No Kids Allowed: Our region's local cheese scene is not without controversy

Alongside Pete Demchur’s driveway in suburban West Chester, Pa. is a paddock of big-eared Nubian goats. They chew alfalfa hay, browse for plants, and walk their front legs up the fence to investigate visitors. Beyond the paddock is a stand of lush bamboo. Just beyond that is a group of townhomes.

Demchur owns and operates Shellbark Hollow Farm, producing small-batch goat cheeses. He never planned for his home on a 3.5-acre lot in West Chester to become a farm; the slow transition into farming began when his family gave him a pair of goats as a Father’s Day gift. A framed photo of those original goats sits on top of the living room television, alongside photos of the children who gave them to him. Demchur bred the pair, then started milking and making cheese. “Over the years,” he says, “the goats just took over the whole place.”

Cheesemaking and caring for the herd could be a full–time job for Demchur, but like many farmers, he has one job to pay the bills (in his case, repairing industrial air compressors), and another to feed the dream. Devoted to his animals, he sleeps with a baby monitor during kidding season, listening to the goats in the barn and ready to assist in labor should the need arise.

Demchur and his sister, Donna, sell Shellbark Hollow Farm kefir, yogurt, and fresh and aged goat cheeses at several area farmers markets and restaurants, including Southwark, R2L, Craft Ale House, Kimberton Inn, Styer’s at Terrain, and Di Bruno Brothers.

Despite the regional popularity of his products, the farm isn’t universally beloved. “I’ve had some issues with the neighbors complaining,” says Demchur, gesturing to the townhouses adjacent to his property. Like other small farms in suburbia, he is sometimes caught in the clash between rural and suburban priorities.

Got Their Goat

“Suburban housing development doesn’t house a rural population,” explains Ronald Bailey, Executive Director of the Chester County Planning Commission. “It normally houses a suburban or urbanated [sic] population [that has] very different values. A suburban individual may invest in a beautiful home, and he enjoys the view, but he wants to spend Saturday afternoon in his backyard barbecuing… [which] might be when the farmer is spreading manure on the fields… and for the farmer, it’s essential. He has to keep his land productive, and the neighbor’s need for a barbecue might not fit into that equation.”

Demchur isn’t an irresponsible farmer. There are no piles of manure on his property and his healthy, happy goats roam, pastured in a fenced network of grassy paddocks. In recent years, he’s actually decreased the size of his herd. But Demchur keeps goats and makes cheese as a vocation, not a hobby. Mucking out stalls isn’t an optional activity, even on the weekends when the neighbors may be barbecuing. He’s unapologetic, but he recognizes that the area is changing, and it’s shifting away from enterprises like his. He looks forward to the day when he can spend all of his time experimenting with new cheese ideas. The future of his farm, however, will likely require relocating.

Down on the Farm

“I moved out here between ’75 and ’80, within five miles of me there were at least five operating cow dairies. They’re all housing developments now. [I’m] the only dairy left in East Goshen.”

He can count Catherine and Al Renzi, who own and operate Yellow Springs Farm, among his dairy compatriots. The Renzis milk goats and make an incredible variety of cheeses—including two American Cheese Society winners—on their historic Chester Springs farmstead. Catherine describes Chester County as “the dairy for the colonial America… where dairy came from… before Wisconsin, [and] before California.” Today, she, Demchur and the other members of the Chester County Cheese Artisans are working to keep that heritage alive.

Though profoundly agrarian in its history, and still the 24th most agricultural county in the nation, Chester County is urbanizing. It ranked highest in Pennsylvania in the 2010 census for per capita income. Property values have increased and it is shifting away from its agricultural heritage in favor of other economic drivers. Bailey reports that there are “a million and a quarter square feet of new office space proposals under review.” As the county changes in its composition, so too does its culture, and Pete isn’t the only farmer who has experienced friction with his neighbors.

