Emerald Valley Artisan Cheese owner is ‘queen of collaboration’

SCENERY HILL, Pa. — A person can be defined by the books they read and the people they choose to spend time with, says Alisa Fasnacht, co-owner of Emerald Valley Artisan Cheese in Scenery Hill, Pa.

For Fasnacht and her husband, Alan, the ability to network and the inspiration they have found in books helped them begin a successful cheese business while working full-time jobs and caring for their herd of show cattle.

How it began

The business, now officially named Emerald Valley Artisan Cheese, began in October 2004.

“We didn’t intend to start a business,” Fasnacht said. “We just made some cheese for ourselves, made too much and gave it to some of our friends. They wanted to know where they could get more.”

Once the couple saw the excitement and interest in their cheese, they started making plans.

“My original fantasy was to have a creamery here at the farm,” Fasnacht said. “We started researching what that would take to make happen.”

Homework

Fasnacht attended cheesemaking courses at the University of Vermont to learn more about the process.

Then, she and her husband hosted a farm visit by Peter Dixon, a dairy foods consultant and artisan cheese maker.

“I asked him what some of the reasons were that creameries failed,” Fasnacht said.

“He told me the inability to market was the No. 1 reason, followed by getting in over your head financially.”

The conversation with Dixon, in addition to some words of advice from a state milk inspector, led the couple to pursue another way of developing the business — outsourcing the cheesemaking.

Author’s effect

At the same time, the Fasnachts were inspired by the book, Think and Grow Rich by author Napoleon Hill.

Hill interviewed political leaders and famous people such as Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison and Franklin D. Roosevelt for this motivational book.

“Hill discussed the concept of a mastermind group,” Fasnacht explained. “An individual can be more successful by having an organized, coordinated effort with others.”

The couple decided their strength was in marketing and selling their cheese.

“When we decided to find someone else to make the cheese, we wanted someone who could make the cheese really well,” Fasnacht said.

Outsourcing

Their search led them to Berkshire Farmstead Creamery in Berks County, Pa.

“They have just done a superior job for us,” Fasnacht said.

“Based on feedback from customers, we’ve been able to work with the creamery to continue to improve upon our products and develop a product line.”

Emerald Valley Farm offers 11 raw milk aged cheeses and eight varieties of fromage blanc, a fresh cheese product.

Other items for sale include veal products and Fasnacht’s mother’s homemade biscotti.

Fasnacht said her mother, Antoinette Fava, has been vital to the success of the business.

“Everyone thinks their mom is a great cook, but mine is truly blessed in cooking,” Fasnacht said.

Fava and Fasnacht have developed new varieties for both the fromage blanc and the biscotti based on their own tastes and preferences.

The rest of the cheeses are aged both at Emerald Valley and at the creamery in Berks County.

Berkshire Creamery, which also has a license to haul milk, comes across the state every eight to 10 weeks to pick up milk for Emerald Valley’s cheese production.

After the cheese is made, the creamery also cuts and packages it, but it is labeled at Emerald Valley.

Collaboration

Until recently, Fasnacht was either driving to Berks County or meeting at a halfway point every two weeks to pick up the cheese. Then, her networking skills paid off in a big way.

“I’m the queen of collaboration,” she joked.

Through a conversation with owner Gary Gregg, Fasnacht realized that Eighty-Four Packing, a local meat processing company, was making deliveries and picking up orders only a few miles from the creamery in Berks County.

For a reasonable fee, Fasnacht said she is able to coordinate cheese pick-ups and deliveries with Gregg in a more convenient, cost-effective way.

Marketing efforts

Although Fasnacht still hopes to make her own fresh cheeses someday, she is happy with the relationship with Berkshire Creamery and the ability to concentrate on what her family does best — marketing.

“If you’re making cheese, you’re not marketing cheese, and if you’re marketing cheese, you’re not making cheese,” Fasnacht said.

“Each of those things requires all of you.”

In addition to their onfarm store, the Fasnachts have products in retail outlets such as Whole Foods in Pittsburgh, Market District in Bethel Park and, most recently, Soergel Orchards in Wexford, Pa.

They also sell products at four farmers markets throughout the spring and summer.

Another example of Fasnacht’s savvy business marketing is her ability to join forces with other local businesses.

She has maintained a strong friendship and business relationship with Sharon Klay, owner of Christian W. Klay Winery in Chalk Hill, Pa.

In fact, the pair was recently featured on a segment for news channel KDKA about the proper combination of wine and cheese for parties.

Keeping busy

The Fasnachts schedule these events in between their trips to farmers markets and their full-time jobs.

Alisa is a clinical supervisor of the child and adolescent outpatient unit at Washington Communities Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center in Washington, Pa. Alan works construction for State Pipe Services in Cranberry Township, Pa.

Along with their full-time careers and the hectic cheese business, Alisa and Alan also put a great deal of time and effort into their show herd of 17 Jerseys and Holsteins.

The store is full of banners and trophies from and photos of their high-type dairy cattle.

“We’re driven individuals, and we want to succeed, both with the cheese business and with showing,” Fasnacht said. The couple has worked with and been inspired by Ernest Kueffner and Terri Packard of Arethusa Farms in Litchfield, Conn.

“I’ve always believed that if you want to be successful, you place yourself in a situation with the people who do it best,” she said.

“Then you go out and put your own twist on it.”

Fasnacht has traveled to World Dairy Expo every October since 2001 to help Arethusa Farms.

Fasnacht said she and her husband realize their schedules may seem like a juggling act rather than a life, however, they are doing what they enjoy and enjoying what they do.

“There are some really great moments, like when I’m bedding stalls and a heifer just wants to play,” she said.

“I really look forward to that — especially after spending four hours at a farmers market in Oakland.”

About the Author

Emily Caldwell of Beaver Falls, Pa., serves as the 2009 Farm and Dairy editorial intern. She is a graduate of Penn State University, where she studied agribusiness and agricultural communications. Feel free to follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/emily718. More Stories by Emily Caldwell

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