Highfield Farm Creamery: Southeast Wisconsin's only farmstead artisan cheesemaker
Terry Woods took an interesting route in becoming a cheesemaker - via Scotland and the UW-Madison. But that was after his daughter was born and he and his wife knew they weren’t going to raise her in Los Angeles — in the valley. So he sold his company where he worked with computers and they left California looking for somewhere that provided a “little land” around them. That little land he found was the farm that is now Highfield Farm Creamery.
Growing up in Ohio, his family lived on the edge of a park with farmland behind it and wooded sections where he and his friends would hunt and trap. He's always been an outdoors person.
He had the farm in Walworth County for a long time and shortly after Y2K, Woods decided he had enough of the computer business and spending most of his time on airplanes flying places to fix things.
"So I quit and said, hey, I have an idea. Maybe I should make cheese. That was just a dumb idea," Woods said laughing.
Jumping from the computer business to making cheese, Woods searched the internet and started reading. During yearly visits to Britain he visited farms and learned to make cheese in the Scottish Highlands.
After learning to make cheese in Scotland, Woods returned to Wisconsin to learn that Wisconsin is "the only place in the world that requires cheesemakers to have a license."
Woods took classes at UW-Madison only to learn that he needed an apprenticeship which required working at a cheese plant for about six weeks. The catch — none of the big cheese plants would let new cheesemakers work with them knowing the cheesemaker would leave once the apprenticeship was complete. Smaller cheese plants didn't want new cheesemakers coming in because there were trade secrets they didn't want to get out.
"That created a little bit of a problem," Woods said.
After watching from an observation window while master cheesemaker Gary Grossen made cheese at Babcock Hall, Woods asked if he could get his apprentice hours working with him. Grossen, however, wasn't the person to grant that permission. So Woods kept asking until he got an answer.
It turns out, no one had ever asked to complete apprentice hours at Babcock Hall before Woods approached them. Now every semester two people can complete apprentice hours through the University of Wisconsin, Woods pointed out.
Working under Grossen's wing, Woods learned to make a variety of cheese types since Grossen made all different kinds of cheese for the University.
However, Woods wasn't interested in industrial cheesemaking.
As an artisan cheesemaker, Woods aims is to milk 10 cows, which gives him enough milk to make cheese twice a week — the legal limit for how long milk can be held in a cheese plant (72 hours).
The milk gravity feeds from a jar in the milking parlor to the cheese vat via a system common in Europe, which eliminates pumping the milk into the vat.
"So we never pump the milk, which is really good for it because pumping is very hard on the milk," Woods explained. "It's a totally unique system. It's the only one like it in the state. We're probably the smallest cheesemaker in the state."
By the end of the year, Woods will make about 6,000 pounds of cheese. He gets about a pound of cheese for every gallon of milk and milks 32 weeks from spring through fall, shutting down during the winter.
"Me and the cows get together and have a vote," joked Woods. "We decided it's too cold out there, we don't want to do that any more."
As winter approaches, Woods goes from milking once a day to milking every other day and then every third day until the cows are dried up.
"They are at the end of lactation anyway and it's really good for us," said Woods. "Normal dairy farms milk for 10 months. The end of lactation milk is not particularly good for making cheese. We never get to the end of lactation because we shut down three months before they get to the end of their lactation."
Woods' cows are pastured and calves stay on the cows for about five weeks before moving to another pasture.
Woods hasn't completely left the computer industry behind, doing some software programming to supply income outside of his cheesemaking endeavor.
"If I had to live on this I would be really hungry," Woods added.
Highfield Farm Creamery cheese is only sold at the farm at W4848 Stateline Road, Walworth, and an e-commerce site. They used to sell wholesale, but because they make cheese in wheels instead of blocks, it's not wrapped in plastic, like commercial cheese.
"If it sits in a case for two weeks, it will get moldy," explained Woods. "You have to put it in there and sell it.When you give cheese to a place wholesale, they just throw it in the case with all the other cheese."
Along with that downfall, "nobody ever gets to hear the story."
"We have a pretty good story here. We milk our own cows. We make our own cheese. We're a very small operation," said Woods.
In addition to being pastured, Highfield Farm Creamery cows don’t get antibiotics and are milked less often than larger farms, “but nobody ever hears that story if you sell wholesale.”
When visiting the farm to buy cheese, the artisan cheeses include cheddar, wash brined cheeses — one washed in Scotch, since Woods is Scottish — and a couple of blue cheeses along with cave-aged cheeses.
Highfield Farm Creamery opened for its fifth season on Memorial Day Saturday and is open Saturdays from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. and Sundays from 12 p.m. - 4 p.m., through the end of December.
Visit HighfieldFarm.com for more information.