Where the Chesapeake Bay and the Rappahannock River converge in Wake, Virginia, you’ll find Sullivan’s Pond Farm, eight verdant acres where goats graze year-round. It’s here that Rona and Tim and their son Cole Sullivan make a unique aged goat cheese under the label BonnyClabber Cheese Company. Every aspect of their cheese is unique—from the recipe and facility in which it is made, to the flavors, to the use of beeswax covering and biodegradable packaging.
Rona and Tim did not grow up on farms, and like many of today’s farmers, their path to becoming full-time farmers was long and circuitous. Rona reached out to the Virginia Department of Agriculture to learn about the regulations for cheesemaking in the 1990s, even before she had goats of her own. The next step in the Sullivans’ process was moving to a large farm near Urbanna, Virginia, where the Sullivans worked in trade for rent. In 2000, they took a step closer to their dream of self-sufficiency, purchasing what would become Sullivan’s Pond Farm.
Though they had made the move to country, Tim had just started a new job and continued working full time while Rona got the farm started. Cole’s job at the time was to do well in high school, though he was free to work on the farm during the summer. Rona’s goal was to figure out how many goats were needed to support a family, but could be cared for by just one person.
“People will say that cheese in the south is a new thing, and it’s simply not. I uncovered evidence that my ancestors brought the tradition of Bonnyclabber to the Blue Ridge region.”
In addition to herd size, the kind of cheese Rona would make would also have an impact on the sustainability of the operation. Like everything, that too was intricately researched. Rona believes small farms are the future, and that’s why she looked to the past for her cheesemaking inspiration, combining her interest in local foods with that of genealogy.
Rona next set out to find out how to legally make raw milk cheese (as opposed to pasteurized) and to begin her experiment to show that small can be not just be beautiful, but also clean. With advice from the Virginia Department of Agriculture, the Sullivans built the state’s first Grade A, self-contained, micro-dairy building in 2003. This 12′ x 24′ building includes a milking parlor, milk handling room and a cheese processing room. It may be small, but it conforms to highest standard for a dairy, while also costing just $16,000. In her tiny dairy, Rona set about to prove that it would be possible to use clabbered milk as a viable method for creating delicious, sustainable cheese. She created her own method that would work with the least amount of industrial products and electricity. She now teaches that method to other cheesemakers, in on-farm workshops, at conferences and in print.
But just as she was getting started, the farm was struck by Hurricane Isabel, and it was without power for more than two weeks, wiping out Rona’s entire inventory of aging cheese. But customers still wanted Bonnyclabber Cheese, and Rona adapted to her challenges, making a new series of cheeses made with pasteurized milk. It turned out well, giving the farm a product that can be turned around more quickly than the aged raw cheese. Together, the two kinds of cheeses lend variety to the Bonnyclabber product line.
Today, Rona milks 33 goats and she’s no longer concerned with how to run the farm on her own. In fact, she has done a 180, realizing that a farm is not sustainable without community. Her role now is as Herd Director. Tim has joined her as a full-time farmer, and Cole has come to the farm full time too. Cole describes his job as follows: “cheese production manager, co-garden manager, part-time counselor, and an apprentice to Tim as a general handy-man. He also sells at the market every Saturday and often speaks face to face with chefs and venues about adapting orders to suit their needs. Following Rona’s lead, his role as a teacher and speaker is just beginning.”
In addition to the family, Sullivan’s Pond Farm has two part-time employees, Meghan and Priscilla, and Alexa, a seasonal intern. In 2014, the farm welcomed Shannah Bupp who came on as a WWOOFER, one of the many young people who come to the farm to learn and live through a program called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). Shannah planned to stay for a winter to learn more about animal husbandry, and goats in particular. Tim explains, “Shannah is the most conscientious and hardworking helper we’ve ever had, and her stay ended up stretching into a long term intern position and, when she became Cole’s partner, Shannah went from WWOOFER to family and herd manager, and we couldn’t be happier or more grateful!”
Sullivan’s Pond Farm’s community extends to their customers at two farmers markets, a network of local chefs, and to shoppers at Whole Foods Market, which carries Bonnyclabber Cheese in its mid-Atlantic stores. Rona believes chefs and grocery stores are essential for small farmers: “The future for small farmers is going to include some kind of middlemen. It’s crucial for us to have these distribution outlets to keep our business going.”
“People are coming together over food. We want to be an opportunity for people to come together. People love farms—they want to come here all the time.”
Rona calls Cole “the next generation,” and like his parents, his journey to farming hasn’t been a straight road. When the family moved to the farm, Cole was in grade school and leaving his friends behind was painful. But he says, “I came to realize the value of working with the land. How to make food is something that people take for granted. Here, I get to listen to myself, to be with my family. I also have the opportunity to be creative and focus on my music. Even though there are many challenges that people don’t even know about, it’s a good thing for me to be here.”
Rona agrees, and in fact, she says, had Cole not returned to the farm in 2010, she and Tim may have called it quits. She says, “To this day, we still haven’t proved that farming is sustainable for us. And by ‘sustainable’ I mean financially and as far as quality of life. Sometimes you are forced to make good business decisions against good life decisions. But we are bound and determined!”
Rona is optimistic about the future for small farmers, but she thinks it’s going to take some hard work to get to that bright future. “I want to open up new dialogues between farmers and the public–to say things that aren’t being said.” Rona uses her farm’s blog to do some of that work. In a recent post, Rona asked people to really mean it when they say they support local. “It’s not just about going to the farmers’ markets,” she says. She also wants people to know the kind of sacrifice it takes for young people to learn to become farmers. She wants people to understand that her costs to make her cheese have gone up and up, while she feels constant pressure to sell her cheese for less and less. Nonetheless, she says, “People are coming together over food. We want to be an opportunity for people to come together. People love farms—they want to come here all the time.”
With the same determination they have shown for all these years, Tim, Rona and Cole hope to be there to open up their farm to everyone who wants to come. “Life is about choosing to find happiness,” says Cole, who finds on the farm space to think about what really matters in life.
When asked about working with goats, Rona and Cole begrudgingly compliment goats, calling them “smart, like people.” Rona says, “They’re stubborn… that’s why we like them.” Cole explains, “They have mountainous roots, so they’re always climbing.” After a pause he says, “Like humans.” It’s a sweet note on which to end our interview. As Rona, Tim and Cole continue to climb on their farm journey… seeking that balance of hard, rewarding labor and choosing to find in that work–and outside of that work–happiness and knowledge of one’s self.
We love it when music and farming coming together, so we are happy to share this video of Cole Sullivan performing his original song “In Light I Met (Call My Name)” live on the farm!