Mary Keehn of Cypress Grove Chevre

In 1983, Cypress Grove Chevre was founded by self-proclaimed hippie, Mary Keehn, in Humboldt County, California. The company started out as another product of Keehn’s self-sufficient ways of life: she started breeding goats because her four daughters needed milk. After two local restaurant owners suggested she legitimize her business, Keehn went to France and spent time with a multi-generational family of cheese-makers to learn everything about the cheese-making process. Since then, Cypress Grove has turned into an international, award-winning goat cheese success that not only promotes humane goat dairying and educates people about animals, but also embodies artisanal roots and fosters community.

At Cypress Grove, Keehn and her employees are committed to making the best, and the most delicious, wholesome goat-cheese. As Keehn says, “There’s a lot of thought, hard work, and care that goes into every piece of cheese.” Keeping the goats healthy is a top priority at Cypress Grove Chevre; Keehn and her team milk the goats twice a day, and play classical music to keep them calm. The company aspires to grow not only within themselves but also within their community. By giving back a portion of their net income and providing local jobs, Cypress Grove has become a staple of Humboldt County. In line with their genuity, Keehn puts it beautifully: “We’ve never been about the bottom line. I think if you do what you love, embrace who you are, and make quality products, the bottom line will grow, period. We are always looking for innovative ways to grow while staying true to our roots.”

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Mood of Living Q&A

Mood of Living: What is your mission?

Mary Keehn: Cypress Grove’s mission is to provide its customers with an innovative and unique selection of cheeses while taking care of its employees, community, dairies, and the environment.

MoL: Can you give us a brief history of the company?

MK: When I started Cypress Grove, more than 30 years ago, I never thought it would grow into what it has become today. In 1983 it was just me and one other person, who worked with the goats, and, occasionally, I recruited my daughters to help out. Now, 70 “Grovers” strong, we’re still growing.

We have not only expanded our creamery, but four years ago, faced with a shortage of milk, we set out to build a world-class goat dairy.  We are especially proud that our dairy scored 100% for our Humane Certification and our young herd is producing almost twice the national milk average. Our cheeses have won awards all over the world, which always makes me smile. I would say as a group, we are over-achievers.

Our employees share a heightened sense of responsibility, which makes all the difference. Without that level of commitment we wouldn’t have the highest quality milk or the most delicious cheese. Also, we wouldn’t be able to contribute to our local community as we now do and that’s important to all of us. Every Grover cares about doing his/her best and it shows.

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MoL: What makes Cypress Grove Chevre unique?

MK: Being from Humboldt County means we all are a little quirky and it’s important to stay true to who we are. We like to say, “We take our food and our fun seriously.” It really embodies Cypress Grove Chevre.

MoL: What inspired you to start the company?

MK: In the sixties and seventies I was a serious hippie. We were true back-to-the-landers. We built a 16 x 16 cabin in Humboldt County using the trees on our property. We were largely self-sufficient: we harvested a large garden, made our own soap and ketchup, and sewed all of our clothes.  When my four young daughters needed milk I asked my neighbor, who had some goats for brush control, if I could buy a couple to use for milk. With a hearty laugh, she said, “Honey, if you can catch ‘em, you can have ‘em.” I went out there every day with grain in hand and I would sit there waiting for them to come. They would get closer and closer each time until finally I caught Esmeralda and then Hazel.

From there I started breeding and, before I knew it, was awash in milk. I hate waste, so I started making cheese on my little stove. At the beginning, I gave the cheese away but, eventually, people started to pay for it. Cypress Grove was launched in 1983 when two local restaurant owners told me that if I became “legit” they would buy my cheese.

I needed to know more about cheese making, so I went to France to immerse myself in the process. What an inspiring trip. I learned so much about cheese making, and then some. On the plane ride home I fell asleep and had a vivid dream about a very specific cheese that I knew I had to make. That cheese has since become our signature cheese – the American Original, Humboldt Fog.

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MoL: When was the moment you realized you could be successful as a cheese-maker?

MK: That trip to France changed my perspective and affirmed that I could succeed. While there, I visited a multi-generational family of cheese-makers.  Their passion for cheese making and their way of life truly inspired me. The grandmother was there making cheese and the dad, mom, and kids all had a part in the process. It was beyond incredible. I didn’t speak French and they didn’t speak English, but we had a common language – a shared passion for making cheese. I know that sounds sort of cheesy (pardon the pun) but I just thought, these folks have been doing this for generations and will keep doing it for generations. They lived the way I had envisioned living and working and I thought, “If they could do it, I could do it.”

I had one of those “aha!” moments when I found out that Humboldt Fog was named one of the “Best of the Best in Design” by Metropolitan Home Magazine. There was Humboldt Fog(™),  listed among amazing designs in architecture, fashion, and furniture. It was so validating. I had the feeling, “Oh, we will really make it.”

