Coming from a long line of non-dog lovers (I may be the only farm kid ever to have grown up without a dog), I suppose it’s not surprising that I’ve never really been fond of man’s best friend. But that’s before I started hanging out with farmstead cheesemakers.
Every farmstead cheesemaker in Wisconsin seems to have a dog. And not one of those small little annoying yippy city dogs, either, but a big dog with quiet eyes that leads life with a purpose. Such as herding sheep or guarding cows. Or licking visitors until they succumb to feeding it cheese.
Oliver, the big white farm dog at Dreamfarm near Cross Plains, is one of those dogs. Ollie is seven years old, is half Labrador Retriever and half Polish Tatra, and loves to eat goat cheese. Dreamfarm owner/cheesemaker Diana Murphy got Ollie from Mary & David Falk at Lovetree Farm near Grantsburg, after the Falks’ sheep guard dog, a Polish Tatra, got a little frisky with the neighbor’s Yellow Lab. Mary was looking for homes for this unexpected batch of cross-bred pups, and the Murphys happily said yes to one.
As Diana will enthusiastically testify, “Oliver is the best dog ever. He is very friendly (maybe too friendly), but guards the farm at night.”
One of Diana’s best stories about Oliver is the time he disappeared during a walk (the Murphy’s farm borders the Ice Age Trail and on days when Diana is too busy to spend time with him, Oliver will sit on the driveway, wait for someone to pull into the trail head, and as soon as they get out of their car, run over and join strangers on the trail. Many people have gotten to know him and sometimes call him to come along).
On this particular walk, Oliver and Diana were walking around their “country block,” which encircles lots of rural area. This time, Oliver disappeared and did not come back.
“I called and called but no Oliver,” Diana said. “So I continued home and planned to get in my truck and do a search. Before I got that far, I saw Oliver coming down the road by our farm, moving slow and carrying something. When he got into our yard, I discovered that he was dragging a deer carcass! Great. I then had to leave to do some errands. When I got back, Oliver had dragged the carcass onto our porch, and had deer hair strewn all over. It was a terrible mess. Along with that, the UPS person had just dropped off a package on the porch. He/she must have wondered what kind of place we had.”
No doubt the UPS driver had seen worse on his route before, but I would have loved to have been there to witness the scene.
Diana’s dog Oliver is not the only super-friendly farmstead cheese dog in Wisconsin. If you’re looking for a little affection, Buddy at Holland’s Family Farm in Thorp will gladly attack you with kisses. Buddy, a black mix, will be one year old in March. With five kids, a farmstead Gouda cheese plant, and dairy farm to run, cheesemaker/owner Marieke Penterman readily admits she doesn’t have much time for training a new dog. But what Buddy lacks in manners, he makes up for with love.
Last week, Marieke’s little boy, Dean, was sharing his chair with Buddy in the living room. Buddy kept licking and licking Dean, until the little guy sternly told him: “No, no Buddy. I’m not your supper!” Marieke said she laughed so hard, because Dean was so serious and Buddy is so friendly.
Like the rest of the Pentermans, Buddy also likes the farm’s Marieke Foenegreek cheese. At the end of last year, Marieke ran low on inventory and her kids were complaining about not being able to eat their own cheese. So Marieke went to a store that had some for sale, bought a chunk and took it home for the family (you know your cheese is good when you have to buy it back yourself). She cut up some slices on a plate, let daughter Luna take it into the living room for everyone to share, and in just a moment, Buddy snuck up, claimed the cheese for himself, and promptly ate it in one gulp.
“Arghhhhhh … he ate the whole piece!” Marieke said. “The dog does love his cheese.”
Another cheese-loving dog is Augustus Burdock Jensen, the six-month old Airdale pup at Hidden Springs Creamery near Westby. Owner/cheesemaker Brenda Jensen says the dog eats everything. This past fall, when the Jensens were having a new sheep parlor built (they are increasing their flock, which means more milk, which means more cheese – whoo-hoo!), Gus would continually pull the same prank on the construction crew. They would open up their can of soda and Gus would steal it -no matter it if it was full or empty. Brenda would find the can in the yard in small shreds. She says Mountain Dew is his favorite.
While Gus may enjoy his soda, there is one thing on the farm that does not enjoy him: the sheep assigned to the pup to guard.
“He mostly gets in the way,” says Brenda. “The ladies stomp their feet at him in disgust. He wants to come see the babies and the moms are not so eager to share their newborns with him.”
One can only hope the love/hate relationship between the Jensen’s dog and his appointed flock will improve over time. While sheep and dogs tend to lack love toward each other, sometimes cows and dogs are no better.
Smudge, the Border Collie at Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, was supposed to herd cows, but didn’t behave and instead nipped at them. Despite his herding flaws, the Craves cherished him as part of the family. Sadly, he died a summer ago, and they still haven’t found a suitable replacement.
“Smudge ate everything – cheese, cereal, meat, even pie,” Debbie Crave says. “He also liked to take and hide things in the corn field. In the fall when we chopped corn, we’d find shoes, a tennis racket, toys, you name it.”
Hanging out with cheesemaker dogs has softened me a bit toward the canine family. I’ve come to the conclusion (much to the chagrin of my husband) that after our daughter goes to college, we’re going to have to get a dog. I’m going to need something to mother, and I’m betting there’s a big dog with quiet eyes out there looking for an empty-nest with a fridge full of good cheese. I think I’ll name him Fitz.