For more than a decade, Emerald Valley Artisans has allowed friends across Washington and Allegheny Counties to get their fill of flavorful, locally made cheeses.
And it all started with a pan of lasagna.
Alisa Fava-Fasnacht and her mother were preparing the dish one day and decided it needed a generous helping of fresh ricotta cheese. So, they took milk from their family’s farm and a recipe from “Home Cheese Making” by Ricki Carroll and started to experiment.
Though they were cheese-making novices at the time, the mother-daughter duo successfully made ricotta. And a lot of it. (“For some reason, I thought a five-gallon bucket of milk seemed like the thing to do,” Alisa says.) They shared the extra yield with friends and family, which sparked a new career path for the dairy farm.
“People had a big, positive reaction to it,” Alisa says. “It showed us early on that there was some opportunity here. Plus, we love the cows. They have beautiful pedigrees and make wonderful milk. Why wouldn’t we do something really special with their milk?”
The family’s motto is: “We milk the cows. We make the cheese. We bring it to you.” As the demand for its products increased, a few more members needed to be added to the family to work at a higher capacity without compromising the protocol. “When you do it all, you can’t focus on it all,” explains Alan Fasnacht, Alisa’s husband. “You have to specialize in something and put the right people in the right places.”
Alan leads the team on the 335-acre farm in Scenery Hill, Pa., tending to the cows in the early hours before heading off to his full-time job. Additional crew members step in to continue providing top-shelf care throughout the day.
They attribute the cows’ health and happiness to the support they received from great teachers, including brand manager Terri Packard and her partner, Ernie Kueffner. The pair sold Emerald Valley its first Jersey cow, Jasmine. To this day, the farm continues to make most of its purchases from Packard and Kueffner, and follow their methods of cow care and herdmanship. These practices will also be passed on to the family’s next generation of farmers, who are already learning how to handle the livestock in 4H.
Cows crave a structured, repetitive routine in order to be comfortable and beneficial to the cheese-making process. “The quality of the milk is dependent upon the care for the cattle, which is why we drive ourselves insane,” Alisa explains. “The farm is the ultimate narcissist because its needs come first — above and beyond everyone else. We work very hard to constantly keep them in a stress-free and clean environment so they are their healthiest.” This means doing everything from camping out in the barn with cows when they’re not feeling their best to taking cheese orders while showing the cows at local fairs.
The milk that’s collected from these well-cared for cows is delivered by LANCO Pennland to Penn Cheese. The transporters are responsible for keeping Emerald Valley’s high-quality, source-verified milk separate from the general pool of milk that arrives at the Winfield, Pa., facility. Alisa and Terri can spend up to two weeks coordinating one batch of cheese, just to make sure the delivery and production run smoothly. “We feel like we have a winning combination right now, working with Penn Cheese,” Alisa says. “It’s worked out really well for us.”
When the cheese is done, it’s transported back to Emerald Valley’s aging room. Created by Republic Food Enterprise Center in Fayette County, the room is currently housing more than 50,000 pounds of cheese at various stages of the aging process.
Once the cheese reaches the perfect age, Alisa’s sister, Racquelle Rockwell, does her part by coordinating the sale and distribution. Paragon Foods helps the farm’s ten varieties of award-winning cheese reach more than 60 vendors, ranging from CONSOL Energy Center and Heinz Field, to The Porch at Schenley and Chatham University. Concept Food Sales, Inc., and MANDI Foods, Inc., also contribute to Emerald Valley’s ability to reach a wider audience.
“When a customer comes and supports us, they’re directly supporting the farm,” Alisa explains. “We use places like Paragon to expand our footprint and get our offerings out to more people who would like to have it.”
Elated by Pittsburgh’s current food movement, the family notes the increase in demand for farm-to-table, source-verified products — which Emerald Valley proudly creates. Cheese connoisseurs continue to select the goods not only for the creamy texture (resulted from the use of whole milk), but also for the dedication to keeping local farms alive without lowering their standards.
To maintain this successful sustainability, Emerald Valley has to have every player on its team pitching in — from Alan’s work in the barn, to Paragon’s work with customers. “If our goal is to move you closer to your food source than you’ve ever been before, then we’re going to have to be present. For us to be present, somebody like Al needs to be present — it builds from there,” Alisa says. “We couldn’t do what we do if we didn’t have every piece in place.”
By Rachel Jones
Souce: Edible Allegheny