Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.
And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.
—Christopher Marlowe, The Passionate Shepherd to His Love
“I remember being out in the pasture and just lying down and looking up at the sky and hearing my goats eat,” Veronica Baetje said of the memory she revisits when she first started making goat cheese for just herself and her husband Steve.
In 1998, the Baetjes, pronounced Bay-jee, were living in a rural Mennonite community in Orchardville, Illinois, a town so small the U.S. Census does not keep tabs on it. Neither Steve nor Veronica were raised Mennonite; in fact, they met as children growing up in Oakville, a South County suburb of St. Louis, Missouri.
“Steve would throw rotten duck eggs at me,” Veronica remembered of her girlhood frenemy and later husband, “so it wasn’t always romantic.”
“But I would tease him and call him ‘Farmer Baetje’ because he would run around without shoes or socks, wearing overalls and a t-shirt in the 1980s, and he loved the country,” she remembered of the boy next door.
“He’s a really good artist and he loves to draw. And I remember in 9th grade, I was sitting on the bus with him and he showed me this sketch of a dream house for when he was older. And it was a dairy farm with this farmhouse. I don’t think he ever envisioned a goat dairy.”
Before the Baetjes built a renowned goat milk and cheese creamery, Baetje Farms, selling their cheeses to gourmet specialty stores such as Zabar’s in New York City, Cured in Boulder, The Better Cheddar in Kansas City, Local Harvest in St. Louis, and Whole Foods, Veronica remembered the bliss of having “a Heidi moment” in simpler times.
“I remember in 9th grade, I was sitting on the bus with him and he showed me this sketch of a dream house for when he was older. And it was a dairy farm with this farmhouse. I don’t think he ever envisioned a goat dairy.”
“Hearing the goats walk through the grass and munching, I remember lying there and thinking, ‘If I could just make a business out of raising goats so I could enjoy this moment and actually get paid for it.’
The challenge, however, was after Veronica and her husband moved from southern Illinois to Bloomsdale, Missouri, population 547, her hobby-turned-business grew exponentially once they secured a Small Business Administration loan in 2005.
She remembered the first time they served 88 heart-shaped discs of fresh goat cheese at the St. Louis Wine Festival. The festival, held at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park, was the first time the public would taste the couple’s coeur de la creme, a smooth chèvre in flavors ranging from garlic and chive to dark chocolate raspberry.
“Steve told me people were wrapped around the building to get to the cheese,” Veronica said. “They ran out of crackers. There were people running to the store to get crackers. In the interim, they were using coffee stirrers, anything they could find, to pick-up the cheese. That was when my father-in-law [who was initially skeptical of the business plan] finally said to me, ‘You know, I don’t think it’s such a dumb idea.’”
Since that time, Veronica admitted, “I haven’t laid down in the pasture for a long time.” Her days of Swiss-Alps-inspired reverie vanished as soon as a hobby born of passion became a profitable, ever-expanding business.
“It’s awesome that one $45 mutt goat started the whole train,” Veronica said of the couple’s American Cheese Society- and World Cheese Award-winning goat cheese. “It’s interesting because it teaches me to be careful with what you love as a hobby.”
That is a lesson not many openly ponder after making a dream come true.
“Steve told me people were wrapped around the building to get to the cheese,” Veronica said. “They ran out of crackers. There were people running to the store to get crackers. In the interim, they were using coffee stirrers, anything they could find, to pick-up the cheese.”
What do you do once you build a dream and they come and it is a smashing success? How do you continually stoke the fires of achievement without burning out or getting lost in a maze of bureaucratic responsibilities, and meanwhile get farther and farther from the reasons you began the enterprise in the first place?
Success in American culture is quite often the denouement in a Hollywood film. El fin. Wrap. Screen fades to credits. Wild applause. Nothing else matters, and yet, back on the farm, something else does.
