Philadelphia Students Learn the Business of Cheesemaking

Philadelphia Students Learn the Business of Cheesemaking

In Walter B. Saul High School's dairy barn, high-schoolers tend to the cows — and gain real-life problem solving experience.

W.B. Saul High School student Asjah Thomas pets a cow at the high school in Philadelphia, on November 12, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Governor Tom Wolf/Commonwealth Media ServicesCC BY 2.0)

In the Walter B. Saul High School dairy barn, Hailee Crooks-Williams is taking care of Quibble. The black-and-white cow affectionately nuzzles her shoulder like a large dog. It’s in between milking times, when the students are responsible for everything from bringing the cows into the barn to processing the milk so it’s ready to be made into cheese. Quibble’s milk is part of the cheesemaking, Crooks-Williams explains as she scratches the cow’s neck.

Saul — as students and teachers call it — is a public school on 130 acres in Philadelphia’s Roxborough neighborhood, and it has been providing milk for cheesemaking for decades. But this is the first year the school is selling cheese under its own label made exclusively from cows on its farm.

“I had to make sure those animals were taken care of,” says Crooks-Williams, a junior majoring in large animal science. “It’s a good feeling — I’m the cause of people eating good cheese.”

For years, the school sent its milk to the multibillion-dollar dairy company Land O’Lakes for processing. But early in the pandemic the school’s full-time staff farmer left, and they were unable to keep the milking operation going. They sent their cows to a dairy farm and paused pickups from the company. Last October, they were ready to resume the pre-pandemic setup. They had hired a farmer and were bringing the calves back when they got a message from Land O’Lakes: The milk pickup truck wasn’t coming.

“We had to scramble,” says Jane Arbasak, farm administrator. “Otherwise, as soon as the milk came in, it was going to go right down the drain.”

Just in time, Land O’Lakes helped the school connect with an Amish cheesemaker who would take the milk and turn it into cheese from Saul cows. Under the old setup with Land O’Lakes, Arbasak and the Saul students weren’t involved after the milk was taken away. The new arrangement meant their cheese would be coming back to the school for distribution. After the first pickup on Nov. 4, Saul staff had 60 days while the cheese aged to create a label, pass a state inspection, and decide where to sell it.

Now, the cheese is on the shelves of Roxborough deli T & F Farmers’ Pride, and the school is fielding calls from alumni across the country interested in a block of their alma mater’s Gouda, cheddar, colby and baby Swiss.

Saul students are responsible for the dairy cows that make the cheese possible. They halter break the cows, gaining the animals’ trust to be guided by a rope. They make hay. They milk the cows twice a day.

“Before, I just thought that cheese is cheese,” Crooks-Williams says. “I didn’t think about how the cow was taken care of, and that if the cow isn’t taken care of, the milk will come out different and cheese will come out different.”

Crooks-Williams moved from South Carolina to Philadelphia specifically to attend Saul after her mom learned about the school’s unique program. Since she was a kid, Crooks-Williams wanted to be a large animal vet — an aspiration that many students have and achieve, according to Arbasak.

It’s common for graduates to go on to work in agriculture but not necessarily as farmers: Veterinary care, research and landscaping are popular careers. Less than 2% of the American workforce is farming, but “there’s so much more to agriculture than plows and cows,” Arbasak says.

During their four years at Saul, students gain real-life problem-solving experience by taking care of the animals, Arbasak says. She sees students gain confidence and maturity through their time at the school.

“They learn responsibility,” Arbasak says. “They learn the work ethic. They learn about themselves. They learn how to control their emotions.”

Saul is the largest agricultural school in the country. Students from across Philadelphia apply to attend and study animal science, horticulture, food science or natural resource management. All 500 students are members of the National FFA Organization (commonly called Future Farmers of America).

Caring for the dairy cows is just one part of Saul’s broader agriculture program. The school’s food science students are also involved in the cheese operation once the milk comes back in cheese form: They wrap it in individual 8-ounce packages, attach labels, and keep track of the inventory coming in and out.

Right now, the school has six cows they’re milking but as they expand production they’re aiming to have 12 to 15 cows, Arbasak says. The herd is a mix of Holsteins, Ayrshire, Shorthorn, Guernsey, and Jersey cows — and that diversity makes for better cheese, according to their cheesemaker.

The student body is diverse as well, but the animals are indifferent.

“The cow doesn’t care what color your skin is,” Arbasak says. “She doesn’t care if you’re male or female, she doesn’t care if you’re short or tall or fat or wide. She cares about that bucket of grain.”

Next City is one of more than 20 news outlets in the Broke in Philly reporting collaborative, a reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Follow us on Twitter @BrokeInPhilly.

Ashira Morris is a freelance reporter based between Sofia, Bulgaria, and Tallahassee, Florida. Her work, focused on local environments and the forces that shape them, has been published by National Geographic, Foreign Policy, and the Guardian.

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