Curds away 

Polson cheese makers mix green and bleu

Among the many cheese descriptors, there's sharp, stinky, and squeaky. Now add solar-pasteurized to the list.

In Polson, the Flathead Lake Cheese Co.'s new, bright-yellow building stands downtown. Atop it are 140 solar tubes that harness heat and concentrate it in the creamery's 300-gallon steel tank, achieving temperatures approaching 200 degrees. The heat will help husband-and-wife cheese-making entrepreneurs Joe and Wendi Arnold pasteurize milk, making the fledgling company not only one of the few creameries in Montana, but among the first in the country to solar-pasteurize.

"We like the teaching aspect," says Wendi, standing inside the creamery beside a cluster of instruments and wires that connect the solar tubes to the tank. "This is a way to draw more people, not just for cheese but for the whole solar, green [element]."

click to enlarge Wendi and Joe Arnold are using solar heat to make cheese. - PHOTO BY MATTHEW FRANK

Two years ago the Arnolds began building the creamery behind their home in Polson, about a block from the shore of Flathead Lake. Now they're a couple of pieces of equipment and a few months away from ramping up production of their artisanal cheeses and selling them in stores and restaurants across western Montana and, they hope, beyond. Their signature cheese will be a bleu called "Blu Malou." Its logo, depicting Wendi astride a blue dairy cow swinging a lasso, also emblazons the front of the creamery. The Arnolds will make washed-rind cheeses as well, such as gouda, and feta. "We're trying to train everybody to have [feta] be their everyday go-to cheese, instead of that gummy cheddar stuff that isn't really even cheddar," Wendi explains.

The Arnolds, who moved from Arizona to Polson full-time in 2004, say they're betting most of their retirement savings that the combination of Joe's Wisconsin roots, their love of cheese and cheese-making, and Montanans' appetite for conscientiously produced cheese made from local milk will combine to make a viable business.

Earlier this year, they received validation in the form of a $38,000 grant through the Montana Department of Agriculture's Growth Through Agriculture program, helping them acquire some of the vats and other equipment on the creamery floor. Wendi says the grant saved them from having to take out a loan. "It was nice because it's supportive, and it helps you to understand and believe that you're going in the right direction."

The Growth Through Agriculture program, partly funded by coal severance dollars, has awarded grants and loans to ag-based businesses in Montana for almost 25 years. It's intended to "give that shot in the arm to these folks who might not be able to find financing anywhere else, especially now with the lending climate," says Collin Watters, chief of the Agriculture Marketing Bureau, which oversees GTA.

But the program is giving fewer shots these days than in years past. The 2009 legislature cut the budgets of GTA and other economic development programs by 50 percent. GTA's annual budget dropped from $1.25 million to $625,000, halving the 40 to 60 grants it used to give out every year. Watters calls the cuts "a rude awakening."

"We're really feeling those cuts now, but we're still able to do some really good work," he says. "It's basically one of those things where everybody's got to tighten belts. The money that we have available for grants and loans is still going to be used really, really well—it's just that we won't be able to do as much as we used to."

A few Missoula-area businesses are among the recent beneficiaries of the grants, which require the recipients to match the amount.

Wustner Brothers Honey received $10,000. Rocky Mountain Lavender and Essential Oils received $15,000. Ten Spoon Winery was awarded a $28,000 grant to expand its vineyard by 2.5 acres so it can produce more of its Ranger Rider and St. Pepin wines. "We're like most other businesses in Montana," says Ten Spoon co-owner Andy Sponseller. "We've had to really tighten things up to keep going, and we also felt that we needed to expand our businesses a little bit to be able to make a paycheck off of it."

Up in Polson, the Arnolds are in discussions with Flathead-area dairymen about supplying the creamery with milk. They're hoping to start out at 300 gallons a week, which equates to about 300 pounds of cheese. Wendi says they could increase production well beyond that, but they want to keep the operation small-scale and seasonal. She says bleu cheese turns out better in winter because of dairy cows' cold-season diet of dry grasses and grains, while gouda is better in the summer. They're also looking toward phase two of their new building, which involves a demonstration kitchen on the creamery's second floor and photovoltaic panels outside.

In the creamery's basement, the storage area is largely empty, save for a few wheels of cheese coated with wax. But it won't be for long.

"There are only three cheese makers in the state," Wendi says, "so whoever you talk to, you say, 'I'm a Montana cheese maker' and they want to buy it before you even give 'em a piece of cheese."

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