Putting Missouri on the map
In 2015 when The New York Times’ national food correspondent arrived in tiny Bloomsdale to profile Steve and Veronica Baetje’s award-winning creamery, Kim Severson quickly noticed the colorful interests of the woman in charge. Veronica, Severson pointed out in her opening paragraph, was then a devout Mennonite who covered her hair, drove a 2001 Porsche Boxster, collected Hello Kitty memorabilia, and produced some of America’s best goat cheese.
That last fact about making goat cheese worthy of sending a James Beard award-winning writer to Bloomsdale validated that whatever the Baetjes were doing was indeed something special. Bloomsdale is located in the rolling hills of Ste. Geneviève County, a 14-minute drive west of the village French Canadians founded in 1735: Ste. Geneviève, the first organized European settlement west of the Mississippi and namesake of the patron saint of Paris.
Sure, some Missourians flatten the vowels of the towns and streets once christened in impeccable français by French furriers and explorers. Chouteau as Show-toe. Carondelet as Caw-ron-duh-let. Francois as Francis. But despite the region’s tendency to steamroll its French forebearers, the Baetjes have resurrected French-style cheesemaking in an unlikely culinary outpost: rural Missouri.
Cheesemakers have often known that where a dairy herd grazes, feeds, and drinks indelibly affects the taste and quality of the cheese. Food scientist Lisbeth Goddick, of Oregon State University, has confirmed that terroir does, in fact, affect how “cows in different areas produce milk containting different lactic acid bacteria.” Goats are no different.
Wine and cheesemakers alike often discuss the importance of terroir, the French concept of how the soil, topography, and climate affect the taste of wine and cheese, among other food and drink.
Cheesemakers have often known that where a dairy herd grazes, feeds, and drinks indelibly affects the taste and quality of the cheese. Food scientist Lisbeth Goddick, of Oregon State University, has confirmed that terroir does, in fact, affect how “cows in different areas produce milk containing different lactic acid bacteria.” Goats are no different.
So, while some may think terroir is just a fancy foodie way of trying to suss regular folks out from simply enjoying their wine and cheese in peace without pretentiously over-thinking if what they are eating smells oaky or tastes of pine comb, the fact of the matter is that the environment, of course, affects the way cheese tastes.
Severson, like many foodies, wanted to know what accounted for the Baetjes’ success as artisanal, farmstead cheesemakers who have won over 70 national and international awards for their cheeses. How exactly did this husband-and-wife team, who could easily succeed on a historical reality homesteading show, come to create cheeses that were consistently ranked as some of the best in the world?
Given the Baetjes’ meteoric rise and their glowing profile in the Times, it came as a surprise to some in 2018 when they decided to sell their four-acre farm as a turnkey operation somewhere in the ballpark of $1.5 million.
The decision to sell, however, was not a mystery to the Baetjes.
The realities of pastoral life
It is easy to romanticize the life of an independent cheesemaker, Veronica said. The years of long, early-morning hours of milking and tending goats; the mad-dash of kidding season; federal, state, and third-party audits; and the “ever-changing playing field” of FDA regulations, especially since the Food Safety Modernization Act went into effect in early January 2011, begin to take their toll.
The Portlandia daydream of living in an artisanal world where one frolics with snowy white Swiss Saanen goats while effortlessly minding temperamental cheese vats is just that, an urban-dweller’s daydream. Those who have not mucked out barnyard stalls or awakened before dawn to do daily chores, life on the farm, while rewarding and tangible, is still hard work and unrelenting.
In reality, Steve rises around 3 a.m. to do chores and milk the Saanen herd with a few Saanen-Lamancha crosses. The Saanen goats, a milking breed native to Switzerland, are docile and sweet-natured, a far cry from the squalling Nubians they once had. Meanwhile, Veronica makes the cheese with the help of interns from a French dairy school and locals who are interested in the craft of making cheese.
For the longest time, Veronica was the only one who could make the cheese because her employees were afraid to. They kept having their own personal The Sword in the Stone doubts, whereby only the rightful cheesemaker could pull off a perfect vat of Bloomsdale, the Baetjes’ flagship cheese, a Valençay-style cheese in the brie family rolled in pine ash and salt to form an edible rind of white mold.
