Many thanks to the California Farm Water Coalition for sponsoring this tour!

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I can’t believe Thanksgiving is in just two days ~ how does the time go by so fast?!? In a way, I celebrate Thanksgiving every day by being grateful for so many blessings: family, friends, health, our country, the men and women in the armed forces who keep us safe here and abroad, my community, my cat, my chickens, and so much more.  I am thankful for the opportunities I have with my blog to make new friends and learn so much from them – like the phenomenal farming families I’ve met on farm tours with the California Farm Water Coalition. On this summer’s tour in Modesto and Turlock,we were able to do something we hadn’t been able to before: visit cows, up close and personal!  Touring not one but two dairy farms was a new adventure for all of us, one that I am grateful to have experienced, and wouldn’t hesitate to repeat.

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Laura Genasci and cheese maker Mario outside the office.

We visited Fiscalini Cheese Company on Saturday morning and concluded our tour on Sunday with tours of Charles Ahlem Ranch and Hilmar Cheese Company. You might wonder if two dairies would be that different…and the answer is yes.  They share many things in common – the happiness and comfort of their cows at the top of the list, as well as the efficient use of as much of their resources as possible.  But one dairy produces milk for direct-to-market cheese production – small batch, artisan and specialty cheeses – and the other produces milk on a large scale that is then transported to a cheese company, where it is combined with milk from other local dairies to make cheeses in big batches, mostly for commercial use.

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30 lb. wheels of cheese age in wax for one year. Colors of wax differentiate the dates the cheese was made.

At Fiscalini, Laura Genasci and her brother Brian Fiscalini are the fourth generation to work the farm, along with their father John. Their cheeses have been labeled “Farmstead” since 1914 – this designation means they use milk from only their own cows to produce cheeses.

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Fiscalini’s star cheese maker, Mario, told us how milk is brought from the barns to the cheese making facility. Cheese making is labor intensive; although Fiscalini uses some automation their process is mostly a combination of traditional and state-of-the-art procedures.  All their cheeses are produced in open vats so they can see the product as it’s being made. In the packaging room, all wheels are hand cut, everything is hand-wrapped as staff work one type of cheese at a time.

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Purple Moon Cheddar is soaked in Cabernet.

They start by creating 4 basic cheeses, then flavors are added – soaked in wine, smoked, jalapeño or habanero, even pumpkin spice! Laura and Mario treated us to a sampling after our tour, and every variety had great flavor.

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The health and well-being of their cows is priority one. Brown Swiss and Jersey Cows wear pedometers that are scanned as they walk through the barn to help monitor how much they walked that day and how many pounds of milk they gave at each milking. The breeder is at the farm daily, and a veterinarian and nutritionist are there at least once per week.

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The same priority holds true at Charles Ahlem Ranch, where the cows even have a “Loafing Barn” where they rest after they eat, before they’re milked.  The cows can walk through water jets that keep them cool and comfortable, and they can even nap on waterbeds-water filled rubber mattresses topped with soft crushed walnut shells! (The photo at the top of this post is one of the cows in the Loafing Barn.  Isn’t she sweet? Don’t tell anyone, I’ve named her Madge!)

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The cows at both dairies were calm and curious as to who we were, walking over to see our group.

Both dairies farm corn, alfalfa and oats on their own acreage for feed. At Ahlem Ranch, there is an area with garage-sized spaces for feed ingredients like almond hulls and roast beans that are byproducts from other industries; they would otherwise be waste but can be made into feed (that then becomes milk). A staff nutritionist composes formulas that are mixed for cows in pen groups based on their specific nutritional needs for pregnancy, lactation, and in heat.

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At Ahlem Ranch, ingredients are combined to make feed mixes based on specific nutritional needs.

Fiscalini rotates different feed crops through their acreage, using manure from the cows to fertilize the fields.  Manure is also converted through methane digesters into gas that creates energy to power the dairy and cheese facility. Some of the energy is sold back to the power provider. At Ahlem Ranch, feed crops are grown, and a megawatt solar field onsite produces 80% of the dairy’s power.  Water from their lagoon is recycled all day-solids are filtered out and go into the compost, and filtered water is returned to the lagoon. I am always “wowed” by our farmers’ ingenuity in using as much of every crop and product to run their farms and help their communities!

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The entrance to Hilmar Cheese Company

Hilmar Cheese Company, one of the largest single site cheese and whey processing facilities in the world, was founded by 12 local families; 11 of them now are on their 3rd and 4th generations working with the company.

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In the cheese making process, milk goes into tanks with enzymes, and curds start to form and separate from the whey and liquid. The curds are drained off and separated from the water. Then, the whey and lactose (known as co-products) are separated out. Whey is produced into whey protein for protein powders and similar products, and most of the lactose is exported to other countries that use it in place of sugar. (They’re not called by-products because they have their own specific uses; they’re not waste or leftover products we have to figure out what to do with.)

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The remaining cheese is then pressed into large boxes that will yield a block weighing 640 pounds! Hilmar is the only place in the world where you can actually see the “big cheese.” Hilmar is also committed to effective use of their resources: the facility uses a 4-step water reclamation process, and, as at the dairies, a methane digester converts gas to fuel.  The water is used not only on the grass at Hilmar, but on 1600 acres of nearby farms.

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Hilmar is open for tours, hosting 15,000 school kids and 300 tour buses as well as the general public each year, demonstrating the owners’ passion for connecting the public to agriculture. At the onsite restaurant and gift shop you can taste and purchase their cheeses – the only place the cheeses are sold with the Hilmar label.

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Here are a couple of my favorite recipes that use plenty of cheese – be adventurous and try them using different flavors and blends:

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Cheesy Egg Quiche is perfect for brunches and lunches – okay, even for dinner too!  It’s so easy to change up the flavors with different cheeses, herbs and meats (or no meats) – it’s a Christmas morning tradition in our home.  I’ve also made the recipe into individual servings with Cheesy Egg Quiche Muffins.

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Apple Cheddar Bread is another favorite cheesy recipe ~  a quick bread that’s so delicious. Add some nuts to the batter and you’ll have a cheese, fruit and nut plate in every slice ~ Fiscalini’s CA Craft Beer Cheddar was an outstanding addition to this recipe!

I’m sure you’re not surprised to know that, especially after this farm tour, I’m very grateful for cows! For more on the dairies and our fun farm tour adventure, check out my article in the November issue of Lifestyle Magazine.  Happy Thanksgiving, and enjoy, y’all!

Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.  ~William Arthur Ward

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I can hardly wait to try Horsefeathers Cheddar on a roast beef sandwich!


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