Old Chatham Creamery moves to the Finger Lakes

A former Cornell ag professor brings a world famous cheese (and sheep!) to our local foodshed

By Mary Stone
Photos by Laura Mortelliti

For years, Dr. David Galton and his wife, Sally, have been growing their herds of goats, sheep and cows. Now, leveraging his decades of research and expertise in dairying at Cornell University, the Galtons can make all possible combinations of milk at their new creamery—a 32,000-square-foot plant in Groton, NY, near Ithaca.

Their sheep and goats are at a separate but nearby farm, Shepherd’s Way, while cows are at Ridge Crest Dairy. Combined, the farms produce 3.5 million pounds of milk a year. The farms and plant operate under the Old Chatham Creamery brand, which the Galtons bought from another dairying couple, Nancy and Tom Clark in Old Chatham, NY. The Clarks started in the 1990s specializing in sheep milk. In 2012, the Galtons bought their flock of sheep, and three years later acquired the cheesemaking side of their business. (The Galtons now have 1,200 sheep and 1,000 goats.)

“Old Chatham Creamery has been a leader in the artisanal cheese community for more than a quarter century,” Galton says. “Our goal in building the new creamery in Groton is to continue to lead the artisanal cheese community for the next 25 years and beyond using modern practices to achieve consistent year-round products.”

In 2019, Old Chatham centralized itself at the new plant, one side of which is dedicated to white mold cheeses, such as Brie and Camembert; the other is restricted to blue and other types of mold, says Trystan Sandvoss, sales and marketing director at Old Chatham.

Across its farms and creamery, the Galtons now have 32 employees, which amounts to $2.2 million a year in labor costs, Sandvoss says.

The added space, extra employees and new equipment in which the Galtons have invested extend massive dairying and creamery capabilities to smaller artisanal businesses. Sandvoss’s own creamery is an example.

“As a cheesemaker and someone who dreams up new products to make, I have been able to realize many of those products that I couldn’t make in my facility before,” Sandvoss says.

Sandvoss co-founded First Light Farm & Creamery with his brother Max 12 years ago. Eventually, Sandvoss says, they reached a tipping point with their business.

The business, which started with 17 goats and grew to 240, by 2018 would need 1,000 more goats to keep up with demand from large-scale grocery retailers, which began with Wegmans.

“We used to drive our cheese to each store. We started with 13 stores. Within eight months we were at all stores, which at the time was 101 stores,” Sandvoss says. To keep up, First Light needed more goats or at least someone else’s goat milk.

“Goat’s milk is not easy for someone else to produce for you,” Sandvoss says. “It requires very specific practices in order to get a nice, clean-tasting milk, which is critical to the quality of the cheese. So I either had to start saying no to new accounts—we had just gotten Whole Foods at that point—or I needed to find more goat’s milk.” Having worked with Cornell over the years, Sandvoss turned to Galton for advice.

Galton said his goats could help make up the difference. Eventually, he persuaded Sandvoss to fold his goat herd into Shepherd’s Way—even though moving his goats was not simple. Such stressors can affect lactation for goats, Sandvoss says. As an expert, Galton understood the necessary protocols.

That is another advantage Galton brings to goat and sheep dairying: Beyond managing, he can extend their lactation periods, which unlike for cows, are seasonal. Goats produce a limited amount of milk and sheep produce even less, Sandvoss says.

“Dr. Galton was able to innovate with techniques to get a more consistent supply of sheep and goat’s milk year-round,” Sandvoss says.

Sheep milk, he explains, serves as a starting block of clay. “Although sheep have a very short lactation and produce very little milk relatively, it’s a very rich milk. It’s higher in butter fat. It makes a rich, creamy, decadent product naturally.”

Professor’s Brie is a good example, he says. Named as a nod to Dr. Galton, Professor’s Brie was developed with Wegmans. Sandvoss describes it as the Old Chatham signature four-ounce square of Camembert, made with sheep milk, cow milk and cow milk cream. In 2019, Professor’s Brie won second place out of 1,750 entries for Best in Show at the American Cheese Society Awards.

Galton’s knowledge and techniques bring artisanal cheese to a broader market and with more options possible, they offer Sandvoss the opportunity to stretch his imagination in creating new products with consistently high-quality resources.

“It wasn’t a huge deal for me, changing from farming every day and making cheese. I am certainly connected to my goats,” Sandvoss says. “I am making sure we honor what they produce by making the best possible cheeses [at Old Chatham]. That’s my debt to my goats that are milked at Shepherd’s Way.”

Mary Stone is a Rochsester-based writing professor and journalist who has been covering people and businesses in the region for the past 15 years.

Laura Mortelliti is a freelance photographer based in Upstate New York. Her background in animal science informs and lends passion to her work.

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