Like many area dairy farmers, the Santos brothers ó Karl, Kevin, Arthur and Norman – were only hoping to find a way to keep the family business going. Two years ago, they took a gamble and sent one of the brothers to France to learn how to make cheese.
Today, after only two months of business, Shy Brothers cheese is regularly selling out at local markets and has created quite a following.
“When a woman at the farmer’s market tried a piece she said, ‘Ahhh ó I’m in France again.’ It isn’t for everyone, but people who know cheese love this cheese,” said co-owner Barbara Hanley of the thimble-shaped pieces called “Hannahbells” that come in lavender, rosemary, shallot, red pepper and chipotle flavors.
Shy Brothers makes a kind of French lactic cheese that is not made anywhere else in the United States. Also, unlike much of the cheese found in supermarkets, Hannahbells is a “farmstead cheese,” meaning that the people who craft the cheese also control the milk production.
Karl Santos describes his cheese as a “young cheese, a hard cheese with a rind that is similar to Brie and not even close to cheddar,” that can be used for snacking, cooking and on salads.
He said that the name Shy Brothers came about because the brothers are known for their shyness. Hannahbells is after their mother, Hannah, who bore five boys, including two sets of twins.
The experience has been somewhat overwhelming for Karl, the brother who handles the cheese making. The family is used to what is known in the business as “starvation wages.”
“It actually cost us money to milk cows in 2006. It cost $18 dollars for us to produce 100 pounds of milk, and we could only sell that amount for $11 or $12. The federal government regulates the price of milk. There is no way of passing on expenses,” said Mr. Santos.
The 43-year-old walked past a cemetery dating back to the early 1800s on the Main Road farm that has been in his family for three generations.
“California is the biggest dairy state. Large farms out West can survive much better at government-set prices than farms here,” he said while looking up at the aging barn.
The road to delicious cheese has not been easy. Neither the brothers nor Ms. Hanley, a former golf economist turned chair of the Bristol County Conservation District, knew anything about cheesemaking when they first started. What they did know was that in states such as Vermont, artisan ó meaning handmade ó cheese has been the salvation of many dairy farmers.
Mr. Santos describes teaming up with Ms. Hanley as the “best thing” he has ever done. The deal was that Kevin, Arthur and Norman would run the dairy, Karl would become an expert cheesemaker, and Barbara would use her business savvy to manage and promote Shy Brothers.
Karl also had to agree to being used as an example for other farming families interested in cheesemaking via the Dairy Value-Added Transition Project, sponsored by Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, the Bristol County Conservation District and the Westport and Dartmouth Agricultural Commissions.
Ms. Hanley and Mr. Santos first traveled to France to learn about the craft and business of cheese.
“They were very welcoming toward us. Farming over there is like we did back in the ’60s. There are smaller farms with an average of 30 cows. There is also a lot of respect for where food comes from,” said Karl Santos.
On the dairy side, he learned about how a smaller herd is actually more conducive to cheesemaking and about how certain varieties of cows, such as Ayrshire, are preferred for that business.
Perhaps what impressed Mr. Santos the most was the prospect of making a good living.
“The farmers had new equipment. Their barns had new roofs. They could support their families,” he said with a look of wonder.
The pair returned home and decided to hire a consultant to come over from France to help further train them and set up a cheese house.
Unable to afford building a cheese house in Westport, they rented and renovated a building on Bakerville Road in Dartmouth that was once used by John Abreu as a custom slaughterhouse.
One of the challenges with setting up a cheese house was finding equipment. Most of it, such as a pasteurizing cheese vat from Holland that cost $30,000, had to be shipped from Europe. The entire cost of start up ó including renovation, machinery and permits ó was about $150,000.
The company now transports milk from their two farms in Westport to the Dartmouth property, which, with its sophisticated landscaping and well-kept structures, looks more like an inn than a former slaughterhouse.
“Right now we make and sell one batch a week,” said Mr. Santos, as he stood in his regulation cheesemaking outfit, complete with white boots and a beard net.
The inside of his cheese house looks and runs very much like a chemistry lab. The timing, temperature, amount of bacteria added ó each step in the cheese making process ó has to be exact to achieve the desired kind of cheese.
With the Dairy Value-Added Transition Project, eight to 10 farming families will be learning the cheese business under the guidance of Ms. Hanley, Mr. Santos and Jeffrey Roberts, a founder of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese. When asked if he is nervous about someone else copying all of his hard work, Mr. Santos did not seem worried.
“They could never do the same thing. One degree of temperature here or there, the moisture in the air, the amount of culture you use ó there are so many variables that they could never duplicate Hannahbells,” said Mr. Santos.
Hannahbells can be found at the following local stores and farmstands: Lees Market, Milk and Honey Bazaar, Alderbrook Farm, John George Farm, NorthStar Farm, Silverbrook Farm, and the Westport Farmer’s Market.