Owensville Getaway: The bucket list you never knew you had
If you need to unplug yourself, breathe fresh air and gaze at stars with a view unimpeded by tall buildings and city lights, consider booking a room at Martha & Tom’s Farmin Owensville. It’s closer to home and a lot cheaper than a yoga retreat in Fiji. But that’s not why you go. You go to Martha & Tom’s Farm – a dairy farm, cheesemaking operation and bed-and-breakfast all in one – because it’s the quirkiest country destination you will ever visit.
Take Interstate 44 west, then go west on Highway 50 near Union. Drive a spell, passing through small towns like Gerald and Rosebud, until you reach Highway 28, then Highway 19. Watch for a sign marked Michel Road. The sign is a bit busted and bent, so keep your eyes peeled. Take this gravel road until you cross the creek. Make a right. Another right. As you turn a corner, an 1860s stone house that stands atop a hill will come into view, and you’ll spy two old barns, dwarfed by a new, 7,000-square-foot barn. Hammered onto a nearby tree is a hand-painted sign that reads “CHEESE FOR SALE.” You’ve arrived. Park anywhere. Your cell phone reception will be near nil; might as well just turn it off. Oh, and don’t be surprised if a rooster steps forward to greet you.
In 2010, Tom Blatchford and his wife Martha purchased what had been neglected farm property in the heart of central Missouri wine country, with aspirations to raise dairy cows, make cheese and operate a B&B. This, after Tom spent more than 25 years as a nurse, then as a corporate manager in the health care industry. “In three short years, we’ve started a dairy, built the barn, started a B&B and refurbished the house,” Tom said. On the farm, he makes the cheese and cooks breakfast for B&B guests. That is, when he’s not working part time as a nurse at a nearby prison. Likewise, when Martha’s not putting in her hours as a nurse anesthetist at Washington Hospital, she manages the B&B and its nominal retail section, stocked with honey and other locally made products, including her soaps. “The idea was to be something fun,” Tom said. “I’m having fun. We’re all having fun.” That includes their 23-year-old son, Ben, who splits his time tending the herd of Jersey cows and working for a cabinetmaker.
How it all began
When you bring your luggage to your guest room on the second floor of the new barn, pause at the cow portrait hanging on the wall of the communal living area. That’s Tom’s first cow, Morning Glory. Martha purchased the Jersey cow for Tom “thinking it would get it out of his system,” she said. That was more than 25 years ago, in 1987, when they lived in De Soto, Kansas. Later, when they moved to Memphis, the Blatchfords bought more cows. He’s even purchased one via the Internet.
“Our cow Annie, I bought her online accidentally,” he said. “I knew this guy that was a farmer. I liked his cow, but he wasn’t getting any bids. So I thought, oh, I’ll just do an entry bid to get him started. The entry bid won, and I had to call my wife and I’m like, ‘I accidentally bought a cow today!’”
Now, they’ve amassed a herd of 35 Jersey cows. Cattle trade publications sit on the nightstands in all four guest rooms. Think Tom’s trying to convert you? You’re right.
The place is a zoo
“I have 18 chickens, six setting hens, four roosters, a pet pig, cows, a rabbit (named) Sally, three of our own dogs and a neighbor dog we feed, and three kittens: Tubby, Itty Bit and Bailey,” Tom said.
Every farm has dogs. In this case, there’s Robin the Collie, who belongs to Ben and is supposed to be the work dog, but who still needs some training when it comes to herding cows. Molly is Tom’s mastiff. Little Gracie is Martha’s. You’ll also find the neighbor dog, named Dog, lying at the bottom of the B&B stairs every morning. Don’t mind him. Dog just wants to be part of the group.
Penelope the Pig
Weighing somewhere around 850 pounds, the massive Hampshire White lives off scraps of cheese, among other things. This is the farm’s seventh Penelope, and there’s no promise that she’ll still be there when you visit. (“We trade big for little,” said Tom. Cue Elton John’s “Circle of Life.”) If not, rest assured a new Penelope will be there for you to gawk at.
Get ready for the petting zoo portion of your farm visit. Lace up your boots and head down to the lower barn where the calves are kept. If you visit in late winter or mid-summer, you might even meet doe-eyed calves that are but days old. Still, hold on tight to the half-gallon plastic bottle capped with a massive nipple; the animals are only babies, but they can down 64 ounces of milk in no time.
