Walton, OH — On a rainy day, Eddie Gibson sits outside his dairy barn near Walton looking out at his 130-acre farm. Surrounded by hay fields, beehives and an increasing number of new houses, Gibson is a "last man standing" of sorts.
In an era when the small-town dairy farmer struggles to survive, Gibson has found a way to keep his family – his wife, Marcy, and daughter Maddie – on the farm.
"I guess I am more hard-headed than most," Gibson said, laughing. "I have many classmates from the University of Kentucky (College of Agriculture) who have thrown up the white flag and surrendered. It's not because any of them wanted to quit."
Large dairies can produce milk cheaper than a one-man operation. They can also produce more, leaving most dairy farmers grappling with whether they can afford to stay in the business.
Gibson, however, has sliced a small, high-quality niche in the industry with a creative mixture of cutting-edge technology and Old English cheese recipes.
Three years ago, the Kenton County farmer started using his milk to make cheese. With locally inspired names such as Maddie's Gold, Banklick Cream, Banklick Pub, Garden Herb and Kenton County Colby, the Kentucky Proud product has gathered a following.
Locally produced cheeses
Cheese lovers buy it from the farm, local retail shops and farmers markets. Chefs – from The Greyhound Tavern in Fort Mitchell to The Red Roost Tavern at the Hyatt Regency – buy it for their restaurant creations.
"In the past, the quality of locally produced cheese was fine, but not great," said Stephen Williams, chef and owner of Bouquet Restaurant in Covington. "The flavor and texture of Ed-Mar Cheese is outstanding."
"Because it is made from raw milk and dry-aged for at least 60 days, it has a special flavor," said Maggie Rinehart, who oversees production at the farm. "Four of the five cheeses are Old English Cheese recipes. Our cheese has flavor!"
"I kind of liken it to comparing tomatoes," Gibson said. "The tomato from the grocery store and the tomato from your garden are both tomatoes. But the tomato from your garden is special. It's different."
"As the cheese ages in the cave, it produces it's own natural rind," Rinehart said. "The texture and taste is full."
Gibson allows no hormones or antibiotics in the milk that he sells every other day to a local co-op. His raw milk cheese is simple and pure.
'Pearl' state's first
The farmer does, however, use cutting-edge technology.
Two years ago, he was the first Kentucky dairy farmer to buy a robot to milk his cows. He named the state-of-the-art milking machine "Pearl," after his wife's grandmother.
The farm's 50 cows – mostly Holstein – wear a neck collar that allows "Pearl" to compute how much milk each cow produces. "Pearl" can also tell Gibson the last time the cow was milked and how much feed it has eaten. She also prevents the milk of a cow on antibiotics from getting into the larger supply.
"The collar is almost like a Fitbit for cows," said Rachel Wade, who oversees marketing at the Farmstead.
"Pearl" also cleans each teat after she milks it.
Gibson is convinced the cows are happier being milked by "Pearl."
Cows like consistency. They also like the sweet feed "Pearl" offers as she milks them – usually three times a day.
Since bringing "Pearl" on board at the Farmstead, milk production has increased. The cows give 500 to 600 gallons a day. Gibson allocates one day's milk production to his cheese each month. "One day's milk produces 500 pounds of cheese," he explained.
Cloverdale Creamery in Taylorsville makes the cheese for Gibson, but his goal is to one day have his own on-site cheese cave, which would pique more interest for farm visitors.
Cheese garners attention
There is a huge Farm to Table movement in the area at restaurants," Wade said. "Chefs are creating entire menus around seasonal, locally produced products. We are grateful to be a part of that."
Gibson grew up milking cows alongside his father, Bill, at a family farm on Stephenson Mill Road a few miles from Ed-Mar. When a farm in Marcy's family was gifted to her by her parents 10 years ago, Gibson decided to move his dairy. The family also lives there. "Pearl" gives Gibson some freedom to attend more of his daughter Maddie's sporting events and to spend more time with Marcy. Like its name Ed-Mar– a combination of Eddie and Marcy's names – the dairy is a family endeavor. "My wife works off the farm, but she is my partner," Gibson said
The Dairy Farmers of America have awarded Gibson several times for milk quality, but to survive financially, he's had to diversify.
"I've always done this. I love it. Dairy farming is part of who I am," Gibson said. "But if I hadn't had my parents to help me get started in the business, I don't know if I could have done this."
Specialty cheese has helped Gibson survive in a vanishing occupation.
The Farmstead currently sells cheese from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Saturday. Ed-Mar is located at 1034 Walton Nicholson Road