It’s the cheese
Family keeps dairy tradition alive in Orland
Knowing exactly how much hard work they were getting themselves into, Tim and Jill Pedrozo decided they wanted to own their own dairy.
Tim Pedrozo, a third-generation dairyman from Merced, had worked full-time on his father’s farm since he was 18 and loved dairy life. But he and his wife were on the lookout for a place of their own.
“We wanted to keep a family dairy,” Tim said, “But we knew that to stay in the dairy industry today you’d have to get into some kind of value-added product to make it a successful enterprise.” In 1998, they found what they were looking for, buying a farm near Orland from a couple who even taught them how to use the cheese plant equipment that came with it.
The Pedrozos loaded up their Jerseys in trailers, driving up to Glenn County on New Year’s Eve. The cows, remembers daughter Mandy, “did not like it.”
It was an exciting move but a nerve-wracking one as well. Would the kids like rural life? Would the cheese sell? Could the farm support a family of five?
Jill Pedrozo kept up her work as a schoolteacher and then substitute-taught. It wasn’t until recently that she quit her day job, so to speak, and started working on the dairy full-time.
The children help out too. Daughter Mandy is a senior at Chico State University, studying public relations—which will surely come in handy for the dairy that relies on industry groups and word-of-mouth for its publicity. Over the holidays, she and her mother gave themselves the project of redoing the dairy’s office area. Son Tom, 10, enjoys cheeseburgers and has told his parents he intends to open a Hawaii branch of Pedrozo Dairy & Cheese. “I help bring in the cows and feed the calves,” he said. Daughter Laura, 7, supervises.
The Pedrozos’ farm is one of only 10 dairies in California that make farmstead cheese, which means all the cheese is made from the milk of cows that live on that farm. “When we started, we were one of three,” Tim said.
The philosophy behind farmstead, or artisan, cheese is similar to that of the slow-food movement—know where your meals are coming from, every step of the way. “It’s like keeping the old traditions alive,” he said of the trend. “We try to look for local products. We hardly ever buy any food at Costco.”
The room where Jill Pedrozo makes the four varieties of cheese is a chilly 47 degrees, and in the summer it’s reversed—hot.
As many as five days a week, Pedrozo retreats to the cheese room and sets to work. The milk is piped in through a hole in the wall from a tank next door. The curds are separated from the whey (which is later fed to the calves) and hand-packed into molds that were special-ordered from Holland. The methods they use are from the Dutch, and the resulting cheese can be compared to Gouda.
The 20-pound cheese wheels sit in a brine bath—three hours per pound—so the salt will cure around the outside, acting as a protective. No wax or plastic is used. “We just let it age naturally,” Jill said, which means it doesn’t have to be pasteurized and thus retails its full flavor and nutritional value. There is a small aging room in the cheese room and a refrigerated box outside for long-term aging.
Tim, who gets up at 5 a.m. to take care of the 70 cows, finally learned how to make the cheese last summer, after Jill fell and broke her ankle.
Besides help from the dairy’s previous owners, Bob and Karen Parker, the Pedrozos took a cheese making course from a Vermont expert brought in by the University of California Cooperative Extension. Organizations such as the California Milk Advisory Board have offered advice and publicity.
“Everyone’s been very supportive of our operation,” Tim said.
“At first, we just went to a few stores and asked if they would carry our cheese,” Jill said. They’ll do in-store demonstrations and have participated in trade shows in San Francisco.
The cheeses have won many awards, including a silver medal for the Black Butte Reserve, garnered in the World Cheese Competition in England in 2000.
Northern Gold is the cheese from which all the other cheeses are derived. Besides the traditional variety, there’s also Black Butte Reserve, garlic and herb, whole peppercorn and a winemakers’ cheese called Tipsy Cow. (The latter is made in two-pound wheels and soaked in red wine for two to three weeks.)
Depending on the season, the cheese will have a different taste due to “what’s going on in the pasture,” Jill said. The fresh, green grass of spring makes for the more complexly flavored, sharper Black Butte Reserve. “You’ll get a wave of flavors as the cheese melts in your mouth.”
The Pedrozos’ pasture is certified organic. “The cows lay down their own fertilizer,” Jill said. “We don’t allow growth hormone, and there are no chemicals on the grass.” But the dairy has a way to go before it can meet the strict government rules governing which food products can be labeled organic. “We may get there at some point,” Tim said.
The milk not used in making cheese is stored in the tank room until it can be sold to Land O’ Lakes. “One of our goals is not to use all of our milk, but all of our milk Monday through Friday, to make cheese,” Jill said.
“It’s been kind of hard this year because of the lower overall milk prices,” Tim said, “but we’re getting more confident. The original plan always was to sell commercial milk.” The milk sales mean a monthly income, whereas the cheese doesn’t bring in any money until it’s aged for at least two months—six months for the Black Butte Reserve variety (it’s $10 a pound, whereas the other types are $8 or $9).
The Pedrozos have only one employee. “We’re just a family making cheese,” Jill said. “I like it. I like working with Tim. He’s pretty much my favorite person to work with anyway. Our business phone is our kitchen phone. We just say ‘hello’ like it’s another friend calling.”
The cheese is catching on. A San Francisco Chronicle food writer called last week to schedule an interview for a wine section story. And the holiday season brought several shoppers to the farm to buy cheese.
Kay Nelms of Butte Valley was in the market for Christmas gifts and had heard about the family dairy. “I love cheese, too. It’s a nice gift,” she said.
After Nelms decided on her cheese, Jill Pedrozo scrubbed the wheel soundly with a vegetable brush. “Each cheese will attract the mold it needs to develop correctly,” she said, but not everyone wants to look at mold on the outside of their cheese.
A group of four people stopped by to purchase some cheeses that would be served at The Esplanade Bed and Breakfast. “Whenever I find cheeses, I bring them there,” said Chris Nelson, the daughter of Lois Kloss, who owns the B & B with partner George Fish.
Pedrozo Dairy & Cheese Company cheese is available at stores and restaurants including, in Chico, Zucchini & Vine, Chico Natural Foods, Creekside Cellars, The Black Crow and Sierra Nevada Restaurant.
The Pedrozos never want their dairy to get so big that it loses the family feel. Recently, Tim traveled to Portland and Seattle on business, where he went out to dinner. "The Tipsy Cow was the featured cheese of the week," he said, with a tickled look. "It’s kind of exciting."