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Hendricks Farm & Dairy

By Dan Packel
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 21, 2008

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Wheels of fortune: Hendricks quit his trucking job to make cheese and raise grass-fed beef and free-range poultry. photo by michael persico

The brown-and-white-stippled cows crowded around the long metal trailer, contentedly munching away at piles of hay carted in from the outlying fields. Here, on a small farm just beyond where Philadelphia's exurbs give way to rolling countryside, these cows are the source of the raw milk that's coaxed into an ever-changing selection of locally made artisanal cheeses.

While the road to Hendricks Farms & Dairy from Philadelphia passes a large industrial meat-processing plant, the production of cheese (and other farm products) on this cozy 230-acre farm is more conscientious and personal than in such animal factories. Indeed, owner and cheesemaker Trent Hendricks recently scrapped a robotic milking mechanism to return to human-operated milking machines for the 60 cows that graze his pastures.

Hendricks always wanted to be a farmer, but was once told, "You can't get into farming if you weren't born into it." So he settled on a truck-driving life, reasoning at least he'd be close to farms and fresh air while driving. But as his trucking business grew and duties moved beyond hauling hay, cattle and other farm supplies, he started worrying he was drifting further away from his original priorities.

He and his wife Rachel began looking into the business opportunities of raw milk and bought a cow. He soon determined he could leave trucking for cheesemaking full-time. The artisanal dimension held a special appeal for Hendricks.

"Truck drivers, trash collectors, farmers ... these are occupations that don't make people think of greatness," says Hendricks. "By making cheese, we're not churning out a commodity. Instead we put a little bit of ourselves into the craft."

The farmstead cheeses--made and aged onsite at the dairy farm in Telford, Montgomery County--belie the fact that Hendricks has no formal training.

"I didn't talk to any little old men on a mountaintop in Europe," Hendricks says. Instead he started by reading books about different styles and types of cheese. At the same time he began tasting widely to educate his palate and calibrate his reactions and sensations. He advanced to books about the art of making cheese and experimenting with recipes. Now he has 30 of his own recipes.

While many of these recipes have proved very successful, Hendricks has scaled back selection and is focusing on making only seven cheeses. On a recent visit to the farm's retail outlet, the only varieties available were firm and hard cheeses.

Of the available selections, the pub cheddar and the parmesan are standouts. A common thread through all of these hard cheeses is an appealing earthiness. The cheddar, aged a minimum of eight months, is sharp but lacks the mouth-puckering assault of many ultra-aged cheddars. Instead the cheese holds surprising complexity, mixing punch with nuance. The parmesan, aged at least 12 months in 70-pound wheels, is earthier and less salty than imported Parmigiano- Reggiano, and makes an excellent snacking cheese.

But these cheeses will be vanishing from the shelves shortly, as Hendricks is in the process of completely recreating the product line. This change includes new recipes, as well as an even smaller number of cheeses: just two to four. The new varieties are shrouded in secrecy, but will be unveiled in the next several months.

A key reason for the transition is an increased focus on sustainability and traditional methods.

"Sustainable is one of those bastardized words," Hendricks complains. "People don't use it properly." In his case, sustainability means using horses to work the land and taking as many steps as possible to take the farm off the grid, as well as finding ways to remain personally connected with the production process rather than becoming marooned at a desk.

"I always thought as a leader, you make change not because you have to but because you see a better way," says Hendricks.

Hendricks Farm cheeses are available at the farm, as well as the Fair Food Stand in the Reading Terminal Market, and local Whole Foods stores, among other locations.

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