Nestled in Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley, a short drive outside of downtown Grants Pass, you’ll find The Rogue Creamery Dairy. I’ve visited the well-known retail and creamery portion of the Rogue Creamery in nearby Central Point numerous times but this time during my visit to Oregon I decided to go to the source, in this case, the cows, for a look at how the famous cheese is made.
Their blue cheese has gained international acclaim and won numerous awards including the Worlds Best Blue Cheese in 2003 from the World Cheese Awards in London. The accolades continue to roll in, most recently in 2017 winning multiple 1st place awards for their Caveman Blue and Echo Mountain Blue cheeses from the American Cheese Society. The many awards have put The Rogue Creamery on the map but in actuality, they’ve been making cheese since the 1930’s when Tom Vella opened the creamery in the midst of the Great Depression.
The Organic Dairy
I spoke with the friendly staff and learned that the current location was a certified organic dairy under the previous owners but had fallen into disrepair. Purchased by Rogue Creamery in 2011 the dairy required a year to get up and running. Now fully operational and USDA certified organic the dairy operates adhearing to three main goals; environmental health, animal welfare and social and economic equality. These principles set the creamery apart from a typical food producer. The staff explained that all cheese at the dairy is certified organic although may not be labeled as such if it includes additional ingredients which aren’t certified organic. They used the example of grape leaves from local vineyards which the blue cheese is wrapped in. If the grape leaves aren’t certified organic then the creamery won’t make the claim that the cheese is organic. We learned about the holistic approach which is taken with the cows to ensure that they are healthy and happy. They explained the voluntary milking system which allows the cows to decide for themselves when they want to be milked, unlike a typical dairy.
Anxious to see the facilities we walked over to the pasture where the cows graze on 68 acres of organic grass located on the banks of the Rogue River. The young cows start in the small pasture at 6 months old where they can be easily supervised and eventually move to the main pasture as they mature. The grass content changes with the seasons resulting in changes in the flavor of milk which can’t be replicated anywhere in the world. No synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides are used here. The cows spend the cool mornings and late afternoons out in the pasture when the weather is comfortable and move into the barn during the heat of midday.
The Barn, Milking Robots and Cow “Fitbits”
Our visit took place in the middle of a hot summer day so we found the cows in the much cooler barn. Here the design integrates high ceilings and open sides which allow for the circulation of fresh air and a cool interior where the cows can take shelter from the hot sun. They are provided shade and brushes to scratch themselves. Some cows are even outfitted with an activity monitor to ensure their wellness. In the barn, the cows eat, drink and use the self-milking “robots” named Charlie and Matilda. The tags on the cows tell the robots how much milk to expect based on when the cows were last milked. The cows learn this system within a couple of days. While we were there a line of patient cows formed in the holding area waiting to be milked. From here the milk is pumped in the overhead pipes to the milk house where it’s chilled, filtered and stored until it’s taken to the creamery. The milk house holds 1500 gallons (12,945 lbs) of milk which equals 1424 lbs of cheese (285 wheels of blue cheese) per tank. That’s a lot of cheese!
A Model Company: From the Cows to the Environment
The Rogue Creamery states its mission as being an artisan cheese company, with people dedicated to service, sustainability and the art and tradition of creating the world’s finest handmade cheese. Combined with their aforementioned commitment to quality and goals of environmental health, animal welfare and equality they clearly take their business responsibility seriously. The facility is solar powered and plans to be 100% solar with zero waste by 2021. They are well on their way to this goal having already hit the milestone of being 45% solar in 2012 and having reduced their waste by 50% in 2008. In addition, The Rogue Creamery is a certified B Corporation meaning they meet specified sustainability and environmental standards. They aim to buy from and support the local community, buy socially responsible goods and provide fair labor. A unique perk for employees provides a free bike after workers commute 45 times round-trip per year by bike. In fact, they’ve been voted one of the 100 Best Green Workplaces in Oregon.
At the end of our tour, we returned to the farmstand and purchased some cheese; Chocolate Stout, Smokey Blue, and the shakable Blue Heaven as well as some ice cream containing minimal ingredients; milk, eggs, and honey with no sugar. The Rogue Creamery not only produces fabulous cheese but stands out as a model company. Having visited a large dairy in the past, and being dismayed by the entire experience this visit to the Rogue Creamery was refreshing. The award-winning quality of their cheese and the extra care they take, from the treatment of the cows to the happiness of their employees and stewardship of the environment, will keep me as a loyal returning customer.