Of course, the Baetjes cannot call Bloomsdale a Valençay anymore than an American sparkling winemaker can label their product Champagne. France’s Institut National de l’origine et de la Qualité awards the Appellation d’origine Contrôlée, or AOC, a French certification for wines, cheeses, butters, and other agricultural products made exclusively in a particular French geographical area.
The pressure to not ruin a vat of cheese worth thousands of dollars was paralyzing for most employees. And Veronica knew that to learn, mistakes had to be made.
AOC territoriality aside, the Bloomsdale, named after the town Baetje Farms resides in, is the cheese upon which the couple’s name and reputation rests. The Bloomsdale cheese has managed to win the “Super Gold” distinction five times at the World Cheese Awards (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2018). To put this honor in perspective, last year only 78 kinds of cheese were dubbed “the world’s best.” Of those 78, only eight of the world’s best cheeses were made by American cheesemakers. And of those eight, last year the Baetjes’ Bloomsdale was the only Missouri-made cheese to earn such high marks.
So, the pressure to not ruin a vat of cheese worth thousands of dollars was paralyzing for most employees. And Veronica knew that to learn, mistakes had to be made. She expected them, of herself and others. She prided herself on being patient, on asking what happened, in doing her best to make the creamery a place where everyone’s skills could be improved with practice. But still, she wondered, how could she run the rest of the business if no one stepped up to help make the cheese?
“I did not have anyone who could just make cheese if I wasn’t here until I hired Kelly Junge,” Veronica said. “Everyone before could help with this or that, but they were terrified. They just did not feel capable.”
Junge was, and is, a quick study with a deft hand, and Veronica was grateful to finally share the weight of making cheese with someone else.
But as soon as the Baetjes found Junge, the business kept growing, which is a happy problem to have. While the Small Business Administration reports that roughly 80 percent of small businesses make it through the first year, the prospects for future years become much less certain as the business matures.
“Only about half of small businesses survive past the five-year mark, ranging from 45.4 percent to 51 percent depending on the year the business was started,” Chad Atar of Forbes wrote last October. “Beyond that, only about one in three small businesses get to the 10-year mark and live to tell the tale.”
The Baetjes can tell the survivor’s tale of being in the goat cheese business for over a decade, but not without experiencing growing pains. They had to problem-solve how to obtain more goat and sheep’s milk from other Missouri and Illinois farmers to make enough cheese for the Whole Foods contract, which the Baetjes landed after someone from Whole Foods came to the farmer’s market to sample their cheeses in 2008-2009.
The American supermarket chain then sent representatives from Chicago to Bloomsdale to see if the Baetje creamery’s quality and authenticity were in line with the Austin, Texas company’s purpose of nourishing “people and the planet.”
When Baetje Farms finally made the Whole Foods deal in early 2013, they rejoiced at their good fortune and for making it through the six-month-plus process.
But such excitement was then met with the practicalities of securing $4 million dollars worth of liability insurance coverage, learning how to ramp up cheese production, monitoring outside parties’ milk quality, and ensuring the cheese was packaged, labeled, and barcoded according to retail grocery standards.
When Whole Foods greenlighted their first order for Baetje Farms’ cheese in January 2013, Veronica said, “our goats were going to go dry in two weeks.”
… with the Whole Foods order, the Baetjes soon realized they would have to work year-round to stay competitive and get a return on the business.
“We used to shut down every year for two months,” Veronica said. “We dried off our goats, and we planned for that. And that’s when we could do maintenance and travel some and my husband and I could reconnect a little bit.” But with the Whole Foods order, the Baetjes soon realized they would have to work year-round to stay competitive and get a return on the business.
“So we started working with other farms,” Veronica remembered of working with farmers such as fifth-generation farmer Mark Kasten of Kasten Sheep Dairy in Uniontown, Missouri.
