An artisan cheese industry is beginning to emerge throughout the South.

Writing for the quality of life website, freelance journalist Stephanie Stewart-Howard of Franklin, Tenn., reported: “The South is known for abundant food traditions … but cheesemaking hadn’t been one of them.”

Until now, that is.

Stewart-Howard interviewed Kathleen Cotter, proprietor of East Nashville’s Bloomy Rind artisan cheese shop, who says “the growing interest in artisan cheeses springs from the public’s growing commitment to knowing where their food comes from and what’s in it.”

(Cotter is a highly respected cheese-head and fondly known as the “dairy queen” of Nashville, Tenn.)

“For many Southern dairy farmers who are working on a commodity level and dealing with arbitrarily set milk prices regardless of the cost of production … artisan cheese and dairy products are added value,” Cotter says.

“Farmers can determine their own price for handcrafted cheese, butter and yogurt, and it helps them make a living,” Cotter says. “There are also young people deciding on farming as a career, and older individuals taking it on as a second career, based on their interest in artisan foods.

“We’re seeing more aged cheeses here (in the South) now, and they’re getting better and better,” Cotter says.

Her favorite “Great Southern Cheese” place is Sequatchie Cove Farm and Sequatchie Cove Creamery in Tennessee. Sequatchie is a word attributed to the Native American Cherokee tribe, meaning (more or less) “place of the grinning opossum.”

Located near the small, unincorporated village of Sequatchie in Marion County, the family-owned farm and creamery are about 30 miles northwest of Chattanooga. The farm is bordered by the Little Sequatchie River and surrounded by thousands of acres of pristine Tennessee wilderness. The serenity of the environment keeps the cows free of stress.

“While North Carolina is already home to more than 40 licensed cheesemakers, and even has a Western North Carolina Cheese Trail, if you have to pick one, go with Looking Glass Creamery in Fairview near Asheville,” suggests Cotter.

Looking Glass is ranked fifth on her all-Southern cheese list, and the creamery’s repertoire includes cow, goat and sheep’s milk cheeses.

Ashe County Cheese Company in West Jefferson is the state’s largest and oldest cheesemaker. The original plant was built in 1930 by the Kraft Corporation, consolidating smaller operations that had sprung up around the area’s many dairy farms.

The cheese factory in West Jefferson had the size and technology necessary to distribute cheese nationwide, but Kraft sold the operation in 1975 to an investor, and the plant has been privately held since then, evolving through a series of owners.

Today, next to the factory stand three large milk tanks, shaped and painted to look like cows. (Each cow-tank contains 5,000 gallons of milk waiting to be made into cheese.)

Our State magazine sent writer Sarah Junek to West Jefferson to investigate. She found “the 23-foot-long steel Holsteins guarding their patch of ground and fenced in by red petunias and sunflowers.”

Josh Williams, co-owner of Ashe County Cheese, said he enlisted local artist Stephen Willingham and Rusty Rogers, the welding teacher at Ashe County High School, to help fabricate a plan and then execute it, making the tanks look like cows.

Rogers says the project “came at the busiest time of the year for the kids, as they were preparing for finals and welding certifications, but the project offered real-world pressure and a chance to hone untested skills. They had to jump in with what they already knew and apply it.”

Thomas Miles, who was a senior in the class and now works full-time as a welder, said the cows helped start his career.

The cows have become a tourist attraction, but they need to have names, so folks can better connect with them.

Since the dairy cattle are females, but the “founding fathers” of Ashe County are male, it may take a bit of a chronological compromise.

Cow One could be “Gussie.” In 1752, Bishop Augustus Spangenberg, a Moravian Church minister, traversed the land and kept a record of his visit.

He described the winter storms encountered: “I think I have never felt a winter wind so strong and so cold. The ground was covered with snow; water froze by the fire.” Even though the group met hardship, the Bishop concluded “the land was suitable for agriculture and raising cattle.”

Cow Two could be “Sammy.” Ashe County was incorporated in 1799, and named for North Carolina Gov. Samuel Ashe, who served from 1795-98 as the state’s ninth governor.

Cow Three could be “T.J.” The county seat was named Jefferson, in honor of Thomas Jefferson, who became the third US president in 1801.

Gussie, Sammy and T.J. are good cow names, wouldn’t you say? We’ll forward this suggestion along to the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce, just for the fun of it.

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