“We have neighbors who wish we weren’t here,” says Renzi. “There have been some specific complaints. They range from noise to smell to just that we exist.” Like Shellbark Hollow, Yellow Springs began with a pair of goats. Over a decade, the Renzis—who both previously worked in the corporate sector—invested in their property, renovating a historic Pennsylvania bank barn (built into a slope, or “bank,” so the upper floor is ground–level on one side and lower floor is ground–level on the other side) with conservation in mind as much as entrepreneurship. “One of the joys of this place is the history. We’re connected to the land; it was a dairy, it is a dairy. This is our family—our home.” The Renzis want to be good neighbors and have good relationships in their community. They have longtime volunteers on the farm and an ever-growing cheese CSA member base, but they’ve also been subject to harsh criticism. “One neighbor told me specifically that we were the outlier here,which feels a bit like being the only black family in the neighborhood in 1960.”

Complaints Over Herd

Hillary Krummrich, Director of the Chester County Agricultural Development Council, laments the role of township supervisor receiving complaints about a farm. “You’re in a no-win situation. You have to respond. It may be because the person is completely right and there’s bad things going on, or they may have absolutely no understanding of agriculture.”

Catherine Renzi’s theory is that people object to her farm, or the idea of farming in general, because they have no idea what it means to be a farmer. People “know a teacher, a doctor, a librarian, a police-person, a carpenter—name your trade—but have [they] ever met a farmer? A lot of preconceptions and misconceptions come from not knowing.” She refers to a time when everyone was a farmer, when the farm and the homestead were indistinguishable. “This is how people used to live. They had a cow, they had a garden; the landscape and the foodscape were the same.” Now, it seems that people have lost sight of that history.

Farming, for the huge investment of work hours required, could be considered an identity as much as a vocation. Small, suburban farms, for the publicly accessible nature of their workspace, are subject to far more scrutiny than the average small business owner. These two factors compound one another and make judgment that much more hurtful. “The farm is us,” says Renzi. “We live this for 15 hours each day, seven days a week. It’s who we are. So, if people oppose the farm, they oppose me.” Critical neighbors, who may have never had the opportunity to see the working side of agriculture, may have purchased homes near farms with no idea of what farming actually looks like. 

Bailey offers an insight from the Turkey Hill ice cream label. “There are no cows on the packaging because [the marketing executives] discovered that the people who buy ice cream don’t want to know that ice cream comes from a stinky cow—they [just] want to know that it comes from a bucolic farm. That’s the problem we have—the constant conflict between the rural and the urban interface.”

Blessed are the Cheesemakers

Like so many places, Chester County is at a crossroads that seems to pit suburban development against agriculture and open space preservation. As these two interests come into conflict, they raise the question: What is the place of the farm—especially the livestock farm—in a contemporary community?

 “The operative word is balance,” says Bailey, referring to Landscapes2, an effort by the Chester County Planning Commission to create a comprehensive land–use policy framework for Chester County. The plan aims to encourage development while maintaining and enriching the agricultural land base. The agency has identified areas in the county appropriate for each function, recognizing development of roads, schools and other amenities—as well as open space and agriculture—as contributors to quality of life.

The Agricultural Development Council is also working hard to educate consumers and connect them with opportunities to meet farmers and spend time on farms, in the hopes that having more of an understanding of farming might help consumers appreciate the work of farmers and the existence of farms.

“Many people think their food comes from the supermarket,” says Bailey, with farms existing in some indefinable elsewhere. They love the idea of the red barn and the rolling hills, he says, but the reality—in Chester County, at least—is that farms that actually fit this image are disappearing, the land they once occupied giving way to housing subdivisions and commercial spaces. Livestock agriculture isn’t always convenient, picturesque, or even particularly compatible with urban or suburban lifestyles, but it is a fact of our every meal, whether we see it that way or not. “If you make a farmstead cheese, by definition you have animals,” says Catherine Renzi. “Everybody loves farming as long as it’s not here.”

Though Pete Demchur’s West Chester farmstead might not be destined to remain where it is, it’s clear that Chester County is trying to make sure that farms like Yellow Spring don’t disappear altogether. After all without local farms there’s no such thing as local food.