“Then that was a whole other learning curve, working with other farms, bringing their milk in, trying to keep the quality control the same, making sure their animals are on a certain program with their feed so the milk tastes the same.”
“Every time we grew the business a little bit,” Veronica said. “It added other dimensions and dynamics into the mix. Steve and I are having to wear more hats and have more understanding of what’s going on, inspect other farms, and talk with other farmers. We’re having to manage our own farm, and we’re having to manage our employees because we need help with production.”
“Don’t Call it a Comeback”: Americans’ love affair with cheese
If you are not into cheese, you might not care which cheeses are dubbed the “world’s best.” But for the rest of us, many Americans are harkening back to the savory pleasure of farmstead cheese and appear to dream of our own private moments with wheels of cheese.
“America is experiencing a collective nostalgia for the cheeses of yesteryear,” Laura Kiesel wrote in “How Real Cheese Made Its Comeback” in The Atlantic, “less processed, farmstead brands that hail from smaller-scale, pasture-based farms rather than the corporate behemoths of industrialized agriculture that currently dominate the market.”
The World Cheese Awards “Super Gold” designations for a handful of American cheesemakers reinforces the smaller-scale demand for artisanal cheeses.
In 2018, of the eight American cheeses that earned the “Super Gold” distinction out of 3,500 entries, five were from creameries that pride themselves on their independence from “big cheese”: Wisconsin’s Carr Valley Cheese; southeast Indiana’s Jacobs and Brichford Farmstead Cheese; Vermont’s Cellars at Jasper Hill; Modesto, California’s Fiscalini Cheese Company; and Baetje Farms. Sometimes the underdog not only wins, but she also wins with honors.
For St. Louisans, who often clutch their beloved provel, a white processed cheese made of cheddar, Swiss, and provolone, and for the rest of America who has had a complicated love-hate relationship with a century of Velveeta, the difference between cheese and “cheese food” is significant. More and more cheese-lovers crave the good stuff; in fact, the average American eats almost 35 pounds of cheese annually.
Niche cheesemakers like the Baetjes, in other words, have customers, restaurants, and cheesemongers who want their product. The issue, however, is that small-scale farmstead goat cheesemakers often lack the infrastructure, people-power, and endless energy reserves to continue advancing ever forward.
“The playing field is very uneven between farmstead artisan and industrial producers. We have to have the same level of insurance coverage, complete the same third-party audit and comply with the same laws. But we are not backed by endless working capital. We can’t buy millions of labels or containers and get the cheapest cost. We don’t have financiers to guide the company. We have hurdles we never expected.”
And some of those hurdles Veronica referred to included being able to answer third-party auditors’ Jeopardy!-like questions about how the farm would conduct a hypothetical mock cheese recall, create a bioterrorism plan, and continue to meet state and federal regulatory bodies’ safety standards, while understanding that neither party communicates or shares information.
… the cumulative effect of getting farther away from the peace and process of making cheese with her husband and more into the world of bureaucrats and what-if regulations began to drag on the couple.
“The first time I heard that [I had to write a bioterrorism plan], I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ Veronica said. “So, how could bioterrorism affect my little goat farm in Bloomsdale? And so we had to sit there, and, at first, I just wanted to write the policy, ‘If a bioterrorism event happened at Baetje Farms, we would close the doors and stop producing. The end.’ Because I’m thinking, how am I gonna? I’m just going to quit.”
Of course, Veronica did not quit. She wrote the bioterrorism plan, however (it is hoped) unlikely and impractical. Yet, the cumulative effect of getting farther away from the peace and process of making cheese with her husband and more into the world of bureaucrats and what-if regulations began to drag on the couple. The Baetjes love the farm, but they also love one another.
“My husband is a super hard worker,” Veronica said of Steve. “He’s sacrificed a lot. His passion was architecture, cutting stone, and now he’s a goat farmer. I don’t think that was his dream or his plan for his life. He sacrificed for my dream to make it his as well.”
