By CHRIS ALDRIDGE, Kentucky Proud Connection
AUSTIN, Ky. - The California Milk Advisory Board is right. Great cheese does come from happy cows.
Kenny Mattingly can attest to that.
For 17 years, Mattingly has been making Kentucky Proud cheese, called Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese, on his Barren County dairy farm near Austin.
“It’s true – the less stress they have, the more milk they produce, and it’s a better quality milk,” Mattingly said. “We take care of our cows.”
Mattingly is looking into one of the latest trends in dairy farming, robotic milking, in which cows allow a machine to milk them whenever they want, rather than twice daily.
That would be quite a leap from the artisan cheese producer's beginning as an idea inspired by an overseas journey a quarter of a century ago.
Mattingly modeled his Kentucky Proud business after a husband-and-wife operation he visited in The Netherlands.
“In 1990, I got my first opportunity to go to Europe and see value-added operations in The Netherlands, France, and Germany,” he said. “I saw the remains of the Communist systems of agriculture, and it made me think about our [farm’s] future. At the time, we were being told we’ve got to get big or get out. The Communists were all about industrial agriculture.
“But the model I saw in Holland was value-added cheesemaking. A husband and wife were making gouda with 30 cows, and they were the happiest farmers I’d ever seen. Not only were they getting financial rewards, but they also got appreciation from the community that most farmers don’t get.”
Mattingly returned to France in 1991 to research cheesemaking first-hand. In 1994, he bought used equipment to make it a reality.
“There was a lady in Oldham County making cheese,” Mattingly remembered. “In 1992, she had talked to me about selling her equipment to me, I thought it was a good idea, just not the right timing. There was no state support back then, and the idea of local food had not started.
“She offered me $50,000 worth of equipment for $27,000,” he added. “Bankers back then wouldn’t even talk to me about making cheese in Kentucky. But she financed it, and I was able to buy her equipment in ’94.”
When Kenny’s Cheese made its first batch of commercial gouda in 1998, the cheesemaker was his mother. His parents also handled most of the marketing with Mattingly busy running the dairy farm.
“Mom got us off to a good start,” he said. “It was a family effort. Mom and Dad would sell it at the Bardstown Road Farmers’ Market [in Louisville].”
Right away, Kenny’s parents knew the value of selling to restaurants.
“To help get the word out, they gave samples to restaurants out of back of their van,” Mattingly said. “We started marketing to chefs and health-conscious consumers. You really don’t have to sell it to them; they’re looking for it.”
For other customers, the Mattinglys sold the idea of keeping family farmers on the farm by making cheese.
“A big part of our marketing is telling our story,” Mattingly said. “It’s a business, so you can’t do it to save a failing farm. But it’s a great alternative to having to get bigger and bigger.”
Pioneering member of Kentucky Proud
Kenny’s Cheese has been a member of Kentucky Proud since it was a fledgling program under former Agriculture Commissioner Billy Ray Smith.
“I don’t think there’s a state around us that has done a better job than Kentucky has done with all the promotion,” Mattingly said. “When we’re busy milking cows and making cheese, marketing is the last thing on our minds.
“I don’t think we would’ve had the success we’ve had without Kentucky Proud,” he added. “They bridged the gap between consumer and producer.”
During the past five years, the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board approved funding for two projects at Kenny’s Cheese.
“We built a new dairy barn five years ago and a new cheese facility three years ago,” Mattingly said. “It [the board] helped us secure financing when we needed it. It’s also good knowing it’s a low-interest rate over the life of the loan.”
Mattingly’s son, Jared, still in his 20s, manages the dairy side of the family business, while Kenny runs the cheese side.
“I make sure I don’t get in his way,” Kenny joked. “Jared is able to add value to our milk and not be a slave to the farm.
“He went to business school at Western [Kentucky University], so he sees it [cheesemaking] as a way to make money. I like it more for the lifestyle. He’s more financial savvy that I am.”
Kenny’s Cheese and the dairy farm have eight employees, including Jared, Kenny, and his wife, Beverly.
Kudos for Kenny's
Food and Wine magazine named Kenny’s Cheese one of 10 great artisan cheeses for its “Ted” variety, named after Kenny’s grandfather. “Ted” is a cheddar that is “cave aged” in an underground aging room.
Kenny’s distributes its cheese in 15 states. Some of its signature cheeses, like Kentucky Rose, are delivered to large cities like Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, St. Louis, and San Francisco, mostly for restaurant use.
“Exciting things are happening with the University [of Kentucky],” Kenny said, noting he supplies “a couple thousand pounds” of cheese to UK through Sysco. Berea College buys Kenny’s mozzarella.
Last spring, a large winery in Napa Valley, California, called Kenny’s Cheese Shop on the farm. The winery was hosting a Kentucky Derby event and discovered Kenny’s when it searched for “Kentucky cheese” on the Internet. “They ordered quite a bit,” Kenny noted.
Kenny begins each day at 6 a.m., bringing fresh milk into the creamery.
“In cheesemaking, you combine the milk with enzymes, then cook, drain, and press it,” he explained. “The process takes two people ’til about 3 p.m., about a nine- to 10-hour day.”
When time allows, Jared and Kenny take turns making cheese for two to three days a week.
“Other employees help,” Kenny said. “I get a batch started, and they finish it.
“A few years ago, there were days where we were making it six mornings a week and four evenings with double shifts,” he added. “That’s when cheesemaking loses its fun!”