MoL: What are some of the challenges you encountered at the beginning?

MK: I had no money; I had little help; I had no formal training; I was a single mom with four daughters. No one liked goat cheese – I could go on! There were so many reasons to quit; however, I just loved what I was doing and had a fierce desire to not only make great goat cheese but also provide for my family in a way that resonated with my values.

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MoL: How did you overcome all of your challenges?

MK: I had to make it work. I needed to provide for my young family and making cheese was something I could do before and after school.  As the kids got older, they could help with things like packaging the cheese and I truly believed that I could build our lives around making cheese. It was a way of life that I was looking for – not just a job but also something I believed in.

MoL: What are some of the obstacles you face on a daily basis?

MK: We work with living things: the cheese is alive, the goats are alive (we have 750 and growing), and our 70 employees and their families are very much alive.  When you have so many living things, each needs a fair amount of attention. There are many moving parts and each is critical. It’s like being a mom – if you don’t pay attention to the things that truly need it, then everything falls apart.

MoL:  Where/how are your products manufactured?

MK: Cypress Grove Chevre is located in Arcata, California – where the redwoods meet the ocean.  We recently built a model goat dairy that is based on a great deal of research. The equipment is from Spain, some of the technology is from Israel, and a lot of the layout is from Holland. We have very healthy goats that produce delicious milk. Our creamery, where we make all of our soft and soft ripened cheeses, is located a few miles away. Our two hard cheeses, Midnight Moon and Lamb Chopper, are produced in Holland by master Dutch cheese-makers using our recipe.

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MoL: Please describe the cheese-making process in detail.

MK: We are very committed to producing the best cheese possible.  Our goats are milked twice a day. Keeping goats calm is key for optimal production; so we do things like play classical music in the milking parlor and avoid wearing bright colors. The milk is then trucked a few miles away to our creamery, where we pasteurize it and add a proprietary blend of cultures. The curd “sets up” for 14 hours and is then separated from the whey. From this fresh, tart curd we create fresh chevre, the foundation for all cheeses that we make. There’s a lot of thought, hard work, and care that goes into every piece of cheese. The result is great tasting, wholesome goat cheese.

MoL: What is your future vision for the company?

MK: We will always be in the process of constant improvement.  As we have grown, we’ve been able to make a difference using cheese as our vehicle.  The goat dairy is a great example. Currently, there is an international shortage of goat milk and domestically many dairies fail.  With care, excellent management, and focus we have almost doubled the milk production per doe. We want to help others do the same.

Our community is extremely important to us. We have a set percentage of our net income that goes back into our community, with a primary focus on education, and women’s and children’s issues. We are hiring someone to help us with sustainability – finding ways to reuse, recycle, lower energy consumption and contribute in other non-cheesy ways.

Of course, we want to make the best goat cheese, but there’s more to it than that. It’s not only about making great cheese; it’s about educating people about the animals, the artisan food world, community, and taking care of the Grover family. We’ve never been about the bottom line. I think if you do what you love, embrace who you are, and make quality products, the bottom line will grow, period. We are always looking for innovative ways to grow while staying true to our roots.

1horizontal1veritcal2MoL: What imprints do you want this company to leave on the world and why?

MK: I hope, in continuing to strive to be the best, we can make an imprint on the world. We are hoping to help create a viable model for profitable, humane goat dairying.  This would be a huge contribution not only to our industry but to others struggling to make ends meet on small farms around the world.  We are also proving that with proper planning and management, it’s possible for a small, rural company to succeed, while caring for its employees, contributing to the community, and making an impact in the industry.

Personally, I think it’s best to focus on what you care about, and there is much more to a company than just the product and sales. I believe you can have more influence and can be successful if you are true to yourself as an individual and as a company. When you start with yourself, the employees, and the community, it ripples out to everything else.

MoL: What is the best advice you’ve ever received and from whom?

MK: My dad used to always say, “Better than that, mediocre.” In other words, the world doesn’t need more “average.” If you’re going to do it, do it really well or don’t do it all.

MoL: What is something you know now that you wish you knew before?

MK: Nothing! I like the surprises of life. If you know how it will turn out, it could change the way you do things and possibly change the outcome. Surprise is a big joy in life.

MoL: What advice can you give anyone interested in starting his or her own business?

MK: Be true to who you are at your core. Do something you care deeply about. Whatever you choose, you’re going to work a bajillion hours doing it, so you really should do something you enjoy. I loved the goats and it just grew from there.

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Photography courtesy of Cypress Grove Chevre

CG-CheeseMaster Mary

Mary Keehn, Founder of Cypress Grove Chevre