Ethical stewardship: Rogue Creamery

30 August 2023

After an unfortunate absence at the last edition of Cheese due to the complications of the pandemic, we are delighted to welcome back a stalwart veteran of the festival and long-time pioneer of sustainable dairy in the United States: Rogue Creamery of Oregon.

Rogue Creamery was also the first ever American cheesemaker to win the “world’s best cheese” at the World Cheese Awards of 2019, held in Bergamo, Italy.

And last year, in 2022, Rogue Creamery’s President David Gremmel’s work, leadership and passion to the cheese industry, sustainability and organic agriculture were recognized by the American Cheese Society’s Life Time Achievement Award and Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences highest honor, the Hall of Fame award.

We spoke to David about his life and work on the eve of retirement, and his last ever Cheese as President of Rogue Creamery.

Slow Food: This year, the theme of Cheese is “The Taste of the Meadows”, so let’s start with that! Can you tell us something about the biodiversity of the pastures where the animals graze?

David Gremmels: The pastures at Rogue Creamery’s dairy are certified organic.  They are positioned parallel to the wild and scenic Rogue River. The pastures are primarily comprised of  native grasses made up of bunch grasses like Roemer’s Fescue, Forbs, California Oatgrass and Blue Wild Rye. The pastures have been augmented with perennial Rye Grass, Crimson Clover and Vetch. 

What are they able to eat there, and how do the seasonal shifts in plant availability affect the sensory qualities of their milk, and thus, the cheese you make from it?

The best milk created by the herd is when they are on pasture.  This is nearly eight months of the year.  The milk’s composition of solids and butter fats are rich in the spring and autumn months. During the summer months the growth of grass slows due to the heat. The fields are thus irrigated during the summer and autumn months using river water from the wild and scenic Rogue River.  In addition, the herd is fed grass hay harvested in the spring from the dairy and seven pounds of organic grain during each milking.  The milking system is a volunteer robotic system which allows the cow to choose when it wants to be milked.  On average a cow chooses to be milked two to three times a day.

A word on the animals: what breeds do you work with?

The heard is primarily Brown Swiss, Holstein and mix bred Holstein and Brown Swiss. The mix of these breeds optimizes supports the composition of milk for the famed Rogue River Blue, Oregonzola and CaveMan Blue.

Brown Swiss cows at Rogue Creamery. Photo: Rogue Creamery

You talk about practising “ethical stewardship” of the animals. What does that mean for you?

Rogue Creamery has managed its herd ethically since the dairy was created over two decades ago.  In addition, the dairy is third party certified by Validus and Oregon Tilth programs for its ethical herd stewardship programs.  Such programs measure, review and audit the herd’s holistic care, health, organic feed and water program, organic pastures and loafing barns, on-farm security and the animals’ needs.

Rogue Creamery is diligent in providing the most healthy and nutritious organic pastures, hay and grain for its herd while treating each cow individually and respectfully.  Each cow is given a name at birth and spends a few weeks with its mother before moving in a group calf management program. The offspring are raised at my farm until they are two years of age and transported to Rogue Creamery’s dairy, where they begin celebrated lives producing exceptional milk for Rogue Creamery cheese.

What has inspired and motivated you to keep going through the years? Are there any new, younger cheesemakers out there who’ve been inspired by Rogue Creamery who in turn are inspiring you?

I enjoy the process of creating food that is made using positive, organic, holistic methods and having a regenerative impact on the environment. As for other cheesemakers: Sequatchie Cove Creamery in Tennessee was inspired by Rogue Creamery and creates a fig-leaf wrapped raw milk blue cheese soaked in Chattanooga Whiskey.  And Brush Creek’s Orchard Blue and Clear Water Select were both inspired by Rogue Creamery’s Rogue River Blue.  

You make two main categories of cheeses, blues and cheddars: why these two?

These semi-soft and semi-hard cheese, respectively, are historical: Rogue Creamery has been making them since 1933.  The methods have changed little since then.  However, I brought new recipes to Rogue Creamery like Jefferson Cheddar, Cheese is Love, TouVelle, Rogue River Blue, Cave Man Blue and Smokey Blue which have changed the course of Rogue Creamery as a business, in terms of distribution and marketing.

The award-winning Rogue River Blue. Photo: Rogue Creamery

Rogue Creamery at Cheese 2023

Come and meet the workers of Rogue Creamery and taste their marvelous cheeses for yourself in the Market from September 15-18. Cheese 2023 is free to attend and no booking is required!

How did it come be these two types that Rogue Creamery focused on?

The Rogue River Valley Creamer,y which I later rebranded as Rogue Creamery, was on the edge of closure when I discovered it in 2002. I decided to purchase the business from Ignazio Vella and save it from closure.  Ignazio passed on a solid history of cheese making skills to me.  However it was his father, Gaetano Vella, who introduced blue cheese to Rogue Creamery following his purchase of it in 1935.  Hand milled cheddar cheeses have been a foundation for Rogue Creamery since its foundation in 1933, even before Gaetano purchased the Rogue River Valley Creamery.

You’ve said that “creating the world’s best cheese is only part of our mission. We know that business can be used as a force for good.”

As a B-Corporation, Rogue Creamery uses its profits that positively impact its business and community through livable wages and benefits; social engagement and sponsorship of local not-for-profits; investing in renewable energy; providing a commuter bicycle to team members who wish to cycle to work; providing a monthly stipend to those who choose to walk, take public transportation or carpool; recycling and reclaiming waste; recycling and supporting not-for-profit local events through team member paid volunteerism.

Photo: Rogue Creamery

How long have you been a “B Corp” and what changes have there been in your philanthropy since then?

Rogue Creamery became Oregon’s first B-corporation in January 2013. I believe Rogue Creamery’s largest impact is supporting its team with livable wages and benefits and delegating to them the selection of which non-profit organizations we decide to supports each year; we’re confident that our mission and vision will continue to guide the team.

What is that mission and vision?

Our mission: People dedicated to sustainability, service and the art and tradition of creating the world’s finest handmade cheese. Our vision is based on a safe, healthy, positive and other-centered approach, which are applied at all levels of the company.

What does Cheese mean to you?

Increasing awareness of the diversity of the cheese industry; the positive impact of the organic, biodynamic, and regenerative dairy and community on the environment and the world; the distinctive flavor of cheeses based on milk type, recipe, region and the expression of the cheesemakers and affineurs. You get all this at Cheese. I’m awestruck by the support, dedication to knowledge and preservation of cheese recipes through the Slow Food Ark of Taste and inspired by passionate visitors and cheesemakers attending Cheese, as well as their openness to sharing and celebrating each maker’s products.

I grew up on a farm outside of Olympia, Washington in Thurston County on the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains.  My parents practiced organic agriculture before there was certification; they also harvested and prepared food. I was fortunate in having a solid healthy upbringing.  However, over the last six decades I have witnessed the growing popularity of highly processed foods, single-portion packaged foods, snack foods, and genetically engineered foods. It makes you weary. But my heart and mind are comforted knowing that the passion and knowledge around whole organic foods, farming practices, seasonality of food, heritage breeds is being shared, consumed and celebrated at events like Cheese.  Slow Food shows us there is a future for real food; for organic, biodynamic, organic foods made by socially-, economically- and environmentally-responsible producers.

by Jack Coulton, [email protected]

Cheese 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the City of Bra from September 15-18. See you there! #Cheese2023

Cover photo used with permission from Rogue Creamery’s Facebook page.

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