A fortuitous ad led a Boston couple to take over Westfield Farm and embark on a lifetime of creating goat cheese.
Bob and Debby Stetson had been in the shipping business for most of their lives when they sold their business and were looking for a new venture. Debby started managing a store at Allandale Farm in Boston, while Bob was writing for a trade paper on shipping issues.
“We were both looking for something a little more challenging when I saw an ad in the Boston Globe,” Bob Stetson says.
The ad was placed by the owners of Westfield Farm, which had been handcrafting award-winning farmstead cheeses in Hubbardston, MA, since 1971. The then owners, Bob and Letty Kilmoyer, had started making goat cheese as a hobby, but it developed into a full-time business, and they were looking for someone to take it over.
Bob was a math professor at Clark University, and one of his students asked him to watch a pair of goats over the summer, but never came back for them. With all this newfound goat milk, the couple decided to try their hand at crafting a fresh chevre.
“It was a big hit among their friends, and they eventually decided to try to sell it to some adventurous cheese shops in and around Boston,” Stetson says. “By 1980, they were operating a real business from their home. Letty had quit her job as emergency room nurse to tend the business full time, and Bob soon left his job at the university, as well.”
In 1995, the farm had grown to more than 80 Nubian and Alpine goats, and the Kilmoyers were also buying goat milk from other area farms. But it eventually became too much, and the couple wanted to retire. That’s when they placed the ad that the Stetson responded to.
Simply, the classified ad was looking for someone who would take over their farm and business, and the Kilmoyers would provide training to anyone interested.
“It was the first and only business opportunity ad I ever responded to,” Stetson says. “We came out to Hubbardston in June of that year to look at the place and fell in love with it.”
By September of 1995, the Stetsons moved in with the Kilmoyers and learned all they could about the art and science involved in making the company’s different cheeses.
“My knowledge in the beginning was real rudimentary,” Stetson says. “I had never even tried goat cheese before. So, it was really a month-long sort of cheese camp where we just learned everything we could.”
Since the Kilmoyers had gone through a similar learning curve, they were very patient and understood the difficulties of a first-time cheesemaker. A month later, the former owners were off to retirement in the Florida Keys, and the Stetsons were now running their own cheese business.
“Fortunately, the Kilmoyers were about as keen as we were that the transition be a success, and we never lost touch,” Stetson says. “I couldn’t count the times we had to call to have Bob or Letty walk us through mechanical problems and technical issues. And although we’ve since learned to handle just about anything that comes up, we have maintained a close friendship with our mentors.”
Today, Westfield Farm, located on 20 acres in Central Massachusetts, turns out a little more than 1,500 pounds of cheese per week.
One difference with the Stetsons taking over is that the former herd of goats was sold before they answered the ad, so they are buying milk and frozen curd from nearby farms.
“At the time, they were doing less than $300,000 a year in sales, which isn’t that much cheese, but we grew the business,” Stetson says. “The first thing we did was get the operations out of the house. About half of the house was involved in the cheese production process. We continued to expand into the two barns over the years, and at one point, we were doing maybe 10 times their original volume.”
The Cheese Roster
One thing’s for sure, the notoriety of goat cheese has grown since the Kilmoyers first started in the business.
“Not much was known about goat cheese in the United States before the 1970s, and around the time Letty and Bob started making their fresh goat cheese, people were just becoming aware of it,” Stetson says. “A lot of people had gone to Europe—France, in particular—and sort of fell in love with the product but weren’t able to find goat cheese as good here in the States.”
Back then, a lot of the goat cheese that was making its way to the U.S. was chalky and sour, and it convinced a lot of consumers that they didn’t like goat cheese.
“But once the Kilmoyers and some folks on the West Coast started making a top-shelf quality of goat cheese, people just started loving it,” Stetson says. “We do a couple of unusual things here. As far as an external rinded blue cheese—a Blue log and a Bluebonnet, which essentially is a fresh goat cheese that’s been inoculated with a Roquefort Mold. We allow it to grow on the surface, and you end up with a tangy blue that people love.”
The Bluebonnet won the American Cheese Society’s Best of Show award in 1996. Since taking ownership, the Stetsons have won a ton of awards for their other cheeses, as well, with both blues being “unusual enough” that they’re consistent winners.
“We do a number of flavors that are really well received—just our plain, fresh, bulk cheese, in either in 5- or 8-ounce logs, is regarded really well and a good quality fresh goat cheese,” Stetson says. “It’s made carefully and with ultra-fresh ingredients.”
Among favorites are the company’s Baby Cam, Camembert Cow, Calabrini and Chocolate Capri.
While most of Westfield Farm’s cheeses are served in the country’s finer restaurants or sold in specialty stores, its selection of goat cheese and two new cow cheeses are also available for purchase on its website.
A Winning Team
While Bob handles most of the business operations, Debby is more involved on the cheesemaking side of things, working with long-time head cheesemaker Russ Hannula on the flavors and getting the cheese ready.
Another important part of the Westfield Farm team is Kimberly Hayes, who is in charge of production and organizes schedules and processes of the cheese, and converts the curd into individual pieces.
“Once everything has been logged, we have Suzanne who takes care of the wrapping and the finishing for retail packaging,” Stetson says. “Then there’s Nate Dululio who handles all the mixing before it gets to Kim. The cheese has to be salted, and he works with any other ingredients or molds that need to be added to the batch.”
Sadly, the company needed to cut four positions once the pandemic began, but Stetson hopes that they will be able to bring some workers back in the year ahead.
Surviving the Pandemic
Considering 85% of the company’s customer base were restaurants, the pandemic was a big blow to Westfield Farms, and it’s changed the way the Stetsons are strategizing for the year ahead.
“We have to get a bigger presence in the supermarket segment, which has held up really well,” Stetson says. “And we do have room to grow. Prior to this, each time we tried to add on to the volume that we were doing, it was a major pain. Just building small amounts is expensive, time consuming and a difficult process. But we could double, maybe triple our business without going through the real pain of expansion.”
He credits his dependable crew with helping the business succeed and knows that the team in place will help them get to that next level. While the production is down about 50% from pre-COVID days, Stetson believes it will return to normal levels quickly.
A Rewarding Career
Looking ahead, knowing that not everything about the pandemic is resolved, Stetson remains ambivalent about what’s to come.
“I know we need to get a bigger presence in the supermarkets; that segment of the business has held up really well for us,” he says. “We do have room to grow. Prior to this, each time we tried to add on to the volume, it was a major pain. Building by small amounts is expensive, time consuming and a difficult process. If I had been smart, I would have built it all at one time and hoped for the best. But I think we can now double or triple our business without going through the real pain of expansion. We have the people who would love to come back and work here.”
Until recently, Westfield Farm didn’t do a lot of advertising or pursue much new business, with Stetson noting it’s always just sort of found them.
“I’m not sure how aggressive we want to get as far as marketing, or just sort of hope for good things to happen, which has always been the case,” he says.
Unlike his previous career in the shipping business, where at the end of the day, there was nothing really to show for his efforts, Stetson is pleased that his work today leads to something tangible. “I always thought that would be such a great way to make a living though I never really thought about making something to eat,” he says. “It didn’t strike me until I read the ad for this business. Having been born in New Jersey, I always worried that making something that people ate would be too risky, but it turns out that none of that has ever been an issue, and people who like our cheese really like eating, I mean, it’s a big part of their life. And when you do something that makes people that happy, it’s infectious. It’s probably the most rewarding feeling you can get. And to do it on sort of an industrial scale is fun.”