Which is a tougher task: Describing a cheese’s flavor, or making it? A quick scroll of the Boxcarr Handmade Cheese offerings unfolds like a thesaurus for food. Words like scrumptious, beer-laden, bright, lusciously-creamy, malty, warming funk and smokey goodness pair with simply displayed photos of different cheeses.
A quick chat with Dani Copeland and Austin Genke, the husband and wife team who own Boxcarr Farms and, with sister Samantha Genke operate Boxcar Handmade Cheese, and they’ll argue that the cheesemaking part might be simpler.
“The process of making cheese is very simple,” Genke said. “It’s basically four ingredients. You have your milk, your salt, your cultures and you have your rennet. You have some flavor additives and stuff like that. The cultures that have the flavor are really what makes the cheese unique. There’s plenty of different cultures, but there’s about four major cultures that define the cheese world. It’s also the aging, temperature, time and how you cook them.”
They created Boxcarr Farms in 2009. The two have shared the duties of running the farm and raising three children. In 2014, the two realized their dream of building a creamery and manufacturing award-winning artisan cheese that has developed nationwide and local followings.
For Copeland and Genke, making cheese made sense. “Other than the love for it, my sister actually was making it,” Genke said. “We’ve always been in restaurants, food driven and agriculture. My dad grows grapefruit down in Florida. We’ve always been surrounded by that style of eating and good food and stuff like that. My sister was a cheesemaker for about 10 years before we moved here. We had the farm. We had this idea of getting into something. Cheese was on the mind because my sister was in it. We knew raising animals, to a certain extent, on the scale we wanted to do it you really had to have a value-added product, ultimately. It really shows true today. But at the same time, we had the passion for it and wanting to know how to make the land sustain itself.”
Genke’s sister, Samantha, who is the primary cheesemaker, played a key role in giving the couple the confidence to begin producing cheese. “We were never afraid of it not being good,” Copeland recalled. “It was more the business and the logistics and the financial. Every single batch of cheese is different. Our first batch of cheese was in April 2015. And pretty quickly, we entered some of the cheese into the state competition and won an award. We entered the American Cheese Society, which is a national competition. We won an award in that as well. That definitely helped.”
Boxcarr didn’t want to step on the toes of other local cheesemakers, so it chose to offer an Italian-style or European-style cheese that was going to be different than just the mozzarella, or fresh goat cheese. The company has continued to experiment with cow’s milk and goat’s milk varieties to expand its selection of cheeses.
“This year, obviously, has been a crazy year,” Genke said. “We grew quite a bit just because of pivoting to sell locally. We told ourselves we’d never make 100 percent goat’s milk cheese, because financially it’s a challenge. We do sell cheese nationally, so it’s hard to compete with Wisconsin and California as far as what they can produce with goats’ milk. So we decided to do mixed-milk cheeses, cow’s milk cheese. We buy all the cow’s milk, we produce all the goat’s milk, which is really awesome. But at the same time, we can’t compete with some farms that have thousands and thousands of goats, like our friends in Wisconsin and California. They’re paying $3.50 for a gallon of goat’s milk. It probably costs us around $6/gallon to produce it. We knew that going in to it, but with things changing this year, we’ve seen local sales have skyrocketed. Our direct and e-commerce, direct-to-consumers and online sales really went up. So, we can compete a little bit more because we’re setting the price at a higher retail value where we’re not selling to distributors. It’s a different market that allowed us to bring on about six or seven different cheeses we would probably not normally make.”
“We pivoted to some of our cheeses that are fresh and need to be consumed pretty quickly,” Copeland added. “They’re soft-ripened cheese. We’re also trying to find ways to preserve our cheeses longer, so we’re doing more harder cheeses that, should something have to hold off, we can keep longer and not be stuck with it.”
Boxcarr Handmade Cheese has about 15 different flavors of that can be grouped into about six different families, including soft-ripe, semi-soft, spreadable and hard cheese.
Copeland said the family has favorite cheeses they make, but it changes from time to time. When they come up with a new cheese, the test batches are large at between 100 and 200 gallons.
“We just made a new one that isn’t even out yet. Because the kids like it we know for sure we’re on to something. This new one is an all-goat’s milk. It’s called Cotton Bloom. It’s a hybrid of two of our other recipes. So it’s pretty cool. It’s super-mild so far. We haven’t aged it very long yet. It’s mild and creamy,” she said. “We’ve eaten a lot of it.”
Copeland’s favorite is a cheese called Rocket’s Ribiola, which has a unique flavor that is rich and creamy and tangy and yeasty.
“That’s kind of our flagship cheese,” Genke said. “That’s the one that we sell the most of throughout the country. It’s unique in the cheese world. Ribiola-style cheese, which is a pretty generic term in reality. More soft-ripened and usually heavier in fat. This cheese is based off the Piedmont-style region of Italy, where it’s just a cool flavored cheese. But then we dip it in ash so it has a really nice exterior on it. Aromatic, yet still mild on the palate. My favorite is the Cotton Bell, which is like butter. It’s like cultured butter. I’m a mild cheese lover of the ribiola, too, but at the same time, the Cotton Bell, when it’s ripe, it’s gooey. It’s a little salty.”
Genke is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, which is useful when developing flavors and suggesting what foods with which to pair the cheese. His skills enable him to quickly taste a creation and know that it needs something, or it doesn’t need something.
