A lot of start-up companies hire high-priced marketing agencies to develop a compelling story about their business, paying professionals to script a narrative that can generate well-placed stories in magazines and newspapers.
Sonoma County dairywoman Karen Bianchi-Moreda had a great story, she just needed the business to go with it. In fact, she said, it was her family’s story of survival, hard work and perseverance that compelled her to start a farm business that showcases her ancestors’ rich history of life on the land in the Sonoma-Marin Dairy Belt.
Three years ago Bianchi-Moreda founded the Valley Ford Cheese Co. and began making a farmstead Italian-style cheese that’s similar to the flavorful cheeses still crafted by her dairy-farming relatives in the Italian Alps. Two years out of the chute, Bianchi-Moreda’s cheese was winning awards and critical acclaim from chefs who were smitten with its nutty, buttery flavor and Alpine mountain character. Then, last month Bianchi-Moreda’s aged Estero Gold, a rustic cheese handmade in the style of an Asiago, won best of show at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair.
It was a triumph that added another chapter to the story of Bianchi-Moreda’s bold quest to position the family dairy to be financially viable for her sons Joe and Jim and future generations on her family’s 640 acre Mountain View Jersey Dairy in Valley Ford. The scenic ranch with its white barns, lush pastures and brown cows is one of those iconic dairy farms that dot the countryside between Petaluma and Bodega Bay.
“We are blessed to have earned the recognition we have after only three years making cheese. This venture is totally a family business that would not be possible without the support of my father Paul and brother Steve and, of course, the rich and wonderful milk from our herd of Jerseys,” said Bianchi-Moreda, who has been joined in the cheese venture by her oldest son, Joe Moreda Jr., 23, the fifth generation to work on the family dairy.
Joe earned a bachelor of science degree in dairy science from Cal Poly with an emphasis in dairy product technology. Younger son Jim also is studying dairy science at Cal Poly where he is preparing for a career in the dairy industry.
“The awards for our cheese reflect our dedication to preserving a way-of- life that we value. Cows are what we know and what we do. We are very proud of our heritage as dairy farmers and pleased to be creating brand new cheeses based on the traditional methods of cheesemaking used by our ancestors,” said Bianchi-Moreda, a director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau and a member of the advisory committee for the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.
When Bianchi-Moreda’s cheeses began winning double gold medals and best of show honors she didn’t have to scurry to a public relations consultant to hone her story for the media. The story was already there. It was a story she knew well growing up on a multi-generational family farm. Hers was a story of family history and survival that started with her Swiss-Italian immigrant ancestors who came to the North Bay in the late 1890’s to establish a dairy farming business that is now in the fifth generation. In the early 1900’s her paternal great grandparents, the Bianchis, purchased the 640 acre ranch in Valley Ford where Bianchi-Moreda, along with her father Paul Bianchi and her brother Steve Bianchi, continue the tradition of raising and milking Jersey cattle. They have a total herd of 1,100 cattle and milk 440 head.
Then the story jumps forward a century to the consolidation in the dairy industry that was driving mom-and-pop dairy farms out of business. The continuing thread in the on-going story was the roller-coaster milk prices, skyrocketing hay and grain prices and the ever present tug of land and lifestyle that kept Bianchi-Moreda’s family milking cows despite the economic hardships.
Bianchi-Moreda, a strong and determined woman who quickly rolls up her sleeves to get the job done, concluded it could not be business as usual on the family dairy because the economic climate was rapidly changing. She did the ranch books and could see profit margins being squeezed by the rising production costs and the low price for milk. Bianchi-Moreda knew her family had to create a value-added product from their cows’ milk because they couldn’t continue to sell milk at commodity prices and stay in business for the next generation.
She began diverting some of her family’s rich Jersey milk from shipments to the processor so she could try her hand at making an Italian style cheese.
“For nostalgic reasons, I wanted to replicate the Italian style cheese that was always under the glass dome on my grandparents’ kitchen table. I wanted to capture the flavor that I remembered as a child in my grandparents’ kitchen,” said Bianchi-Moreda.
She took a cheese making short course at Cal Poly and talked to anyone and everyone who knew about cheesemaking including the Callahan family, owners of neighboring Bellwether Farms, a sheep dairy in Petaluma. In addition to sheep milk cheese, Bellwether Farms produces a cow’s milk cheese using milk purchased from the Bianchi family’s Mountain View Jersey Dairy.
Bianchi-Moreda transformed in old dairy building into the cheese-making room, which looks like a hospital operating room with its white walls, tiled floors and stainless steel equipment. . Sanitation is crucial in cheese making. A massive, century-old barn, where Bianchi-Moreda’s ancestors once milked cows by hand, houses the storage rooms where the cheese ages for months and years, depending on the variety and the customer. In addition to the Estero Gold, Valley Ford Cheese Co. also makes a cheese called Highway One. It’s a version of an old style Fontina, with a silky, creamy texture. Both cheeses won double gold awards at the 2010 Harvest Fair.
Bianchi-Moreda’s cheese-making business really took off when son Joe returned to the family dairy after graduating from Cal Poly last December. During his years at Cal Poly, Joe had completed internships at cheese making plants around the country including Leprino Cheese in Michigan.
“Since I started we’ve tripled production, doubled inventory space and added three new distributors,” said Joe, noting that production has increased from 400 pounds of milk a week to 1,200 pounds a week. He said additional storage space for aging cheese is needed before he can further increase production.
“The only thing holding us back is space,” said Joe, who makes cheese three to four days a week.
For Joe, it’s a dream come true to be back on the ranch producing a high quality cheese from the farm’s Jersey cows. He feels a special connection to a ranch where his great, great grandfather once milked cows by hand where the generations before experienced the joys and challenges of dairy farming.
“It all fell into place. This is where I want to be,” said Joe. “To make it in the dairy industry today, dairies in Sonoma and Marin counties have to produce organic milk or a value added product like cheese. We can’t compete on the commodity milk market with the big dairies in the Central Valley.”
Being young, eager and ambitious, Joe has ideas for developing new cheeses and cultivating new market territories including the Central Coast. He said a fresh cheese product is certainly in the plans for the near future.
Strong demand is driving the increased production, which keeps Bianchi-Moreda traveling to accounts around Sonoma County and the Bay Area. She handles 54 accounts, ranging from G & G Market to the Palace Market in Point Reyes Station, and sells her cheese at up to six farmers markets. In addition, she works with three distributors in the San Francisco Bay Area and one in San Diego.
She is proud that the Jersey cows on her family’s dairy are under the Certified Humane program, which assures consumers that the cattle are treated humanely. Bianchi-Moreda said it’s a third party verification of the way her family has always treated the Jersey cows in their care.
“These cows are our babies,” she said.