One of his colleagues in the cheese world calls Tommy Harrell “the godfather of cheese.”
Harrell, a dairy specialist for the N.C. Department of Agriculture, is an inspector, who makes sure all the cheese dairies have the right facilities and follow the food-safety rules.
That could make him a scary guy – he stands between you and your license. But instead, Harrell has attracted a lot of fans. If he sees a way a cheesemaker can set up a milking parlor more efficiently or save a little money in building their dairy, he lets them know.
Michele Lamb of Bosky Acres near Charlotte says getting her dairy set up and licensed quickly was a big help financially.
“Tommy is why,” she says. “He's an advocate for us.”
Harrell is a country boy, a little self-deprecating. He tries to wave off the attention.
But his beat-up Mazda truck has 660,000 miles on it, a result of crisscrossing the state to make repeated visits to dairies. He's lost track of all the cheesemakers he's worked with – “it's kind of mushroomed.”
Seeing the return of a smaller, family-based dairy industry makes him happy.
“Basically, it's one of the great pleasures of my life to help these people achieve their dream,” he says. “For most of them, it's a lifelong dream. For Michele, when I wrote her license, she was almost crying.
“As stuff grows and consolidates, the local slow food movement is one of the greatest things to happen in this state in a long time.”