Take a shower
What? You didn’t realize the calves would slobber all over you? Wash it off upstairs. The bathroom in your guest room is, well, different. On the website, it’s described as a “European-inspired bath.” Some, however, might liken it to showering at a beach – or a zoo – because when you open the bathroom’s barn-style sliding door, you’ll find a wonderfully wide shower head, but no tub or curtain; nothing but a few feet of space separate the shower from the toilet and vanity. The floor is poured concrete, which feels great on rough-heeled feet. Above the sink there’s a bronze-colored hand fashioned into a soap holder, graciously offering Martha’s artisan herbal soap. Scrub thyself.
Cool Cow Cheese
Tom’s brand of cheese, Cool Cow Cheese, is sold locally at the Missouri Rhine Valley booth at the Kirkwood, Schlafly and New Haven farmers markets. It’s also available at Local Harvest Grocery and Fields Foods. But at Tom’s farm, you can get a taste of nearly all 14 varieties of his Jersey cheese. There’s buttery, nutty aged Edam, Spanish Queso Blanco (which tastes fabulous on a grilled cheese sandwich), Jersey jack and creamy havarti studded with blueberries.
“Missouri is a special place to be a cheesemaker. It’s like a burgeoning Vermont,” said Tom. That’s because cheesemakers in Missouri are not bound by legal definitions, specifications or strictures as they are in some states, including Wisconsin. “We can experiment and be real artisans.”
“I will make a base Gouda and expand it into an aged, a young, a smoked, a red pepper. I always say, if you want to know what the cheesemaker likes, see how many varieties of a cheese he makes. The Gouda is one of my favorites.”
Maasdam, the inflating cheese
In addition to ancient cheeses, Tom makes a modern one called Maasdam. Developed around 1990 in The Netherlands, the cheese is a mix of Gouda and Swiss. Any kind of Swiss will do, but Tom uses baby Swiss. The most curious part about this sweet, creamy, nutty cheese is the visual cue it gives when it’s ripe. After aging for three months it expands, thanks to the gas that develops inside. The Maasdam, which sells for $24 a pound, is a hot commodity for Blatchford. This summer, Fields Foods purchased every ounce of it. Don’t worry, more Maasdam is on the way.
Good cheese is like wine, good cheesemakers are like bakers
Since the cows graze on native grass, their milk changes with the seasons. Sometimes, it will be fattier and sweeter. Other times, it may taste grassy and herbaceous. Rather than adjusting the milk itself, Tom decides which cheese to make based on its flavor. “The milk has to talk to you. You have to listen to what the milk says,” is his philosophy. Spring milk, for example, is great for making Queso Blanco. Tom likens his cheesemaking operation to that of an estate winery – where the grapes are owned and controlled by the winery and the wine is made entirely on-site.
Tom learned the trade at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese at the University of Vermont in 2009. He studied with the highly respected French fromager Marc Druart and a cheesemaking expert from Spain, Monserrat Almena-Aliste. To learn how to make Edam cheese (Cool Cow Cheese’s best-seller), he headed south to Sweet Home Farm in Alabama, seeking the wisdom of Alyce Birchenough. “I go to the American Cheese Society and ask them who the best artisan cheesemaker is,” he recalled. “They (mention) this little lady in Mobile. We paid her money to chat about her business and discover what it’s all about. We returned several times. My make (cheesemaking) room and her make room: dimensions are the same. She showed me her vat. I went and found her vat. Bought her vat. She had that much influence.”
Why trek to such far off places? Because, Tom explained, you can’t just ask a cheesemaker for a recipe and expect things to work out right. A cheesemaker might tell you the ingredients without divulging everything – like the order of ingredients or the technique. “Cheesemakers are like good bakers,” he said. “You have to work with them to get that (information) out of them.”
The cheese cave
Welcome to dairy heaven. Wheel after wheel of aging cheese – 62,000 pounds in all, the oldest a 2-and-a-half-year-old Edam – sits on 10 rows of wooden shelves. On your way out, notice the big bucket on the floor filled with end cuts of cheese. Those are for Penelope. You’ll never be more jealous of a pig.
The absolute necessity of sanitation prohibits you from entering the cheesemaking room. That’s Tom’s sanctum, where he pumps 1,000 pounds of milk at a time into the cheese vat and works his magic. However, you can stand over the kitchen stove in the B&B and make mozzarella with him. You may think you’ve tasted good mozzarella, but it pales in comparison to the fresh stuff you’ll make after just one hour of work. If you’re an enthusiastic student, he might even give you the citric acid, lipase powder and rennet tablet you need to make mozzarella at home.
'What’s wrong with life-long learning?'
Tom works part-time as a nurse at the Jefferson City Correctional Center’s solitary confinement unit. “The job at the prison is because I want to,” he said. “Why not try something totally different? Everybody there asks me, ‘Why are you here if you are doing all this cheese?’ I’m like, ‘I’m learning something new. What’s wrong with life-long learning?’”