A new dream
These days, in 2019, Veronica and Steve are still very much practicing Christians grateful for their time with the Orchardville Mennonite community and their identification as Mennonite from 1997 till 2014. Despite the change, as Veronica said by email, “We will always be connected to them in our heart, though we may not be outwardly.”
Since 2014, Veronica’s long auburn hair has been left uncovered, and she is much more likely to wear a brocade pashmina with a long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans than a modest floral dress. Veronica still drives a Porsche, but has opted for a more modern Porsche Cayenne SUV in palladium metallic, which shines golden in front of the goat barn in early December 2018. Hello Kitty, as Severson noted in 2015, is still in the picture, but these days Veronica is much more likely to discuss the international exchange students she and Steve have hosted meeting up for a reunion of sorts in Greece in 2020.
Those outward changes prompted even deeper reflection about their roles in their beloved business in 2018.
“This past spring I remember sitting in church one Sunday, and it’s the one day Steve and I connect,” Veronica said. “We go to church together, we have lunch, we can relax in the afternoon before chores start again. And, I was just thinking, I wonder what it would look like if I just put the farm up for sale?”
“I just thought to myself, ‘It’s not so scary anymore.”
So, twenty years after buying the first goat, Veronica and Steve Baetje sold the farm and creamery to the TAG Development Team in October 2018. The investment collective who bought the farm comprises siblings and Bloomsdale entrepreneurs, Cara Naeger, RJ Clements, and Eric Clements, and family friend, investor, and real estate developer, Shanna Starnes, based out of Pensacola, Florida.
In addition to jumping into the artisanal goat-cheese business, the TAG Development Team owns and operates Bloomsdale’s breakfast spot, The Kozy, and a former dive bar gussied up as a family barbecue and pizza joint, the Dew Drop Inn. The team’s investment interests are varied, and also include restoring a 1947 Art Deco movie theatre in Cape Girardeau.
Steve and Veronica have stayed on as consultants as the new business owners learn the ropes. The development team has plans to develop agritourism and to create a special-events venue with a bed and breakfast in the near future. They also hope to “get the cheese into more mouths.”
The new owners have already revamped the website, but as you scroll through the new “Our Story” page Steve and Veronica’s first names are no longer there—just Baetje Farms, the business and brand they worked hard to build.
“I didn’t notice it,” Veronica said of the omission. “I don’t mind if we are not mentioned specifically [as] our name is the same as the business after all, so we are still a part of it.”
But they are in a challenging position, Veronica admits over coffee and quiche at Beanik Cafe in Ste. Genevieve.
“I’ve never sold a company and had to work for the new owners. We’re going to have different opinions and ideas. Before I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted, but now we have to have meetings and discuss it and make sure that’s the direction everybody wants to go. There are going to be days where maybe I have to submit to that and trust them, and there’s going to be days where they have to trust me.”
Veronica, who has always professed her belief in Jesus Christ—going so far as to put Proverbs 27 on all of her cheeses’ labels: “And thou shalt have goats’ milk enough.”
So far, Veronica said everyone has adjusted “really well with everything,” even though the development team was getting a crash course on kidding season, which began in the first week of February, right before she and Steve were about to travel to Jacksonville, Florida. It is a trip they would never have taken before while the goats were giving birth to new kids.
Veronica, who has always professed her belief in Jesus Christ—going so far as to put Proverbs 27 on all of her cheeses’ labels: “And thou shalt have goats’ milk enough”—said it goes back to the initial prayer she proffered when she asked for guidance on whether to sell the farm.
“I am really happy because I get to focus more on the cheese plant and making the cheese, which is where my passion and heart are,” Veronica said. “We don’t have to be stressed out about connecting all dots with all these other things connected to owning a business because now we have a management team, and that’s what they’re going to help do.”
As for what is next for the Baetjes?
“I’m right now thinking what’s my next dream?” Veronica said. “Because I need that, that’s part of who I am. What is my next dream?”
Happily, perhaps surprisingly, she does not yet know.