Sunlight grows the grass, feeding the cows that produce the milk for the cheese, all on the same picturesque Ferndale hilltop.
Ferndale Farmstead doesn’t make just any cheese. The cheeseshop specializes in authentic Italian cheeses, including scamorza, which is hung on ropes to age, an aged asiago, the soft caciotta, and of course, the ever popular fresh mozzarella.
The cheesemaking equipment all came from Italy, as does all the enzymes used in their cheese. They want to make cheese as similar as possible to the kind that’s been made in Italy for centuries.
“We’re producing the same product,” said cheesemaker Daniel Wavrin, “just with American milk.”
Starting soon, he said, their mozzarella will be sold as the store brand in New Seasons Market, a grocery store chain with 21 locations mostly in Portland, Oregon.
Daniel Wavrin runs the cheesemaking operation with his wife Nidia Wavrin on his family’s dairy farm. Their products are also sold at the Bellingham Costco, Fred Meyer, Haggen, Community Food Co-op and Whole Foods. Pizza’zza in Bellingham uses their mozzarella as its standard cheese for their pizzas.
Although it is just over a year old, the creamery recently won big at the American Cheese Society’s national conference. Ferndale Farmstead’s scamorza took second place in the mozzarella category. Their asiago pressa took second and their caciotta took third in the farmstead category.
This year, 281 companies submitted 2,024 entries — a record number of entries.
“We are really happy with the awards,” Daniel Wavrin said. Especially in the mozzarella category, they faced competition from the biggest cheese companies in the country.
“Those are huge-name companies with hundreds of employees,” Daniel Wavrin said. “And there are eight of us here.”
The Community Food Co-op was one of the first stores to stock their product more than a year ago.
Stephanie Willard, the cheese buyer for the downtown store, has been rooting for Ferndale Farmstead from the beginning.
“I’m so proud of them,” she said. Winning those awards is a major accomplishment, she said.
“They beat out some really big brands that are well established,” she said. “It’s really, really impressive.”
Willard said that customers had been asking for the farmstead’s product, even before they started making it.
“I’ve had many people asking for local, fresh mozzarella, and we had no option until a couple years ago,” Willard said.
She didn’t know of any other local creameries who make cheese from just one region.
“I appreciate that they’re focusing on one genre,” she said. “And they’re just doing that, and doing it really well.”
At the farmstead, the milk goes straight from the tank in the milking barn through a pipe into the cheese shop.
That’s what makes it farmstead cheese — that means the cows are onsite, and the cheese is made right there.
Ferndale Farmstead takes it a step further — by growing the grass to feed the cows in fields right next to the dairy.
“A huge part of this vision was the seed-to-cheese concept,” Nidia Wavrin said. That means that the grass is cut and fed to the cows, the cows are milked and the milk is turned into cheese — sometimes all in the same day.
“You can eat a piece of cheese that was a piece of grass 24 hours ago,” Daniel Wavrin said. While grass is good — and grows well in wet Western Washington — it doesn’t provide complete nutrition for the cows. So they also get alfalfa, which is grown at the Wavrin’s other dairy in Eastern Washington.
Daniel Wavrin’s family started Sunny Dene Ranch in the Yakima Valley 27 years ago.
Bill Wavrin, Daniel Wavrin’s father, started out getting a degree in veterinary medicine. He worked as a vet for years.
So his family getting into the dairy business was a natural fit. After more than two decades, they started to notice a problem.
“We were part of the anonymous food system,” Bill Wavrin said. “We never had any connection to our consumers.”
That separation between farmers and consumer had started to create what he calls “anxiety” in a lot of people.
People started to get concerned about the new methods and technology used in farming. Farms, even small family farms, no longer looked like what people imagine.
So the Wavrins decided they wanted to reconnect with the people drinking their milk, and open up their farm, and a conversation to anyone who wanted to understand what dairy farming was all about.
They couldn’t do that in the Yakima Valley, though.
So in 2009 they started another farm in Ferndale, in Western Washington, where the customers are located. And they started a dialogue with anyone who had questions or concerns about the industry.
Now his father and uncle maintain a herd of just under 4,000 adult cows over there and a herd of 680 milking cows at their dairy in Ferndale, called Western Waves. The cheeseshop Ferndale Farmstead is located at Western Waves.
Moving to the rainy side of the state came with its own challenges.
“That’s a temperate rainforest,” Bill Wavrin said. “We learned how to farm in the desert.”
Just about the time they were getting the hang of it, his son approached him with the idea of making cheese as a value-add to the dairy farm.
Bill Wavrin thought that would couple perfectly with his own goal of becoming more visible as a farm.
“We were kind of headed toward a family brand,” Bill Wavrin said. “And then when Daniel shows up with his interest in cheese, that’s exciting.”
Daniel Wavrin discovered his passion for artisan cheese at a farmers market, when he was going to college at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California.
That’s where he had a farmstead cheese for the first time. He was hooked. He started researching, reading cheesemaking books. He took cheesemaking courses at schools around the country, and got a job at Mt. Townsend Creamery in Port Townsend.
Then Daniel Wavrin got introduced to Raffaele Mascolo, an Italian cheesemaker. He agreed to help teach the Wavrins the secrets to authentic Italian cheese.
Daniel Wavrin said Mascolo and his team from Italy thought that Ferndale Farmstead could make real Italian cheese because of their seed-to-cheese system.
They have control over every aspect of the process, beginning with how the grass is grown that is fed to the cows. While that’s typical in Italy, it’s not so standard in the U.S.
“We kind of stumbled across this gap in the market,” Daniel Wavrin said. “No one was doing Italian cheeses on the West Coast in a big way.”
Bill Wavrin is cautiously optimistic about the future of the cheese brand.
“We’re a year and a half in,” he said. “Its trajectory is very exciting.”
He’s been a farmer long enough to not be naive about the risks of starting a new venture.
But, he said, he also knows that those who learn fast and work hard have a shot at success.
All they can do, he said, is what they know best.
“We’re going to try to continue to be nice people making good food,” Bill Wavrin said, “and we’ll see if people like that.”