Inside the Golden Yoke creamery in St. Ignatius, co-owner Connie Surber opens a freezer door to reveal tidy rows of pint containers filled to the brim with ice cream. Mint chocolate chip. Salted caramel. Honey. Vanilla, of course. A cardboard box holds the ice cream sandwiches, made of thickly slathered vanilla layered between chocolate-chip cookies Surber baked herself.
She proudly surveys the contents. The "cookie smash" ice cream, which is studded with enormous chunks of the aforementioned cookies, is one of her favorite flavors.
"I tell people it's the cookies that didn't make the cut for the beauty contest," Surber says. "It's just cookies that aren't real pretty for sandwiches, so I just break 'em up and put 'em in the mix."
Surber, who has a degree in dairy science from Virginia Tech and has taken courses in ice cream making, explains everything with a soft southern twang and a big smile. She keeps her sunglasses perched on top of a baseball cap, revealing a tan line around her eyes.
She insists that I try a flavor and hands me a small cup of the cookie smash.
"How's that?" she asks.
The vanilla ice cream base tastes airy and delicately sweet, and it's full of satisfyingly soft cookies. My cup disappears quickly.
Progress has been slow-churned for the Golden Yoke, which opened for business on Memorial Day weekend. Surber and her partner, Laura Ginsburg, started the state's first new dairy farm in decades when they began leasing a plot of land in St. Ignatius in 2012. Originally, the plan was to supply the creamery with their own milk, but that's a long way off. For now, the creamery uses milk and cream purchased from other dairies.
That still counts as doing things the hard way. Most ice cream makers in the state create flavors using bags of premade sugar-cream mix. Since Golden Yoke starts from scratch, they had to buy a $15,000 pasteurizing machine—about the size of a beer keg—to re-pasteurize their already pasteurized ingredients and satisfy Department of Agriculture requirements. The pasteurizer set back their opening by several months.
"There's days that are frustrating," Surber says. "But there's so many good days, like when people say, 'This is the best ice cream I've ever eaten.'"
Now that they have regular customers, Surber's excited to experiment with new flavors, sourced with as many local ingredients as possible. A strawberry-poundcake flavor went over smashingly in June. She's testing out a Flathead cherry sorbet for the non-dairy folks, and she's waiting to get her hands on Dixon melons and peaches from an orchard in Paradise later this summer.
As Surber explains what's next for the creamery, Ginsburg is nowhere to be found. She's about a 10-minute drive away at the farm with their baby, Finn Bridger, born in early July. Surbur seems unfazed by opening a new business at the same time the couple is dealing with a newborn.
"If we get it in our heads that we're going to do something, we just do it," Surber says. "We knew we were going to do ice cream, and it got held up a little bit. And we knew we also wanted to have a baby, and there's no perfect time. We joked that I was birthing the ice cream baby and she was birthing the real baby."
So far, things have gone well on both fronts. Back at the farm, Ginsburg explains how business took off as soon as they opened. "We were pleasantly surprised how busy we were at first," she says. In addition to the customers at the creamery walk-up window, their ice cream is also available at the Good Food Store and the Community Food Co-op in Missoula, as well as grocery stores in St. Ignatius and Polson. Surber says that sort of immediate embrace is why they picked ice cream, of all dairy products, to go into.
"Ice cream fits our personalities," she says. "Everybody loves ice cream. You never walk into an ice cream parlor that's sad. They're always happy."