Rural Utah farmer, market owner makes exclusive cheese

Kathy Stephenson
The Salt Lake Tribune

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Randy Ramsley is Wayne County's ultimate Renaissance man.

Goats owned by Randy Ramsley who believes the best goat milk has complexity and dimension, so he feeds his goats a diverse diet including rabbitbrush flowers and blooms and roam, rye, vetch, clover, plantain and alfalfa grasses.

The Caineville farmer grows vegetables, bakes bread in a wood-fired oven, operates the rural Mesa Farm Market and tends to a herd of goats, turning the milk into some of Utah's best and most exclusive cheeses.

``It's amazing what a guy will do to make a living in Wayne County,'' joked Ramsley, owner of the 50-acre Mesa Farm on Highway 24 about 24 miles east of Capitol Reef National Park.

Ramsley has a 1-acre garden, as well as a greenhouse and high tunnel for assorted vegetable production. There are chickens for eggs as well as an orchard that provides fruit.

But it's the goats — 50 in all — that rule the roost. Ramsley's goats graze freely on the banks of the Fremont River, where they feed on rabbit brush, tamarisk and other vegetation ideal for producing rich milk for cheese.

``There is a lush pasture where they can graze,'' he said of the animals. ``But they prefer the shady spots down by the river. They can wander down there anytime they want.''

This photo taken Sept. 13, 2017, shows a plate of . Mesa Farm owner Randy Ramsley sells a variety of goats milk cheeses - including Mesa Farm goat cheese of pasteurized tomme, chèvre and feta - and yogurt at his farm's storefront.

While the southeastern Utah farm and market could be called a hidden gem, it actually has been listed as a ``must stop'' destination in several international guidebooks, Ramsley said.

Between April and the first of November, when the market closes for the season, hundreds of visitors stop at the little purple store to take in the view and enjoy a rustic midday meal that includes a loaf of fresh-baked bread, a hunk of cheese and fresh-picked tomatoes.

``Europeans are fond of that,'' Ramsley said of the do-it-yourself lunch he makes and serves. ``They spend an hour or two eating bread and vegetables and it frees me up to do other things.''

Like making brined feta, smooth chevre or Ramsley's signature semi-firm tomme, a cheese typically produced in France and Switzerland. ``I knew I was doing something right when the Europeans said they liked my cheese,'' said the 66-year-old Ramsley.

The cheese experts at Caputo's Market in Salt Lake City also are taken by the farmstead cheese and have created a unique relationship with the farmer. Ramsley makes the cheese and Caputo's ages and sells it exclusively at its Salt Lake shops.

Mesa Farm's two varieties of tomme have become signature offerings, said Antonia Hornre, Caputo's affineur — aka finishing and aging expert. The raw milk tomme, called Barely Legal, is aged 60 days, while the Mesa Tome, made with pasteurized milk, is aged 30 days and gets a ``nice fluffy rind that is quite tasty,'' she said. Both cost $24.99 a pound.

Mesa Farm owner Randy Ramsley separates curds and whey into molds to drain and age into raw tomme or semi-hard alpine cheese.

Once a week, Ramsley overnights — via FedEx — batches of cheese to Caputo's, where Horne rubs the wheels with a thin layer of goat butter (to retain moisture) before placing them in the cheese cave to age.

``We put a little lotion on the baby and let them do their thing,'' she said.

While Caputo's sells other farmstead cheeses, it is partial to Ramsley and his products, said Horne. ``We are in love with what he is doing and we want to do everything we can to support him.''

Another affineur might try manipulate Ramsley's cheese, but Horne deliberately keeps a hands-off approach.

``The beauty of the cheese from Mesa Farm is the terroir,'' she said, using a term used most often in winemaking to describe the soil, climate and natural environment. ``I deliberately don't manipulate them because it is all about the land and letting that shine through.''

This time of year, Ramsley gets about 12 gallons of milk per day, down from the 18 or 20 gallons collected during peak summer production. ``Even though the goats produce less milk, the fat content increases, so it's making better cheese,'' he said.

Born and raised on a farm in South Dakota, Ramsley said he has worked in the garden since he was 11 months old, standing at his grandmother's knee.

He always wanted to be a farmer. ``But they told me in high school that I was too smart, so I set aside the dream for a few years.''

The self-described hippie ran a remodeling business in Salt Lake County for 15 years. But in the mid-1990s, while canyoneering in southeastern Utah, he spotted a ``for sale'' sign on the Caineville property.

``It was a terrible piece of land for farming,'' he said, ``but it had water, electricity and it was cheap.''

At first, he made a living growing vegetables and selling them to area restaurants, but he knew that to create the sustainable farm he desired he needed animals.

``I knew I could handle goats,'' he said. Unlike larger animals, ``you can point them in the right direction.''