It's affectionately known in creamery circles as "missionary cheese."
Pholia Farm lets smooth richness and mild flavor do the talking for its raw-milk recipes. Despite a gourmet price tag, Pholia's handmade products are known to "convert" many people who believe they don't like goat cheese, says farm co-owner and cheesemaker Gianaclis Caldwell.
"We're selling more and more ... at the farmers market," she says.
Pholia cheeses have been available only for the past year Tuesdays at Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Markets in Ashland and for just a few months at the Saturday Grants Pass Growers Market. Rogue Creamery in Central Point has been Pholia's primary retailer for the past five years.
Licensed in 2006 as Oregon's only off-the-grid dairy, Pholia produces a tiny amount of cheese — about 200 to 300 pounds per month — from the milk of its diminutive dwarf goats. The cheese earned such acclaim in Pholia's first few years that much of it was allocated to gourmet shops in Chicago and New York. Since Caldwell, 49, and husband Vern Caldwell, 48, decided to confine shipments to the West Coast, there's more cheese to go around in Oregon and the Rogue Valley.
"You don't want to lose sight of why you started," says Gianaclis Caldwell.
Shipping so far and at such a high cost clashed with the Caldwells' views of environmental stewardship and sustainability. The couple continually works at minimizing their impact on family property off West Evans Creek Road near Rogue River. A retired U.S. Marine Corps aircraft maintenance officer, Vern Caldwell outfitted open spaces with solar panels and the property's creek with a micro-hydro turbine to generate electricity and to heat water for the family residence and the dairy. Propane- and wood-fired boilers bolster the systems.
"People have to accept that you can't live on this planet without having an impact," says Gianaclis Caldwell.
At least half of the farm's visitors want to learn from the Caldwells' off-the-grid efforts and marvel at how cleverly they repurpose myriad materials, such as old bowling lanes laid down for hardwood flooring, a 1937 Norge range unearthed at a Grants Pass antiques shop and converted to propane, even an antique washstand and an old copper pot fitted with modern plumbing to serve as a sink.
"I like having to think about what you're consuming," says Gianaclis Caldwell.
Predictably, the farm also furnishes examples of raising animals for meat, growing fruits and vegetables and preserving the bounty. But the Nigerian dwarf goats command far and away the most attention, particularly in spring when newborns the size of lapdogs take their first shaky steps and month-old kids scamper down plastic slides and through obstacle courses in their pens.
"That's one of our greatest joys is watching them run and play," says Caldwell.
Each identified by name, the goats number about 70 of which 40 are kept for milking. The herd females delivered more than 90 kids this spring, but only about a dozen will remain with the Caldwells. The rest are sold from a waiting list to families, other breeders with plans to show the goats and a handful of dairies. Only four other dairies nationwide operate solely with Nigerian dwarf goats, says Caldwell.
"They're such a practical, little goat," she says. "They don't give too much milk."
Making cheese was Caldwell's solution to surplus milk when daughter Amelia, now 18, wanted to raise and show goats when the family lived near San Diego. As breeding methods improved, the goats claimed top honors at competitions. And as the herd and milk supply grew, so did Caldwell's expertise. One of her first batches of washed-rind cheese took the amateur-division prize for best in show at the 2005 American Dairy Goat Association Cheese Competition.
Now professionally licensed, Caldwell is so respected in the field that she has to simplify her cheesemaking to make time for writing and lecturing on the topic. A frequent contributor to the trade magazine Culture, Caldwell published "The Farmstead Creamery Advisor" last year and is writing a second book. She teaches several classes each year, mostly to home cheesemakers on the West Coast.
Caldwell's newest cheese, Evans Creek Greek, grants her time for other endeavors. Made in the style of a traditional, sheep-milk feta, the cheese still takes six months to age, but it doesn't require the turning, brushing and washing that develops the distinctive, edible rinds on other Pholia cheeses. The relative ease of producing Evans Creek Greek means 11 ounces of the cheese packed in a jar with oil and spices sells for $13, compared with about $30 per pound that Pholia's four other cheeses command.
While raw milk is touted in some natural-foods circles for its bacteria that benefits humans' digestion, fewer people buy Pholia cheeses for health reasons as for their flavor and the creamery's reputation as family-operated, sustainable and humane, says Caldwell. The farm is named for daughters Amelia, now herd manager, and 24-year-old Phoebe, who lives in Medford.
Limiting cheese production, says Caldwell, means the goats enjoy full lives, stretching their legs on daily walks to browse for native plants and getting individual attention from their herders. When industry attempts to remove nature from the equation, quality and food safety suffer along with the animals, says Caldwell.
"If people could — with every bite they took — see every part of the process, it might alter how they eat and what they eat and how much."