The lights go on at the Valley Ford Cheese Plant long before dawn. Head Cheesemaker and company Vice President Joe Moreda, Jr. (31), spends his mornings in full production, adding new flavor to five generations of his family’s dairying legacy by making cheese.
Sonoma County Farm Bureau Board Member Karen Bianchi-Moreda is the founder and president of Valley Ford Cheese & Creamery. Alongside her oldest son Joe, she has crafted a successful business born of her passion for the dairy industry, commitment to the Sonoma County agriculture industry, and just plain hard work.
The mother-son duo work together to craft award-winning Italian cheeses along Sonoma County’s rural coastline. Valley Ford has four cheeses and five varietals currently on the market, which are sold in grocery stores and restaurants in the Bay Area and across the U.S.
Consistent demand for their product keeps Karen and Joe busy. Recently, they opened their first storefront to showcase and share their award-winning products on home turf.
Now, in addition to purchasing their cheese at farmers markets and grocery stores, customers can swing by their shop, where they will find much more than just cheese.
Visitors from near and far pull over on Highway 1 and pull up stools around the shop’s four-sided bar area in the center of the main room to enjoy a fresh brewed cup of coffee, local wine, local beer on tap, an assortment of local meats and light bites, fresh pastries made by Pastry Chef Dani Vasquez, and items from Chef Poncho Vasquez’s menu and of course, Valley Ford cheese.
“We purchased the building in a private sale in 2016. It was a wool mill before we got it and it’s zoned commercial with a great parking lot and location,” Karen said. “It took us three years to get through the building, permitting, and construction process.”
Using reclaimed materials from the family dairy, Karen transformed the building into a space worthy of an early morning cup of coffee with friends or a bridal shower for 20.
A large picture window at the back of the room prominently features wheel upon wheel of Valley Ford Cheese.
“The aging room has 2,500 wheels of cheese and is adjacent to new cut and wrap, shipping and receiving room,” Karen said. “Instead of trekking out to the dairy, it is more convenient for distribution trucks to pick up deliveries here.”
She said that since doors opened in May they have been working non-stop.
“We haven’t caught our breath yet,” Karen said. “We went from just two employees to 10.”
Valley Ford Cheese & Creamery is a true family business. Longtime family friend Robin Soldati is the shop manager and Joe’s fiancé Darlene Martinez (who is a physical therapist) works in the cheese shop on the weekends and also helps the company connect to consumers by running their social media accounts.
A strong desire to sell directly to their customers and connect with consumers fueled the family through the three-year-long process of converting the renovated building into a welcoming and open space that locals and tourists alike can enjoy.
“We want to engage in the conversation with our customer, educate people about how to use our cheese in their products, and create more of an experience for our customers to enjoy,” Karen said.
The shop has cheese and charcuterie boards, boxed lunches and gift boxes that all feature local products and are available for order and pick up. The lunch menu accentuates the rich flavors of their cheeses and brings them to life. They even have soft served ice cream.
A grab and go case has beverages, snacks, and cheese, Valley Ford Cheese & Creamery apparel with the signature bold red logo line several shelves and kids’ books about dairy farming sit on the front counter. Customers have their pick of an assortment of local items that make for great gifts or souvenirs.
Milk for the cheese is sourced from Mountain View Jersey Dairy, which has been continuously operated by Karen’s family since 1918 when her great grandparents immigrated from Northern Italy. Today, third, fourth, and fifth-generation family members still work to provide high-quality dairy products.
Karen’s father Paul Bianchi and brother Steve Bianchi run the family dairy and her youngest son Jim Moreda (29) will start his own dairy at a local farm about 5 mintues from Valley Ford
and will continue the family tradition by milking jerseys.
Jim graduated from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo in 2013 with a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Dairy Science with an emphasis in Dairy Husbandry. Throughout his time at Cal Poly, Jim worked at the Cal Poly Dairy and completed an internship at Desert Hills Dairy in Nevada. After graduation, Jim moved to New Zealand to work on a dairy where he learned about land maintenance and different animal husbandry practices.
Although Joe said he didn’t share the same love for animal husbandry and farming as his younger brother Jim, he was exposed to the world of dairy manufacturing at the end of high school and fell in love with it.
Joe attended California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo and studied Dairy Science with an emphasis in Dairy Products Technology and minored in Agricultural Business. Throughout Joe’s time at school, he worked at the Cal Poly Creamery and gained hands-on experience in the production of cheese, ice cream, yogurt, butter, powdered milk and fluid milk.
Meanwhile, back home his mom, Karen, started making cheese.
“My mom had always wanted to have her own staple in the dairy industry and around that time, the dairy industry was in a downturn and the country was in an economic recession,” Joe said. “She envisioned cheese as her way to come back to the dairy and to create a value-added product.”
