Seven generations of Marcoot family members have milked Jersey cows on an 1840 homestead in Greenville, Illinois, but it’s the latest crop of Marcoot women: sisters Amy, Beth and Brooke, who are transitioning the family operation into a farmstead creamery.

The entire family now pitches in to make a line of farmstead cheeses, all made solely from the milk of the Marcoot’s 60-head herd of grass-fed, registered Jersey cattle. The family’s latest creation is Cave Aged Forrest Alpine, a raw-milk, gouda-style cheese aged up to 12 months in the farm’s cellars, modeled after aging caves in Switzerland.

I discovered this cheese nearly by accident, after Amy joined Wisconsin Cheese Originals last month. She paid for two memberships: one for herself, and one for her cheesemaker, Audie Wall. This peaked my interest, so I asked what kinds of cheese she was making, and the conversation bloomed. The family’s Cave Aged Forrest Alpine is due to be featured in the Winter 2011 issue of Culture Magazine, and Marcoot Jersey Creamery cheeses are gaining traction.

The Cave Aged Forrest Alpine is a beautiful cheese with a rich, creamy flavor and clean finish. It has almost what I call a “cultured” flavor – the same kind of sweetness and bite that one finds in Prairie Breeze Cheddar.

In Wisconsin, more farm families are transitioning to building on-farm creameries and producing farmstead cheeses. The same is happening in Illinois. A bit of history about the Marcoot family sheds light on how they got to be crafting a farmstead cheese.

The Marcoot family came from Switzerland in 1842, and Amy says the story goes the Marcoots brought a Jersey calf with them on the boat from Switzerland. She’s a bit skeptical about this legend, but does know that the first Marcoot born in America – Maurice Marcoot – did have a herd of Jersey cows, as the family has a letter from his farm. To date, the Marcoot family has had Jersey cows for seven generations, with Amy and her sisters being the seventh generation.

Amy says that as the dairy industry changed during the past 40 years, her dad, John Marcoot, worked hard to change with the industry. About 11 years ago, her uncle left the family farm for a job elsewhere. At that point her dad and uncle were milking 135 Jerseys. Her dad, knowing he needed to simplify things a bit, decided to turn farmland that had traditionally been corn and beans into premium pasture for cows.

And with that seemingly simple decision, the Marcoot family farm switched from being primarily a TMR based farm (Total Mixed Ration) to primarily grass fed.

In an email interview last week, Amy told me she remembers calling home from college and asking her dad how the cows were adjusting. ‘”He said, ‘Amy, they are happier.’ I told him he was going crazy and he said, ‘Seriously, they seem much more content.’ Sure enough, when I came home from college I could see what he was talking about.”

“My parents had four daughters,” Amy said. “They told us growing up that we all needed to go to college, get our degrees and find a stable job. They also said, ‘Give yourself a lot of options.’ I can’t tell you how many times I heard that! So we did.”

Amy went to the University of Illinois and earned a degree in Agriculture and physical education and also has a Masters degree in Counseling. Sister Beth got a degree in Agriculture and is finishing her masters degree now. Another sister, Brooke, got her degree in education. The fourth sister, Brittany, who is not involved in the operation, has a degree in accounting.

Amy says she was living overseas for a year when her parents called to let her know Dad was considering selling the cows in five to seven years. “At that point my sisters and I started talking about what we could do to keep the farm,” Amy says. “After many ideas and thoughts we decided that doing a value added business to sustain our family farm. We considered fluid milk, but quickly agreed that cheese would be the best option for us. We began working with a few different cheesemakers, taking classes, reading books, visiting numerous other creameries, asking annoying questions over and over again. Then we started making cheese. Neville McNaughton is our primary consultant and he has worked with us much over the past year. We are still learning so much!”

Amy hired Audie Wall to be the family cheesemaker and today, she primarily works with Neville and other consultants to grow and learn as a cheesemaker.

“Audie has done a great job for us,” Amy says. “She grew up on a farm about 25 miles north of our farm. She is basically a member of the family as she has been my best friend since we were 10.”

Audie’s undergraduate degree is in Industrial Design and before becoming a cheesemaker, she worked in design engineering. “A few years ago, Audie started looking for something else to do because she was tired of sitting behind a desk. Who knew that meant she’d be making cheese!” Amy says. “She has been able to grasp the concepts and processes of cheesemaking very well. I think much of that is because of her engineering background.”

Three sisters. One best friend. A mom and dad who were willing to try something new: welcome to a new generation of American cheesemakers. Welcome to Marcoot Jersey Creamery.