“The romance doesn’t pay the bills.”
October is the beginning of breeding season for the floppy-eared Nubian goats of Yellow Springs Farm, the eight-acre slice of rolling hills in Chester Springs where Catherine and Al Renzi have long made some of the region’s best goat cheeses. Many of their creations — Cloud Nine, Fieldstone and Nut Cracker — are essential examples of Pennsylvania’s farmstead cheese prowess.
But if all goes according to transition plans, when kidding season hits its stride early next spring, the Renzis will not be the ones delivering baby goats into the world for the first time in 20 years.
“I’ve been the midwife for over 1,000 goat births and that’s such a privilege,” says Catherine. “But sometimes it’s good to know when it’s enough.”
The Renzis have put their Chester County farm and businesses up for sale, a move they say is both about wanting a lifestyle change after two decades of the 24/7 responsibilities of running a farm, plus fatigue from a pandemic that’s been extraordinarily hard on the dairy industry and artisan cheesemakers.
“After nearly two years of COVID headwinds, the input costs of hay, grain, the supply chain and labor that affect us all have gone up dramatically — almost 20% for grain alone,” says Al, 63. “As a small producer we can’t leverage those into price increases.”
“The romance doesn’t pay the bills,” says Catherine, 57, who also noted the challenge of getting older while still having to trudge-out to the barn on snowy late winter nights to deliver those kids. “It’s rough on the joints, and it’s hard work.”
The news hit the local cheese community hard.
“It really hurt when Al told me the news,” said chef Patrick Feury of Nectar in Berwyn, an old friend of the Renzis who’s also been customer and collaborator with the cheesemakers “Their cheese is just world class. You could put it up against anything. It has so much character.”
Restaurateur and cheese guru Aimee Olexy agreed. She recently featured Yellow Spring’s Cloud Nine on her “Master Class” cheese board at Talula’s Garden. The fresh cheese button was among the first goat cheeses made locally in the French style with a bloomy rind when it emerged on Pennsylvania’s artisan cheese scene two decades ago, she said.
“I’ve always felt their cheeses are flawless because they make every piece by hand and their milk is the cleanest,” says Olexy. “They’re premium, but they’re worth it. Because they’re always in ideal condition.”
Nutcracker, a limited edition cave-aged round that gets washed in a nocino liqueur the Renzis also make from black walnuts harvested on their farm, is an American Cheese Society award-winning seasonal specialty that typifies the hand craft that goes into their products, she says: “They do everything, and the Nutcracker really edifies that. It is such a great cheese.”
The Renzis, who have no children, would love to see a new generation take over the farm, their native plant business and the cheesemaking operation they built inside the renovated 19th century stone bank barn and farm house. The unique, earthy terroir of that barn is where older cheeses such as Fieldstone, Red Leaf (aged in wine-soaked sycamore leaves) and Yellow Brick Road (washed in Victory beer) are aged, lending their repertoire products with some longevity to bridge the seasonal limitations of lightly aged fresh cheese when the does stop milking. The Renzis put a conservation easement on the property when they bought it in 2001, so it can never be divided or developed.
Feury is uncertain whether there will be interest for such a demanding pursuit as running a small goat cheese farm.
“It’s a great opportunity, but a different kind of job,” he said. “When you work seven days a week, one year can feel like a really, really long time without a mental break. It wears on people.”
No matter the outcome, Feury says the Renzis have left their mark on the local cheese industry, especially because of the example set by their meticulously methodical practices in monitoring milk quality, sanitation and DNA-driven breeding overseen by Al, who has a masters degree in microbiology as well as an MBA. The Renzis were also founders of the Chester County Cheese Artisans group, which has become part of the larger Pennsylvania Cheese Guild.
“They were a really big part modernizing cheesemaking in Chester County,” says Feury.
Al says the couple has other interests they’d like to pursue while they still have their health and enthusiasm, including advocacy for local food systems, wildlife and water conservation.
“We love what we’ve done here for the past 20 years, but we’d like to have another chapter.”
Catherine, who left a job in financial services to undertake two decades of goat midwifery and hand-rolling fluffy balls of Cloud Nine, concedes to a range of emotions as the end of their era at Yellow Springs approaches.
“Twenty years is humbling, because most people don’t get to live their dreams.”
But even as Pennsylvania’s craft cheese community continues to grow, maybe even at this idyllic farm in Chester Springs, that kind of passion will be missed, says Feury who once worked with the Renzis to make a goat’s milk burrata.
“They’re incredible people who’ve been doing something so right and so good that you’re just not going to find that very often,” he said. “We’re losing more than just a business.”
“The romance doesn’t pay the bills.”