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A recipe for small business success

Cheese makers aim to profit, protect a way of life

Andy, left, and Mateo Kehler bought Jasper Hill Farm in 1997.



(CNN) -- Unlike many business owners, Vermont cheese makers Andy and Mateo Kehler aren't afraid of competition. They invite it.

"It would be very positive," Andy says. "As far as we're concerned, the more the merrier."

The brothers own Jasper Hill Farm, a company that makes cheese for high-end restaurants and small retail stores across the United States. Competition -- in the form of profitable dairy farms -- would signal an industry revival, they say, hoping just such a trend is imminent.

"We are living in a failing dairy economy. Vermont's hilltop farms are fading fast," Mateo says.

"We wanted to demonstrate that there is a way to make a good living milking 30-40 cows on a rocky hillside in northern Vermont, basically as a way of preserving the state's working landscape and preserving a way of life that would otherwise begin to disappear."

When they were growing up in Colombia, Andy and Mateo Kehler would often travel more than 2,500 miles north to Greensboro, Vermont, to visit relatives.

"We summered here every year of our lives," Andy says. "Looking back, the fondest memories I have of growing [up] are all here in Greensboro. ... This is just the place that I wanted to call home."

The brothers say the Vermont branding means a great deal to them personally and professionally.

"It's a combination of the people and the landscape I think that make us proud to be part of Vermont and to make our cheese here," says Mateo. "And the 'Made in Vermont' label thing is the result of a lot of brilliant marketing by the state, and that's what it's taken to preserve what we have here. I hope we can keep it."

Experimentation on the farm

The brothers bought Jasper Hill Farm, a dilapidated dairy farm, in 1998, but cheese was not their first business venture.

"We had a couple of pretty bad ideas to start with," Mateo said in 1997. "The first was tofu from our own soybeans. If you look around, it's got to be the rockiest, hilliest ground in the kingdom up here.

"The other idea was farmstead beer. We love beer, but [it was] not really viable as a business."

Troubled by the area's weakening agricultural economy -- five dairy farms folded their first full year in Greensboro -- the Kehlers then tried to craft a successful business strategy for cheese making.

"We settled on cheese because, aside from wanting to make a living on the land in a very depressed part of the state here, we decided that we'd like to create a business model that could be replicated on other dairy farms," Mateo says.

So the brothers bought 15 Ayrshire heifers in 2002 and started their cheese-making business.

Cheese with a twist

The company's cheese-making methods combine traditional techniques with the brothers' distinctive twists.

"Our motto on our label is 'Old world style, new world twist,' " Andy says. "So they're recipes that are derived from European cheeses that have been adapted to suit our production schedule and our uniqueness."

Mateo spent several years studying cheese in Europe and worked for a year at the famed Neal's Yard Dairy in London. He has crafted the company's recipes.

Jasper Hill Farms makes three types of cheese: Aspenhurst, which the Kehler brothers call a hard cheddar-style cheese; Bayley Hazen Blue, a natural-rinded blue cheese; and Constant Bliss, a mold-ripened cheese from an original recipe and named after a Revolutionary War scout who was killed in Greensboro in the 1780s.

Andy, the farm's herdsman, heads up milk production and looks after the farm's now 26 purebred Ayrshire cows.

Mateo says producing quality milk is the first key to making quality cheese.

"We couldn't purchase the quality of milk that we're looking for in the production of our cheeses," Mateo says. "Andy's making milk that's in the top 1 percent in terms of microbiological quality in the state of Vermont.

"And our cheese will never be better than our milk -- we understand that's the foundation of what we're doing here -- and we go to great lengths to ensure that our raw material is as good as it can possibly be."

A family endeavor

In business for 18 months, the company showed profit in its first year.

"As far as the business is concerned, we are in our infancy," Mateo says. "But we're selling all the cheese that we're producing, and we're in rapid growth."

But Jasper Hill Farms remains a family company.

The brothers say they realized in 2004 that the company was too much for them to handle alone. Andy and Mateo convinced their wives, Victoria and Angela respectively, to join them in their business adventure.

Victoria manages the farm's cellar, and Angela, a former bookkeeper, handles the company's Constant Bliss production and accounting.

As the company grows, the brothers say they would like to stay in Vermont to boost the state's agricultural economy.

"The goal is ... to do the same on another farm and another farm and another farm after that," Mateo says. "And if in 50 years if there are 50 farms that are making Bayley Hazen Blue or Constant Bliss or Aspenhurst or all three, we will have succeeded on leaving what we consider a very positive footprint on the landscape here."

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