Enterprising partners milk their love of farming

Natalie Sheard and Bethany Dilworth are not your typical milkmaids. And tiptoeing through cow pies is a long way from pirouetting across the stage.

Bethany Dilworth

Natalie Sheard and Bethany Dilworth are not your typical milkmaids. And tiptoeing through cow pies is a long way from pirouetting across the stage.

But as the founders of the new Cornerstone Dairy, one of Vashon’s only certified dairies, they’ve gone from the world of ballet to the pastures of Vashon Island as artfully as if George Balanchine had choreographed it.

Sheard — best known as the owner of Café Luna — discovered Vashon, like so many who now live here, by happenstance. The owner of a dance-wear store in Southern California, she and her husband Luke visited the region often to see their daughter, a dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet. During their visits, the Sheards would go for drives in the country, one day happening onto Vashon and falling in love with the place.

They eventually decided to move here, she said, because she had always wanted to start a little farm. But once she arrived, Sheard — a consummate business owner — took a detour from that dream and bought Café Luna.

Dilworth, meanwhile, was a dancer who also came from Southern California, where she and Sheard were good friends. She worked in Sheard’s dance-wear store and taught dance in California before moving to Seattle, where she worked as a baker in a café. Eventually, she, too, moved to Vashon where she landed in the employ of her old boss, working at Café Luna.

Dilworth and Sheard’s love affair with the dairy world began in 2011, when Sheard began purchasing milk from Kelsey Kozak, a young but skilled dairywoman and cheese-maker. The two women took Kozak’s cheese class and then went to work for her as her milk maids.

“She was our first mentor and teacher,” Sheard said.

Learning to milk and care for Kozak’s Jersey cow, Tess, was the beginning of an in-depth, hands-on study of dairy husbandry, production and processing. As luck would have it, they were able to purchase Tess and thus began the first real steps toward operating a dairy.

After learning the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) dairy codes and receiving guidance from a WSDA inspector, the two women gave Sheard’s husband Luke the building specifications for the milking parlor, milk house, farm stand and animal areas. Last September — and hundreds of hours of labor later ­— they became an approved Grade A dairy, and today they are up and running from a honey-colored barn with green shutters, emblazoned in big bold letters, “Cornerstone Farm.”

Sheard and Dilworth are full partners in their farming enterprise, a three-acre spread on the corner of Monument and 204th Street.

Cows and sheep are fed an all-grass diet, and the farm practices intensive pasture management under the King Conservation District recommendations. Their goal, Sheard said, is to get “away from the industrial model of farming” and to treat the animals and their land with the best stewardship practices possible.

Since acquiring Tess, the herd has grown. Last summer they purchased a Milking Shorthorn heifer that was rescued by T Martino of Wolftown and raised by Tammy Dunakin of Rent-a-Ruminant. The heifer, initially destined to become veal, gave birth to her first calf in June.

The benefit of learning from other Island farmers — including Kozak, Martino and Kurt Timmermeister, maker of Dinah’s Cheese and author of “Growing a Farmer” — “has been wonderful,” Sheard said. Without that support, both women feel their undertaking would have been impossible.

“To be surrounded by such a wealth of diverse experience and passions on our small island is an incredible blessing. All the book-reading in the world doesn’t match a quick bit of real advice from one of these locals,” Sheard said.

Milking occurs every 12 hours, and part of their learning curve was discovering the new muscle groups that were taxed by doing the work by hand. After some injuries and visits to the chiropractor, they found the right ways to move those muscles and hold better postures in relationship to the cow. They hand-milked for the first 18 months; now, with two cows, they’ve moved to a machine.

They’ve also had to learn pasture and land management and the best way to interact with the animals and “get them to do what you want them to do,” Dilworth said. “Figuring out their language and how to communicate with them what you’re trying to accomplish” has been fun but also challenging, she added.

The milk is strained, bottled and cooled in glass jars. They use glass bottles instead of plastic, which they say compromises the milk. “We really believe in glass,” Dilworth said.

They’re also milking two sheep and will be adding another ewe to the ranks next season. Their plan is develop a dairy sheep herd over time, bringing in dairy rams to mate with the ewes each year and keeping only the best milkers.

They add the sheep’s milk to the cow’s milk to make their cheese, developing varieties that include a Tomme, a Caerphilly and a farmhouse-style cheddar. The addition of sheep’s milk gives the cheese more character, the women say. They’re also using the combination to develop their own proprietary cheese culture rather than buy industrialized bacteria.

“The whole world buys the exact same cultures,” Sheard said. “It’s not the path that we want. I want to have my own mother culture here, to do something really unique.”

At the end of the day, what they are proudest to sell is raw, whole, unpasteurized, un-homogenized milk. And by whole, the women mean that it’s in its whole, original form, not broken down and then reconstructed according to some fat content formula.

“You just get what Edith gives you and you get what Charlotte gives you. And it’s delicious,” said Sheard, referring to her animals’ names.

They do blind milk tastings and say they’re developing a keen palate for differences in milk flavors from one cow to the next. “Understanding the cow it came from, the entire process of turning it into a particular product, is very rewarding,” Dilworth added.

But running the farm is far more labor-intensive than they had envisioned. It often takes 10 hours a day to do all the work — the animal care, maintenance, milking, processing, marketing and merchandising. Sheard has taken on a partner as Café Luna so she can place more focus on the dairy.

Another challenge is the business end — making the enterprise pencil out. “One thing we didn’t realize was how difficult it would be to make the finances work,” Dilworth said. The debt load from establishing the infrastructure was not insubstantial. Each cow costs $2,000. Then there are vet bills, certification fees and more.

“Just like any business, this is the beginning, and you start out in debt,” Sheard, the veteran business owner, said.

They charge $7 for a half-gallon of milk, almost twice the cost of a carton of organic milk at a Vashon grocery store. Some assume that “we must be making a lot of money,” Sheard said. “But in reality we’re just trying to catch up.”

The goals are to reach the point where they’re selling eight gallons of milk a day, and then when the aged cheeses are ready to sell, start piecing together a sustainable operation. To augment the farm-stand income, they host fundraising summer brunches on the farm, where they showcase their aged cheeses, farm produce and eggs and other milk products, along with Dilworth’s baked goods.

This clearly isn’t a dairy as strict commerce, in the way that makes sense to a loan officer at the Farm Credit Bank. And the women realize Cornerstone Farm might not be truly sustainable as a business. But Sheard and Dilworth feel Vashon is the ideal setting for their product. “People here are incredible,” Sheard said. “They appreciate good food, and they actually understand a $7 bottle of milk.”

What’s more, they’re sanguine about the patience required of them. Milk has gotten kicked over, but “that’s normal,” Dilworth said. “We understand the phrase much better, ‘Don’t cry over spilt milk,’ because you really want to cry when the entire bucket you just spent squirting out one little bit at a time is wasted.”

“We produce the best dairy products I’ve ever tasted,” Sheard added.  “I just love the things we get to make. I wish I had 100 acres.”

 

Cornerstone Dairy’s farm stand, located at the corner of S.W. 204th Street and Monument Road S.W., is open year round. In addition to milk, they also sell eggs, produce and honey at the farm stand. Minglement currently carries their milk and will carry their aged cheese as soon as it is ready.