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WNC Business

Value-added products are key to local farm’s success

Aug 22, 2023 02:01AM ● By Randee Brown

While many of WNC’s farmers are beginning to incorporate added-value products into their business plans, Looking Glass Creamery developed in the opposite order.

Having always enjoyed working with animals, Looking Glass Creamery Owner Jennifer Perkins said she loved the creative aspect of cheese making. When she was living in Virginia, a cheese maker agreed to have her as an apprentice. She loved the experience and followed her apprenticeship with classes in Vermont and then at NC State University, and later worked on a farm in Tennessee. Wanting to be in Asheville for her son’s education, she and her family relocated to Fairview and built a barn, and Perkins worked making cheese by herself in 2009.

Within a year, Perkins said she had a contract with Williams Sonoma and realized she couldn’t do it all by herself. As their business grew, Perkins’ husband Andy began working with her full time. The contract with Williams Sonoma provided a great audience but wasn’t allowing her business to grow locally, so they pulled the plug on the contract and narrowed their focus.

Along with her husband and son Max, she purchased a farm in Columbus where they formerly purchased their milk in 2017, constructed a building for cheese making and storage in 2018, then built their farm store in 2019.

“We were put through the paces as far as things like shipping,” Perkins said. “Farmers markets were crowded, so we created our own market through our store. We expanded our offerings to include homemade hard cider, wine and cheese combinations, as well as our own homemade jams and pickled items to accompany these cheese boards. We’ve just been putting one foot in front of the other. You have to be flexible with what the Universe puts in front of you, and this is a reasonable place to grow.

Perkins said as she struggled to find staff for the store, Max began helping and understanding the business and has grown to manage the family’s store.

“It’s great talking to people and letting them know where their food comes from,” Max Perkins said. “We are seeing the smiles on people’s faces as visitors see the cows and meet the people who are making their food. I began to notice there aren’t that many places in this area for the community to come together, and the farm store is becoming more of a community pillar in that way. We’re doing more festivals and live music, and we’d love to keep doing that.”

Max Perkins said instead of growing their dairy specifically, they’d love to grow by creating other added-value products. They give their cows time off, as they are currently getting plenty of milk — enough to sell to other local cheese makers — and the cow’s time off has an effect on the quality of milk produced.

Currently, Looking Glass Creamery has 56 cows, and they are milking 20 of them to get about 100 gallons of milk per day during milking season. Perkins said milk produced at certain times of the year is better for different cheeses, and they currently make at least nine varieties. Depending on the variety of cheese, the result is anywhere from three-quarters of a pound to a pound and a half of cheese per gallon of milk. On a mid-spring day this year, they used 345 gallons of milk to make 18 wheels of cheddar.

Products created at the farm include three jams, three pickles, and some unusual or specific items. Perkins said they chose to make pickled mustard seeds because they are specific to their cheese plates, and they chose to make pickled watermelon rinds and dilly beans because they are Southern and different, and also support the local farms from which they are sourced.

Being in a dry county, the only way the farm store could offer alcohol is if they made their own. Hard cider is technically a wine and a fermented product like cheese, so Perkins said they were not intimidated to start brewing. Looking Glass Creamery sources local apples from Creasman Farms in Hendersonville, and with a federal permit, the facility produces a limited amount of hard cider to serve alongside their cheese boards at their store.

The combination of their value-added products and onsite activities like ‘U-Pick’ sunflowers adds an agritourism aspect to the family’s business. Jennifer and Max Perkins said people come from all of the region’s counties, nearby cities like Charlotte or Atlanta, and even from Florida. 

“Value-added farm products may be the difference between farmers making it and not,” Perkins said. “If you want to build a business beyond a ‘hobby gone wild,’ value-added products are needed for flexibility and stability. It’s critical to bring these in once a farm is on its feet, and it’s a great way to bring longevity to produce.”

There is tons of support in the region for good food made locally, and Perkins said even the regulatory environment in NC is very supportive. Asheville’s restaurant scene allows consistent, year-round buying of their products, and also creates connections between chefs, farms, and amazing food.

“We love that we are keeping our dollars local,” Perkins said. “It’s all connected, and keeping money circulating within our community has a big impact.”