Success is less about having the right answers than it is about asking the right questions. Doubters, just take a look at Julie Steil.
She started filming her own television show this spring. The Fall City woman wholesales most of her specialty cheeses to chefs in Seattle-area restaurants, and opens a retail shop on weekends. She sells out anyway, since she teaches cheese-making and students clear the shelves of, among other things, cheese-making supplies and her home-made cheesecake.
Plus, it’s not easy to find an open time slot in one of her classes, anyway.
Now in her second career—her third if you include raising a family—Steil is a success by nearly any definition you care to use.
Ask her to define success, though, and you’re more likely to get a question, than an answer.
“What would you do if you could not fail?” she asks. The question hangs as artwork in her Fall City home, and she says, “it’s what I live by.”
When she and her husband, Rob, and sons, Kyle, Sean, Hunter and Rob Jr., moved from the Sammamish plateau to their farm just outside of Fall City eight years ago, Julie also quit her marketing job in high-rise development. She and Rob agreed on the changes because they didn’t want to be absentee parents to their boys, but she got restless.
“I have so much more to give, so much more to do!” she said.
She became what her husband jokingly referred to as a volunteer-aholic for a while, joining various community groups and the forerunner to the Mount Si High School PTSA, WIN, before she had a revelation. With her boys in school and fewer demands on her time, she realized, “I should do something, some hobby for me, not for the boys, not for my husband, not for our community, but something for me.” It had to be something related to food. “I love, love, love cooking, I always have,” she said, “So it was as simple as thinking ‘gosh, I wonder how you make cheese?’”
Answering that question took a $200 monthly milk budget, a back yard full of old refrigerators, or “cheese aging rooms,” running on a web of extension cords, a lot of recipes downloaded from the Web and adjusted for home-sized batches, and even more patience for failed recipes.
“You’ve got to start with great milk,” is what Steil learned from the experience, and she means great. Milk doesn’t have to be raw, she said, although it may help. Great milk, though, must come from mainly-grass-fed animals.
“I’m still extremely careful of what milk I buy. It’s all about what the animals eat,” she said, comparing it to the way a new mother might try to eat more healthy foods while breast-feeding her baby. “When cows are fed processed foods, processed grains, processed corn, it goes into their bodies and it comes out in the milk. When we drink that milk, or make cheese from that milk, what are we getting? All that bad saturated fat instead of good fats.”
A lot of milk
Steil says she always wants to know, and control as much as possible, what goes into her and her family’s food. That’s pretty much how she became a farmer, and possibly “the first woman in North America to milk a yak.”
She couldn’t get the milk she needed locally, she said because most dairy farmers in the area had contracts to sell all their milk to Darigold. By this time, she was River Valley Cheese (www.rivervalleycheese.com) and she needed a lot of milk. The home-made cheese she’d brought to a WIN meeting one night in 2008 had caught the attention of a Whole Foods staffer and the store was now buying nearly all she could produce. She was supplying several other grocery stores, too. So, she thought, why not run her own dairy? A lot of research and many conversations with dairy farmers later she and her husband had bought “a couple of each” breed they wanted, and brought them home to the 10 acres of pasture they’d just bought, too.
“It was like Noah’s Ark down there!” Steil laughs.
She freely admits she didn’t really know what she was doing —and didn’t even know how to milk the animals until a neighbor taught her—but she was willing to try. And it wasn’t long before her husband banned her from going to the feed store, since she invariably came back with a pair of new critters to practice on.
When she added the yak to the herd, she started getting national attention. A crew from the History Channel’s “Modern Marvels” came to the farm six years ago to film her milking one of the 14 yak (and 16 cows, 14 water buffalo, 24 sheep and 26 goats) she’d accumulated, for an episode on cheese.
She called her decision to do that show, like her decision in later years not to appear on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, a business decision.
“Modern Marvels” gave her great exposure, she said, but she had no control over when reruns of the show would air, which caused problems down the road when she decided to give up the animals so she could focus on her cheese-making without exhausting herself. No yak or water buffalo meant no more of the three-milk Wild West Mozzarella described in the show, and customers who called to order it often became very angry that it was no longer available, she said. She didn’t want the potentially greater problems that could come from an appearance on Oprah, especially while her boys were still in school.
“I crunched the numbers. This is how a businesswoman thinks,” she said.
Her new show, expected to air this fall with Northwest Cable News, is equal parts business decision and personal passion. Each episode features Steil giving a lesson on how to make a specific type of cheese, similar to the classes she teaches each weekend, with other scenes on the farm included.
That, plus her role as president of the Washington State Cheesemakers Association, are giving her the chance to answer another burning question.
“How much does a gallon of milk cost? It’s cheap, right? … add the bacteria, and the coagulant, which are the only other ingredients in cheese, and you can make a pound of cheese for the cost of a gallon of milk plus 50 cents. Cheese is so inexpensive to make, and you can make some really, really good cheese with so little effort, why aren’t people making cheese? What is going on?”
Steil teaches classes every week on how to make fresh and aged cheeses at home, with no special equipment. That’s how she started, of course, but the thought that she might be creating a future competitor doesn’t bother her at all. She would welcome it, she says, because there’s plenty of room for everyone’s creativity. “It’s about growing a craft,” she said. “It’s about growing our society, not keeping us backwards.”
She still makes cheese, and yes, the cheesecake, every week, but she’s happy to say, “Now, my energy is all going toward growing the craft.”
One of the ways she hopes to do that in the future, she continues, is through philanthropy, possibly working with abused or hungry women and showing them how to get started in her industry. “You know, teach them to fish,” she says.
First, though, she has to teach the students filling up her class schedules that same craft. She also continues to explore the whole cheese-making process. Earlier this year, when she had a pregnant sow on the farm, she began thinking about how she could milk the animal once her litter was born. Naturally, the next step would be to make cheese from that milk. Steil says she’s never heard of anyone doing it, “What have I got to lose?”
Valley farmer and cheeemaker Julie Steil hopes to expand her craft through philanthropy, possibly working with abused or hungry women and showing them how to get started in her industry.