By Kyle Sharp
Abbe Turner is by nature an optimist. She was optimistic when she and her husband bought and moved to a Portage County farm in 2002, despite neither of them having a farm background. She was optimistic when she started producing cheese from the milk of her dairy goats at her startup business, Lucky Penny Creamery in Kent, early last year. And she is optimistic that an Ohio sheep dairy industry will develop through an initiative she helped create, so she can begin processing sheep cheeses as well in the near future.
To help emphasize her sunny outlook, her business card for Lucky Penny Farm and Creamery even reads, “CEO, Cheesemaker, Entrepreneur, Optimist.”
When asked why she chose to include “optimist” on her business card, her personality comes out in her tongue-in-cheek response:
“Because ‘fool’ doesn’t look real good to a banker,” Turner said.
So far, her decisions appear to be anything but foolish, as in just 11 months, Lucky Penny Creamery has developed a list of about 55 businesses, including restaurants, grocery stores and other outlets across the nation, that buy her cheeses.
This is in addition to individuals who purchase Lucky Penny cheeses — a French recipe Chevre, a Greek recipe Feta and flavored or slightly aged variations of the two — at farmers markets, via the retail store at the creamery or through the mail.
“We think that’s pretty good,” Turner said. “The idea is to get the cheese out and fresh to chefs at day four. When they’re fresh, they’re so bright and beautiful, and you really want to promote and celebrate that.”
Turner grew up in a science-intensive household with a love for animals. As a biology major at Ohio State, she thought she’d go into wildlife management or vet school. But that didn’t work out, and after obtaining a master’s in arts, policy and administration from Ohio State, she began specializing in fund raising for cultural organizations and museums. She met and married Anderson Turner, a ceramic artist and sculptor who works at Kent State University. He shared her desire to some day own a farm.
“My husband is a total trooper. His grandparents grew up on a farm and said, ‘Why would you want to farm?’ But we thought it was a good thing,” Turner said.“We decided when we had the ability, we would buy a farm.”
When a 1870-era farm about 16 miles northeast of Kent became available in 2002, they took the plunge. A lover of milk, Turner knew she wanted to raise a milk-producing animal, but being new to farming and with two small kids at the time, she wanted to raise an animal she could handle if necessary. Sheep were considered, but no good dairy sheep genetics were available, so the family went with goats.
“We started with four goats, and now we have about 70, with milkers, yearlings and bucks combined,” Turner said.
They milk about 40 Nubian, La Mancha and Alpine dairy goats. They bought a greenhouse last year and are putting it up. They also raise chickens, a heritage breed of hogs, American mulefoot, along with a variety of fruits and vegetables.
“When you see the bounty coming from the earth, you almost feel guilty, because we have such riches,” said Turner, who appreciates her children, ages 12, 11 and 6, being able to grow up on a farm. “We want our children to have a healthy understanding of science and nature, and understand where their food comes from.”
The next step came in February 2009, when, with the help of private investors, she bought and began turning the old Labor Temple building in Kent into Lucky Penny Creamery. The goal was to turn her goat’s milk into cheese.
“I wanted to make a food-based product, and cheese just sounded intriguing,” Turner said. “I love the science of it, and I love the milk.”
The initial plan was to build a processing facility on their farm, but the economic collapse in 2008 caused them to lose their bank construction loan, so they altered their plan and, thankfully, their investors stuck with them. While renovating the old building at 632 Temple Avenue had its challenges, it also has presented opportunities. In addition to acquiring primarily all used equipment for cheese processing, the facility has hosted a lecture series with topics such as hog butchering, making a cheese plate, edible wild plants and cooking local foods. An area for walk in, retail sales was created and is open Fridays from noon to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. At any given time, products from Lucky Penny Creamery and 10 to 20 other local farms are offered for sale at the store.
On Jan. 8, the creamery, in partnership with Salt of the Earth Farm of Randolph, began hosting the Kent Winter Farmers Market, initially with 12 local vendors participating. The farmers market will take place on
Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon through May 21. In addition to cheese, grass-fed beef, winter vegetables, farm fresh eggs and other retail products, the market will feature hot coffee, live music and a food-, cooking- or garden-related book swap.
Turner has other activities planned for down the road.
“We like the Kent community, because it is very supportive of local and environmental things,” she said. “The whole purpose is to support local foods year-round.”
The creamery also has plans to expand its product line. Rooms are being converted into aging rooms for making varieties of raw milk, aged cheeses. The facility also is designed to move to Grade A processing, so by summer Turner hopes to be making ice cream and different flavors of yogurt from goat’s milk, with plans to eventually offer fluid milk.
“We’re trying to do things in a way that is sustainable, affordable and functional, and it’s a challenge, because sometimes they don’t always meet,” she said. “We’ve been making cheese for about a year now, and what a learning curve. Not just the business aspect, but also the facility and what it is capable of doing.”
For now, Lucky Penny Creamery is producing about 400 to 500 pounds of cheese a week, but the facility can potentially produce nearly five times that much. In addition to milk from their own goats, Lucky Penny collects milk from three other goat farms for cheese production.
The farms have to be licensed dairies. They have processed some cheese for other people, and are considering making cheeses with cow’s milk from a local Jersey dairy.
“We can do some gorgeous, award-winning cheeses with mixed milk, from cows, goats and sheep,” Turner said.
The trouble is there are no licensed sheep dairies in Ohio. With the desire to make some sheep cheeses and an idea that materialized in 2007 with the help of Brian Schlatter of Canal Junction Farmstead Cheese in Paulding County, Turner helped fill out a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant to start the Ohio Sheep Milk and Cheese Initiative.
Through the initiative, an Ohio Sheep Milk and Cheese Symposium was held this past November in Wooster. More than 80 people attended to learn about sheep dairy genetics and production.
“As a result, we are in serious discussion with eight farms and hope to have at least five farms online within three years,” Turner said. “I hope to get someone to produce sheep milk, but if not, I’ll look into it for our farm.”
Ideally, there would eventually be enough Ohio sheep dairies to possibly form a co-op, as there is in Wisconsin, she said.
“Our goal is to help develop a new ag industry in Ohio,” Turner said. “The United States is importing millions of pounds of sheep cheese per year, so there’s an opportunity for somebody. Chefs are truly clambering for it, and there is consumer demand.”
A second SARE grant is in the works to continue the efforts of the initiative. And, Lucky Penny was recently awarded a USDA Value-Added Producer Grant for product development of a caramel sauce, Cajeta, produced with goat’s milk.
“I’m feeling pretty lucky to be doing what I’m doing, which is why things like the sheep initiative are important to me. It has value to the greater good if we can get it up and running,” Turner said. “It’s been fantastic, and I hope it turns into something. I’m optimistic about all of this.”
To learn more about the Ohio Sheep Milk and Cheese Initiative, visit ohiosheepdairy.wordpress.com. To
learn more about Lucky Penny Creamery, visit luckypennyfarm.com or call 330-572-7550.