After both of her sons went off to college Karen said she was eager to make a longstanding dream of carving out her own niche in the dairy industry a reality. So, she started experimenting
with cheese making. She turned to the cheese of her childhood for inspiration.
“I wanted to capture the flavor of the Italian style cheese that was always on my grandparent’s kitchen table,” Karen said.
Books with titles such as “Cheese Course”, “The Joy of Cheese Making”, “Cheese & Wine”, and “Milk Made” line her office shelves.
“These are where I started,” Karen said, gesturing to the full shelves. “I did research, read everything I could find, took a cheesemaking course at Cal Poly, and learned from others in the industry.”
Joe spent summers completing internships with Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company and Leprino Foods in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is the largest mozzarella manufacturer in the world. In 2010, upon graduation from Cal Poly, Joe decided to come home and join the family operation as the first member of the fifth generation to continue the family dairy legacy.
“I was offered a job at the end of my internship at Leprino, but I turned it down,” Joe said. “I wanted to come home and give this business a shot. We were a really small business, but I
saw the potential.”
The company has produced premium artisan cheese from day one. In fact, the very first batch of the Estero Gold Reserve that Karen and Joe made together in 2010 won ‘Best of
Show’ at the California Cheese Competition in 2012.
“We sent off a wheel to be critiqued and ended up winning the whole show,” Karen said. “In a way winning ‘Best of Show’ signified Joe coming home and us pursuing this business together.”
What started as a hobby developed into a legitimate business.
“The dairy market for fluid milk is so up and down,” Joe said. “We’ve been able to take something that has been produced by our family for generations and turn it into a value-added product that people really enjoy.”
The cheesemaker said that he would like his business to age and improve with time, just like Valley Ford cheeses do.
“I’d like to build a multigenerational business,” Joe said. “When I have a family someday, I’d like my kids to have the opportunity to take over and add their own marks to the company. It is our goal to build our company into one of the premier artisan dairy product companies in the country. Opening our own retail shop that also has a restaurant has been a great step in that direction.”
Joe said that he constantly reads industry and business publications, such as the Sonoma- Marin Farm News, Cheese Market News, Cheese Connoisseur, North Bay Biz, as well as newspapers like the Wall Street Journal to monitor industry trends, competitors’ activity, and consumer preferences.
“I am constantly talking to others in the industry and with customers in grocery stores,” Joe said. “I am currently filling the roles of cheesemaker, plant manager, and vice president. Staying stagnant is a death sentence for a business, so we strive to stay ahead of the curve.”
Entering large cheese competitions is one way to stand out and differentiate their product.
“We won third place in our division in U.S. Cheese Competition in Madison, Wisconsin this year with our Gorgonzola,” Joe said. “There were 2,500 entries in the whole contest and 40 in our class. It was a pretty big honor to win an award at the national level.”
Sales increased dramatically after their success at the competition. Joe said that although recognition and awards are helpful, there is no get rich quick in the dairy industry.
“To build a brand, name, and product lineup that people like from scratch while weathering all the storms and obstacles that crop up is challenging but fun. It’s a long-term grind but it
doesn’t really seem like work because we enjoy what we do,” Joe said.
In the three months since the Valley Ford Cheese & Creamery shop has been open Joe said they have met and exceeded their goals and expectations. Joe and Karen are encouraged by their recent success and excited to continue to grow the business. He added that the family is forever grateful to their Grandpa Paul for allowing them the opportunity to build the business from scratch on the family farm.
“The dairy that my grandpa and uncle run is right up the road, just ¾ miles away from the new shop and the dairy and the cheese plant are side by side,” Joe said. “Nine years ago, my grandpa let us take over a hay barn to put our cheese plant in to start the business. So, it’s a matter of only hours from when the milk comes from the cow to when we start turning it into cheese.”
Joe said that the business has grown and current demand has maxed out the current cheese plant’s capacity. This is a good problem to have.
“Our next step is to build a brand new dairy processing facility in Sonoma County where we can have unlimited growth and continue to innovate and build our brand,” Joe said. “While our focus is currently on the recent opening of our shop and maintaining our sales and distribution, it won’t be long until the discussion of a new facility becomes a reality.”
Joe reflected that, in the eight years since he’s been home in Sonoma County, the best part of his job are the connections he’s made and the industry he is a part of.
“It’s a really fun thing to be a part of the dairy industry in general, the Sonoma County ag community, the dairy manufacturing world and the cheese industry,” Joe said. “I look forward to working in this industry for a long time to come.”
To learn more about Valley Ford Cheese & Creamery visit their website, http://www. valleyfordcheese.com/ and be sure to check out their new shop located at 14390 Valley Ford Road, Valley Ford, CA 94972. The cheese shop is open Wednesday & Thursday 7:00 a.m – 3:00 p.m., Friday 7:00 – 6:00 p.m., Saturday 8:00 – 6:00 p.m., and Sunday 8:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.