“We are really at that cusp where you have to either take the jump or decide that this is a hobby,” says Jennifer Perkins, her voice shaking a little from nerves. For the past eight years, she and her husband, Andy, have run Looking Glass Creamery out of a small location in Fairview, developing a solid reputation for crafting quality cheese. In early May, the Perkins family announced plans to add a dairy and expand the business to a farm in Polk County.
“This is really what we need to do,” she says. “We have been making money, but in the real world, it is not enough to survive or retire someday.” The new facility will be built at the Harmon Dairy, a second-generation cow dairy started in 1947 and run by brothers Doug and Alan Harmon. The 226-acre property with 144 acres of pasture will provide ample space for the creamery to expand into dairy farming.
The Harmon brothers, who are committed to seeing their family land continue as a working farm after their retirement, placed the entire farm under an agricultural conservation easement in 2013 to keep it intact so that it could never be subdivided or developed. The brothers will mentor the Perkins family on farm management and milking parlor practices until the new creamery becomes operational.
Venturing into farming marks a major change for Looking Glass, which has made a name for itself using purchased, locally sourced milk. But the increasingly inconsistent supply of outside milk was one motivation for the new direction. “You’re really at the whim of the market when you are trying to find good milk or milk you can afford,” says Jennifer Perkins. Those prices can be volatile — so much so that some dairy farmers have turned to cheesemaking themselves in order to secure consistent income.
“One thing that we had a hard time with was not having a connection with the milk,” she says, noting that unlike with some food makers, in their case, expansion will actually increase the amount of control they have over their products. “If something happens with your cheese-make, it may have been something you did, but you don’t know unless you have some kind of connection with your milk supply. It gives us a better starting point.”
Those who are familiar with Looking Glass products may have noticed the sudden disappearance of the brand’s goat cheese. The company stopped producing goat milk products in January, which meant bidding farewell to the much-loved Ellington and Connemara varieties. “I really loved working with goats’ milk,” says Perkins. “So we are hoping to encourage a small goat dairy in Polk County to come online so that we can buy milk from them.”
If that doesn’t happen, she and her husband may use their acreage to eventually work their way back to doing small batches of goat milk products. Regardless, she says, customers can look forward to the debut of blue cheese as well as ice cream in the future.
In its new cheese production facility, Looking Glass plans to build three underground aging caves totaling 1,200 square feet plus a separate brining/drying room, which marks a tremendous step up from the single 120-square-foot cave it currently has. “This way we can just make better cheese, and our aging process will really improve,” says Perkins, adding that since various cheeses require unique climates to develop certain rinds, hardness and flavor, aging is hardly a one-cave-fits-all process. “I think it will really bring our cheeses up a notch.”
The artisan cheese industry in Western North Carolina has exploded in the past decade. There are now about 15 creameries operating between Charlotte and Robbinsville, the annual Carolina Mountain Cheese Fest has grown in three years to host over 1,500 attendees, and the Western North Carolina Cheese Trail has formed to offer a handy guide to all local cheesemakers. With all this growth, it’s understandable that the area’s cheese artisans would look to build a flourishing and more profitable future. But don’t expect to find an up-and-coming Kraft Foods sprouting in your backyard — the scale of operations is still comparatively small.
“Right now, we only have a 100-gallon vat,” Perkins says. “The new vat that we are buying is 660 gallons.” Looking Glass currently processes 300 gallons of milk a week, and Perkins says she expects to more than double that capacity in the first year with the new facility, eventually quintupling production. “It is a big jump, but I think it is going to be a pretty reasonable one,” she says. Looking Glass predicts that construction of the new factory and farm operation will take six to nine months.
And there’s something besides new products for Asheville residents to look forward to: By spring 2018, once the new facility comes online, the current Looking Glass location near Hickory Nut Gap Farm will expand its retail, parking and seating areas, along with its food service and hours, to offer a more visitor-friendly space serving beer, wine, ice cream and cheese plates. There are also plans to eventually add farm tours and retail sales to the Polk County operation.
Looking Glass Creamery’s original location is at 57 Noble Road, Fairview. Harmon Dairy and the future Looking Glass Creamery farm are at 335 Harmon Dairy Lane, Columbus. For updates on the expansion, check Looking Glass Creamery’s Facebook page or visit ashevillecheese.com.