Gary Zimmer may just be one of the most radical people I met during my Wisconsin Cheese Media Tour last week. He and his two sons are producing a series of seasonal, grass-fed, raw-milk cheddars that illustrate how milk flavors change throughout the year.
Zimmer, a farmer and dairy nutritionist, practices rotational grazing with his herd of 200 Holsteins in Avoca, Wis. His biodynamic farm is also a teaching space, where he shows farmers how to remineralize the soil – adding nutrients back into land that has been over-worked, over-grazed.
Out at Otter Creek, the air smells sweet. Here, the cows get moved to new pasture every 12 hours. In summer, they graze on various digestable plants – usually a mixture of grasses and grains. Now that it’s fall, the fields are full of rye and winter barley. By mixing crops, he keeps his animals healthy and generates nutrient-rich soil. You can taste the quality of his grasslands in the milk that Otter Creek produces.
Spring cheddar is mild and creamy with a sweet, nearly floral hook, while Summer is firmer and tangier with stronger grassy notes. Fall, my favorite, has a big bite on the front end that lasts and lasts. The mouthfeel is lovely.
“It all starts with the soil,” Zimmer says. “By putting health back into the soil, we are supplementing the land. This is really where dairy nutrition starts. It’s intensive land management that makes our cheese.”
Down the road a pace, Zimmer runs Midwestern Bio-Ag, a company he founded to consult with farmers who are grass-feeding their herds. He’s also in the process of writing his second book. At 65, he says, “I’m just getting started.”
Zimmer’s son-in-law, Bartlett Durand, helps with marketing. On a sunny Friday afternoon, he holds up a handful of feed that Otter Creek’s cows are munching in the shade of an open-air barn. “Smell this,” he says, of the pasture-cut hay mixed with protein-rich corn stalks and supplements. “If you were a cow, you would go yum, yum, yum.”
Otter Creek’s seasonal cheddars are not available year ‘round. Only seasonally. It’s something that some chefs and grocery managers find hard to understand. But the farmers at Otter Creek feel that’s part of their quiet revolution. Through cheese, they’re hoping to teach people about the seasonality of milk – something our grandparents probably understood.
“I feel like I’m on a crusade,” Durand says, grinning. “I do a lot of cheesemonger education. Once I talk to them and they try the cheese, they get it.”
Otter Creek is available at select restaurants (such as Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill) and Whole Foods around the Midwest.