Bruce DeGroot and Karen Mickler wanted to live off the land – specifically, 50 acres his family bought in Western North Carolina. Their farm is in a small valley created by Yellow Branch as the water winds its way to Fontana Lake in Graham County. Hence, the name of their business: Yellow Branch Pottery & Cheese.
In 1980, one of the couple's earliest acquisitions was a Jersey cow to produce milk for their own consumption. They soon had more than enough milk, yogurt, butter and lots of ice cream. So Mickler started making cheese.
As Mickler, 61, got better at cheesemaking and the couple struggled to sell their organic vegetables to local restaurants, they decided to switch their focus. She took a course on cheesemaking at the University of Wisconsin. By 1986, they were licensed to sell aged farmstead cheeses.
“We're probably one of the oldest farmstead cheesemakers in the country,” DeGroot says. “We are the oldest in North Carolina.”
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DeGroot, 53, became the primary cheesemaker in 1999 when Mickler began focusing on her pottery. He made 5,800 pounds of cheese last year and hopes to reach 6,000 pounds this year.
They consider their cheese to be an original creation, and it has won awards from the American Cheese Society and the Southern Foodways Alliance. It was one of the first American cheeses listed by Slow Food USA. It comes in four varieties: farmstead, pepper, basil and natural rind.
For information on where to buy or how to order Yellow Branch cheese, go to www.yellowbranch.com.