Round up the cows – at midnight
Since the Blatchfords all have their part-time jobs, farm chores sometimes get done when they get to them. Like milking cows late. As in midnight. Put on your boots again. It’s time to fetch the cows and herd them to the milking parlor. Don’t know how? Just follow Robin the Collie. You’ll spot the girls easily on the 60 acres of pasture, but chances are they’ll be clustered way down the hill at the furthest point from the milking parlor. Oh, and watch your step – cow pie!
Cows are like school kids
Cows waiting to be milked line up just like you did in grade school. In the same way that the teacher’s pet always slipped to the front or others butted in line to be closer to their best buddies, cows keep a social order too. On this farm, Claire is always first in line. In cow-speak, that makes her the bell cow. Dinosaur, the oldest in the herd at 9 years, brings up the rear. Mother and daughter Belle and Barbara always stand together, as do sisters Dottie and Mandy. Observe all this jockeying, mooing and reshuffling for position as they wait outside for their turn to get milked. Observe, too, the state of your boots. Remove them. You stink, by the way. Go take another shower.
Good night, John-Boy. Good night, Mary Ellen.
After a day of cows and cheese, you’ll have no problem falling asleep, especially since you’ll be snoring in a king-size bed in one of the four spacious guest rooms on the farm. Two of them are suites that can hold an extra body or two on a sleeper sofa. Before you nod off, admire the 18-foot vaulted ceilings and the beautiful joists that support this post-and-beam barn. Tom and Ben built it. What have you done lately, slacker?
Now that’s a farmer’s breakfast
Sample menu: cinnamon rolls, eggs en cocotte with melted Edam and broccoli (“I’m of Swedish descent,” Tom said. “You have to have some type of egg”), bread-and-butter pickles served with baguette slices topped with pats of butter so thick you can see your teeth marks, blueberry bratwurst from nearby Swiss Meat & Sausage Co., a sampler of Cool Cow Cheese, homemade English muffins with fruit jam made that morning and granola with all the fixings. So stuffed you want to go back to bed? There are chores to be done, man! Make a coffee with the fancy Keurig and shake off that food coma.
Rockin' Out with the neighbors
The Blatchfords consider anyone within a 15-mile radius of the farm to be a neighbor. That includes Barb, Paul and Brian Willsey, proprietors of Rockin’ W Alpaca Ranch. The Willseys have a herd of 83 alpacas whose fleece is turned into socks, rugs and other fiber products. You’ll make fast friends with Ruby, a 9-year-old alpaca that’s as social as they come. She’ll let you pat her soft black coat and will walk alongside you for the duration of your tour, while you learn how Suri and Huacaya breeds got from the Andes mountains to Owensville and why two llamas guard them. (Yes, guard llamas are a thing. They bond with and protect alpacas, sheep and other stock.)
Belgian horses and a Cadillac among covered wagons
Guests at Martha & Tom’s Farm have the opportunity to drive a team of Belgian horses. This could be the coolest hands-on farm experience ever, but you decide. It’s still an elusive bucket list item. That’s because one of the horses, Zeus, died last year. Blatchford is on the lookout for another one to team up with the other horse, Hera, but it’s not as easy as you might think. Zeus’ replacement has to lean to the left since Hera leans to the right. Oh, and the horse has to be experienced. And sociable. When the horse situation is all figured out, you will be able to clamber aboard a covered wagon outfitted with cupholders, hydraulic brakes and rubber tires (“It’s the Cadillac version of wagons,” said Tom, who paid a guy in Cape Girardeau $20,000 to build the wagon) and drive the team of horses on a 2-mile ride on the gravel road while you pretend to be related to Laura Ingalls Wilder.
At Martha & Tom’s Farm, many things are improvised or performed by happenstance. Obstacles are overcome daily. At a certain point on your wagon drive, you’ll find yourself at the bottom of a steep hill. The gravel is loose and sometimes treacherous. But it’s the only way up. “Courage or no courage,” said Tom, “You’re going up the hill.”
Poker with a pro
Among the items on the bucket list getaway that the Blatchfords offer, the most outlandish is the poker weekend. Poker? “I have a buddy who’s a professional. He needs people to help warm him up before a tournament,” Tom said. So that’s why the dining table at the B&B is circular. If you want to play cards for upwards of 36 hours with this fellow, all you need to do is make a reservation. Kindly give a few weeks’ notice – in case he’s expected in Vegas.
Martha & Tom’s Farm, 1613 Tschappler Road, Owensville, 573.437.2699, coolcowcheese.com
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