Marketing, research, and hard work.
Located a few miles outside the county line in Honey Brook, Pa., the Rotelles want to bring artisan cheese making back to the region. The Rotelles’ artisan cheese business is called September Farm Cheese. They own 50 Holsteins that produce 3,000 pounds of milk per day, which translates into 300 pounds of cheese that they make for their farm store. The milk that isn’t used to make cheese is sold to the Mount Joy Farmers Cooperative.
This family farm business involves the entire family from David and Roberta to their five children, including 8-year-old Jake. Working together as a family is one of the main reasons they decided to move into artisan cheesemaking. “We were not a struggling farm. We really started this business out of a dream that we had, as a couple, of starting a business on the farm where we could work as a family. The three teenage girls work in the shop on the weekends and after school. Of course, in the summer, everyone is helping,” Roberta says.
September Farm’s cheeses are pasteurized, which allows the Rotelles to sell fresh cheese curds that don’t need to be aged 60 days like raw milk cheese. In addition to their cheese curds, they also sell Monterey Jack, various cheddars and cheese balls. All of the cheddar cheeses are hand-waxed and include mild, medium, sharp and extra sharp. More exotic cheddar flavors include smoked, horseradish, chili pepper and Wisconsin.
Signage at the September Farm Cheese Shop.
Monterey Jack flavors include Honey Jack, Pepperoni Augusto, Joy’s Tomato Basil, Chives and Dill, Garlic and Basil, Jumpin’ Jack Jalapeno, as well as other seasonal varieties. Cheese curds come in Plain, Tomato Basil, Cajun and Roasted Garlic. They also sell four different kinds of cheese balls. The milk house is connected directly to the “make” room, where the cheeses are made. The cheeses are natural and hormone-free with no preservatives.
Both the Rotelles have experience in the food service industry. David’s family specialized in food distribution, and his mother was a caterer. Roberta holds a degree in food service management from the University of New Hampshire. They are both licensed cheese makers through the University of Wisconsin.
The Rotelles are not a certified organic farm, but she says their customers want natural cheese that is made on the premises over organic methods. “More and more, [David] is using all-natural fertilizers. We’re not looking to go organic, but to go as all-natural as possible. Our whey, from our cheese making, goes on our fields, and that’s a very valuable fertilizer,” Rotelle explains.
The Rotelles pasteurize all of their milk to ensure food safety. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture inspects the farm store three to four times a year.
For the Rotelles, the month of September signifies positive changes in their lives: they were married in September 1988; moved to their current farm in September 2002; and started the business in September 2007. Thus, they decided to brand their cheese September Farm Cheese.
The Rotelles want to bring back artisan cheese making to the region, so the public can stop by and watch the cheese being made. They host tours of their plant, but will not give tours of the farm due to the safety issues involved with the equipment and the animals. In the farm store, visitors can witness the cheese-making process through the windows that face into the cheese-making room and watch the cheeses being waxed at the counter space in an open room next to the make room. A video continuously plays September Farm’s cheese-making process on a mounted flat-screen TV by the checkout counter.
The Rotelles want their customers to sample the farm’s cheeses before purchasing them, so they provide samples of the varieties throughout the store. Other locally made products, such as candles, beef and turkey jerky, and canned vegetables are also sold at the store.
The Rotelles actively market to the tourist trade, providing brochures and other information to Lancaster County’s tourism bureau. They also have developed a steady stream of customers coming from other parts of Chester and Lancaster counties. Additionally, they maintain an online store that generates a lot of repeat clientele.For the 2010 holiday season, the Rotelles featured a gift box of their own cheeses along with items from their consignors. “We sell hundreds and hundreds of sampler boxes to individuals, as well as businesses for customer [and] employee gifts,” Rotelle explains. Included in the gift boxes are items such as dipping mustard, cheese wires, honey and cutting boards.
Rotelle is quick to quantify that the business challenges she and her husband have faced were due to growing pains. For example, when they first started the business, a lot of customers requested sharp cheddar cheese, which they didn’t have on-hand due to cheddar’s two-month aging process. “When your company is a week old, you don’t have cheese that’s a year old. That’s one of the reasons why we were able to make the Monterey Jack cheese; that answered the opportunity to make something fresh. We had cheese that we could sell right away while we aged our cheddar,” Rotelle recollects.
Due to the quick growth of the business, they had to replace equipment. “We outgrew some of our equipment early on; we had some challenges in rearranging our make room and get[ting] some new equipment in, but that’s a good challenge to have,” Rotelle says.
An updated pasteurizer is on the Rotelles’ wish list. Their current one uses more energy because the water has to be heated to 140 degrees Fahrenheit and then cooled back down. Newer models take less time and use less energy, which would reduce energy costs and would allow them to add another cheese-making day to the week. Currently, cheese making takes place on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Rotelles enjoy that they’re able to work together as a family and that their business is on the same property as their home. However, that combination can also be a negative. The Rotelles added a separate parking area, gates and signs, creating boundaries for their customers.
They advise other farmers interested in starting their own cheese-making facility to understand that it takes a lot of research and time to get started. Before starting the business, the Rotelles invested time and capital by connecting with a seasoned cheese maker, completing the University of Wisconsin’s cheese-making program and developing their brand. “It didn’t happen overnight,” Rotelle says. “[It was] a lot of work and research.”
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the March 2011 issue.
The farm store is located in a renovated barn on the September Farm property. Photo courtesy of Wendy Komancheck.