Local cheesemakers score big in national competition

Scott Swanson

Of The New Era

Larry and Janice Neilson have been refining their Fraga Farm cheesemaking operation for six years on Pleasant Valley Road.

This year they decided to find out what experts thought of their cheese, so they entered the American Cheese Society’s annual competition, held in Portland last month. They won. Their raw goat’s milk feta cheese won a first-place award in the competition, which featured 157 producers and 941 entries from 28 states and two Canadian provinces.

“We’re a couple of first-timers, and so we’re really tickled,” said Janice Nielson, the operation’s chief cheesemaker. Larry is primarily responsible for the care of the couple’s 70 milking goats, a few kids and several billygoats, who help keep things fresh – in more ways than one.

“It feels great that a raw milk cheese made organically is one of North America’s favorites. It’s a big step for us and an endorsement of running a small business in a healthy, sustainable way.”

She said she was “surprised” that Fraga won a blue ribbon, given the fact that ribbon winners have to score sufficient points to qualify for the award, regardless of the competition (or lack of it) in a particular category.

“It’s not like the County Fair,” she said.

The Neilsons moved to the Sweet Home area in 1994 from the Bay Area in California. Larry had been an aircraft engine examiner at Alameda Naval Air Field before it closed, and Janice had been a massage therapist. They started small on their 3.65-acre spread next to the river, with a couple of goats “who were bred and had babies,” said Larry, who worked for the city water department in Sweet Home for the first few years. “It got to the point where we had way too much milk. We had to figure out what to do with it.”

They got a dairy processing license in 2000 and started making cheese.

“We learned how to make cheese by reading books,” said Jan. They got the recipe for one of their cheeses from neighbor Jim VanOrder.

One thing led to another and they are now certified as the only organic goat dairy in the Northwest, meaning that they use no artificial chemicals on their land or in their goat husbandry.

These days they specialize in several varieties: chevre, farmhouse, goatzarella and feta.

“We don’t get any days off,” said Jan. “We pretty much work seven days a week, 12 hours a day. But we like it.”

Currently, Larry said, the Neilsons have 45 active milking goats, a combination of alpine, which are believed to produce larger quantities of milk, and Nubians, which are generally considered to produce milk with a higher butterfat content. The goats eat organic feed and graze on the Neilsons’ land and on neighbor Dixie Horner’s property, which is also certified organic.

They treat sick animals with herbs and make a lot of their own remedies. Sometimes they have to get creative, Jan Neilson said, noting that when she couldn’t find organic tabasco sauce, an ingredient in her cheese, she figured out how to make her own.

They use a vacuum milking machine twice a day, collecting the milk in a 150-gallon bulk tank. Some of their cheese is pasteurized and some is not, so a portion of the milk is pasteurized in a new 100-gallon pasteurizer they recently installed.

“In the beginning, we were making 15-gallon batches four times a day,” Jan said. “Now we’re making 90-gallon batches.

The Neilsons often have interns helping with the process, currently Carissa Albin of Eugene. Interns live in a yurt by the river and help out in the dairy, learning the process. Albin, unlike many interns, has already had farming experience; she came to Fraga in January from New York state, where she had been working on an organic dairy farm.

Fraga produces 220 to 230 pounds of cheese a week, all of it spoken for.

“We’re empty by the time we get back from market,” Larry said. “We have to start all over again.”

They sell their cheese at Periwinkle’s health food store in Sweet Home and through co-ops, stores, restaurants and farmers markets throughout the state.

Despite the long hours, the Neilsons said they enjoy running their farm.

“I love the nature part of it,” Jan said. “I love being outdoors.”

Larry agreed.

“You couldn’t ask for anything better,” he said.