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The cheese stands alone

Arnolds build cheese factory in Polson

Supposedly the moon is made of green cheese, but the Flathead Lake Cheese Company doesn’t plan on making any green cheese. The Flathead Lake Cheese Company will produce lots of feta, a brine-washed cheese and some “boutique cheeses,” different types all the time. 

Located behind Grogan’s Car Wash on Highway 93, the “cheese factory,” as its owners call it, is still a work in progress. A splash of sunny yellow paint hints at its final color. 

The building with its copper-colored metal roof is already home to a 300-gallon cheese vat christened “Little Texas” because Texas was printed on the vat’s side when it arrived via truck.

The floors for the cheese factory are poured, and the bones of the building are ready for drywall. Decks have sprouted on the north and south sides where Wendi has plans to grow basil. Joe built a spiral staircase in the building and is ready to install the railing.

The Arnolds live behind the cheese factory right next to a propane tank wearing an old saddle, which promises interesting people live in the house. 

Wendi and Joe thought of making cheese because they “needed something to get Joe out of Arizona,” Wendi said.

Two businesses Joe worked for had gone bankrupt, and Wendi was a retired airline person. Wendi said she really loved her husband and wanted to keep him, by getting him away from the stress before he had a heart attack.

Plus “Wendi makes a tremendous blue cheese,” Joe said.

But before the Arnolds could make cheese in Polson, they had to find a place to live and a place to make cheese.

The Arnolds had been looking for a summer house or a retirement house, “and Payson and Prescott (Ariz.) had been discovered,” Wendi said. Joe had gone to school in Missoula, and his ex-wife lives in Bigfork so Joe was familiar with the area. The Arnolds spent a couple of weeks driving around the lake, looking at towns.

Polson was the “only town that was an actual town, with a fire department, etc.” Wendi said. They drove up and down streets and saw a for sale sign in front of their house. 

The house was a rental at that time and “had not had a good rental history,” Joe said. 

But the Arnolds liked it so they bought it from Dennis and Pat DeVries. 

“Joe and Dennis stood under the apple tree and shook hands,” Wendi said, describing the sale. 

The Arnolds bought the house is March 2003, came up that summer and worked on remodeling the house. 

Joe is a craftsman and builder.

“Joe grew up in a really old house in Wisconsin and loved that stuff (building, remodeling, redoing),”  meticulous.” 

The Arnolds moved to Polson in 2005 and started looking for a site to make cheese. Finally they decided just to build a factory on their own property since it was zoned transitional.   

In the meantime, Joe and Wendi made their first batch of cheese in a four-gallon double boiler, which wasn’t quite big enough. They started making larger amounts after Joe found a “gift from God,” when he called Pacific Iron and Steel in Seattle and asked if they had any cheese vats. Turns out they had a 1964 Groen vat that was half an hour away from being slung on a scrap metal barge going to Korea. Pacific Iron and Steel sold the vat to the Arnolds for the price it would bring as scrap metal.  

“Joe said, ‘I’ll be there in eight hours,'” Wendi said. 

With the Groen vat Wendi and Joe have been using 40 gallons of milk per batch and “making cheese for two or three years pretty consistently,” Wendi said. 

The big Groen is mounted on a rolling board so Wendi and Joe can wheel it into their home kitchen, make the cheese and then move it out on the porch for storage.

When the cheese factory is in operation, the Groen vat will be moved to the building and be used either for test batches or as a brining vat. As many things as possible are reused and repurposed. 

“We wanted to be green,” Wendi said, “And do right by the planet and ourselves.”

In keeping with green principles, the cheese factory will use solar collectors to heat the water used to heat the cheese vats as well as warm the cheese factory itself.

Also the Arnolds will buy their milk locally. Cow’s milk for now but they would really like to run into someone who has some milking sheep or goats. 

“Sheep’s milk has twice the protein content of cow’s milk,” Joe said. “It’s dense in material and can be frozen.”

The Arnolds need at least two dairies to supply milk to make cheese. Wendi said the milk needs to be heated to stabilize it. Then the temperature is dropped down to whatever the cheese recipe calls 100 degrees. Starter cultures are added to the warm milk and given a chance “to ruminate” before the vegetable rennet, which coagulates the milk, is added. The mixture is heated again. Again the cook time “is unique to each cheese,” Joe explained. 

“It (cheesemaking) is a ‘hurry up and wait process,’” Wendi said.

After the cheese has cooked as long as it needs to, the coagulated mass is cut into curds. High fat cheeses, such as Brie or Camembert, are not cut, Wendi said.

Joe added “pretty much any cheese we do” would be cut to shed as much whey as possible. The whey is drained away from the curds but not discarded. 

Joe said, ”Whey is a great health drink, for starters.”

If no one wants to drink the whey, the Arnolds have friends who will feed it to their pigs.

The cheeses are aged for different amounts of time. When the cheese factory is up and running, the Arnolds will have an aging room and a packaging area. 

Right now Joe and Wendi are focusing some of their energy on applying for a Growth Through Agriculture (GTA) grant to help with the “extra bits”, such as a pasteurizing machine.

Also the Arnolds need to take their labels to the United States Department of Agriculture, which might be a lengthy process.

Then there is selling the cheese. 

“I’d love to hit the Farmer’s Market circuit — Kalispell and Missoula,” Joe said.

Wendi said they were also looking at a different type of coop and packaging in bulk. She’s also “interested in pursuing a pretty aggressive website.”

The Flathead Lake Cheese Company’s projected date for opening is probably by June, if they get the GTA grant.

Regardless of whether or not they get the grant, Joe said, “One way or another, the rocket’s going up.”

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