption can be legally sold on California farms and in stores as long as the milk meets strict regulations. The CDFA regularly visits the Schoch’s farm to test the milk for unwanted pathogens, including listeria, campylobacter, E. coli and salmonella, and to inspect the herd for disease. Only a handful of California creameries are allowed to sell raw milk, most of them small-scale like the Schoch’s.

Cheese Connoisseur Ty Schoch is responsible for the cheese maturation process, or affinage. Here he’s holding 2-year aged Monterey Jack.

Beau attributes the high health status of the family’s herd to his dad’s hands-on approach and commitment to cow comfort and genetic improvement. While many large California dairies retire cows after just two lactations, the Schochs focus on longevity. They believe in quality over quantity, a philosophy that keeps cows in their herd twice as long as the average California farm.

The farm sits on a little less than 100 acres, but they have access to double that through neighboring farms that allow them to graze.

The cows’ diet is just as unique as the farm. Being in the Salad Bowl of America, they have access to fresh salad greens, unused by the local fresh pack businesses. Their diet includes head lettuce, green and red leaf lettuce, romaine, spinach and chard, and sometimes broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. For a fee, a local trucking company picks up the fresh greens and carts them out to the farm every single day. The bulk of the milking cows’ diet is made up of the greens mixed with alfalfa hay as a ration. They also get some grain during milking, mostly rolled wheat and barley.

“It’s hard to argue that it’s better than pasture,” says Beau. “But the next best thing is when these really fresh greens are brought to them at peak nutrition.”

“It’s not three days old, it’s literally from that day,” he added. “They’re essentially eating salad greens that are fresher than what you’re eating in a nice restaurant in New York City.”

Once certified, the Schochs started selling raw milk in half-gallon returnable glass bottles. They also sell two yogurts, a Swiss-style stirred yogurt and a strained Greek-style yogurt, also in returnable glass bottles. Their main customers include local retail shops and restaurants, but they also sell directly to consumers at local farmers markets.

While the raw milk and yogurts are popular items, the backbone of their business is the cheese. Arguably, the Schochs most popular cheese is Monterey Jack, a washed-curd cheese.

Monterey Jack is one of four cheeses thought to have been originally created in the United States. Records show the cheese has been made in the region since the mid-1800s. Today, Beau is the last producer of Monterey Jack cheese in its birthplace of Monterey County, California.

Today, Monterey Jack is made across the United States using a variety of recipes. In most recipes, though, whey is drained and cold water added, a step that dilutes lactose that drives fermentation. The result is a sweeter, high-moisture cheese that’s mostly eaten when young.

Because Monterey Jack takes on flavor well, spinoffs including Pepper Jack and Chipotle Jack have been made popular. Beau makes both a younger higher-moisture Jack and a drier, aged version that is much sharper.

“Everybody’s gonna make it a little bit different, probably even back then,” says Beau. “But I like to think that mine is similar to the way it used to be made because I make it with raw milk at the place where it originated.”

Including Monterey Jack, Beau makes five other cheeses, all of them, in some way, a nod to the family’s Swiss roots and a tribute to the place where they’re produced.

Santa Rita, a washed rind cheese, for example, is named after a neighborhood in Salinas. East of Edam, a Dutch-style cheese, is an obvious tribute to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Salinas is, after all, his birthplace.

Mount Toro Tomme, a tomme-style cheese, is named after a mountain peak in the Santa Lucia mountain range in Monterey County.

Junipero, a baby Swiss-style cheese, is named after Junipero Serra Peak, the highest mountain in the Santa Lucia range of central California. The mountain itself was named after Saint Junipero Serra, a Franciscan priest from Spain who founded the California Missions in the 18th century. It was the missionaries who first brought dairy production to the region.

Beau is currently working on a feta-style cheese made with raw cow’s milk, and a hard, long-aged cheese similar to Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano. He’s added a raw cream cultured butter made from the skimmed cream of the latter. His first blue cheese is currently ripening.

“A lot of our customers are asking for hard, aged cheese,” he says. “They want something really sharp, so that’s what I’m trying to make.”

A farm shop is currently under construction, where Beau hopes to welcome local families in the coming months. The prospect, he admits, is both scary and exciting. Being the last dairy farm in the region means cutting their herd size in half and scaling up production.

“If I’m doubling production and trying to sell more, we need to get better at telling our story,” says Beau.
And what is their story? It’s a story of preservation and resilience through diversification. It’s also a story of respect for history, tradition, and a love of the land.

“We’re dairymen through and through,” says Beau. “It all happens on the same property — the milk and the cheese production — and that makes us kind of unique.”

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