Boxcarr Farms employs, on average, eight to 11 people who work part-time for between 25 to 30 hours a week. The 30-acre farm has 74 ‘milker’ goats and 47 babies from this year. They plan to have another 150 goats next year.
Even though many of its cheeses are made with cow’s milk, there are no cows at Boxcarr Farms. “We buy all the cow’s milk,” Genke said. “We buy from one farmer. He produces all Jerseys. We have a really good relationship with them. That was something that we’ve evolved into this that is new for us. We’ve been working with him for about two years now. We chose to go with one single-source dairy. Within the pandemic, with everything going crazy, we had a couple of farmers we were working with, and they sold to co-ops and other places and had outlets for their milk, where our one farmer had fewer options. He was younger. Him and his wife are both big into Ag. We share the same values, and felt like these are the people we wanted to support. They didn’t have another outlet for their milk. Their other main cheesemaker had decided to shut down for a couple of months. We were taking about half of his milk and then we decided to take all of it.”
“If we hadn’t done that, he would have had to dump what we didn’t take,” Copeland said.
Boxcarr produced around 55,000 lbs. of cheese last year. This year, it plans to produce around 70,000 lbs., and it’s bringing on even more goats.
The company had always had several avenues for selling its cheeses. But it took the pandemic to help the owners to redefine and revamp its website to help grow its web-based sales.
“It really made us switch over,” Genke said. “We had a website that was great up to a certain point, but we also knew we needed to do some kind of e-commerce or some type of sales online. Luckily Dani, with her background, was able to put together a website. We launched it pretty much within a week of the market just kind of shutting down. And we’ve been doing online sales, which is pretty cool. You can go on and order cheese for local pick up or to be shipped. And we’re revamping the whole shipping process. We know, because of things like Amazon, people don’t like to pay for shipping, but we can’t do that. We tried to including the shipping in the cost, but now we’re making it a separate thing. Buy all the cheese you want, but here’s what it costs for shipping. Eco-friendly shipping materials, and what it takes to keep it cold costs a lot of money.”
The company had also sold its cheese at the Durham Farmers Market, which closed for a short amount of time. But the real hit to its sales during the pandemic was the closure of restaurants.
“Our business was broken up into three segments,” Genke explained. “We had direct-to-consumer, which is like the farmers market and on-farm pick ups; and then we had our retailers that we sell directly to, like Weaver Street Market locally. We do sell direct to the Whole Foods within our little area here. And then restaurants is another of our direct to retailers. And then we have our distributors. That’s our biggest part of our business. The price is really low but we sell the volume that our business was designed after. Anything other, to restaurants or direct-to-consumer was always a plus. It had better margins. When things stopped, more or less, the distributors were the first ones to slow down. They stopped ordering for about two months. And then the restaurants. That was a huge chunk of our business. That was about 50 percent across the board of our sales. Whether it was distributors selling to restaurants or us selling direct to restaurants, 50 percent of our sales were to restaurants. We had a great beginning of March, and middle of March was eye-opening; and then April it was crazy. And then, some of them started trickling back. Some of our clients have been very supportive. Not buying as much cheese, but still buying a good amount.”
Despite seeing sharp declines in the sales of its cheeses, Boxcarr Farms continued supporting its milk supplier and making cheese. It gave back to the community by donating much of what it was producing during the slower Covid times.
“We ended up picking up more cow’s milk than we ever had before,” Copeland said. “We turned it into a quicker cheese. We call it Supporting Our Farmers cheese. It is a farmers meets cheddar-mozzarella combo. Super mild and palatable.”
“For about two and a half months we donated about 60 percent of our production,” Genke continued. “We bought the milk at around $2/gallon. We put our time and energy into it and we knew we were going to take a loss, but still it’s kind of one of those things where it was a weird time where you can do that and you’re not worried about it. We were at a place where we wanted to go where our heart wanted to take us.”
Donating cheese kept Copeland and Genke from having to throw away cheese. They donated to food banks and schools. They also created a program of relief boxes for restaurant workers, families and schools.
“We still are donating, but not as much now,” Genke said. “The other cheesemaker came back so we don’t have access to as much milk. And our sales started coming back. It’s been such a crazy year. We could go on for years about it. We still do the relief boxes, which is about 100 lbs. of cheese still going out each week to industry people who don’t have jobs. People that need cheese. We always have tail-ends of cheese and we like to get it out there and I always say, not to be weird about it, but it always feels amazing to be able to give away product and to help other people out. I know it will pay itself off, if it hasn’t already. But also for selfish reasons. We needed our milk supplier to stay in business. If he’s dumping his milk, where are we going to be? We make more money off his milk because of the yield. It’s beautiful milk. And also the big picture of what we’re doing. It was an easy choice. It also kept our employees working. That’s also what it came down to.”
For the future, Boxcarr Farms is hoping for continued organic growth. The owners plan to continue to build on the strengthening e-commerce segment of its business. It has hopes to be offered at Wegman’s and Whole Foods at a more regional level.
“We built the milking parlor and the barn all last year, so that’s all new,” Genke said. “We added on to the cheese house. This year we planned to grow about 25 percent, but we will probably grow about 13 and a half percent, which we’re happy with. In March or April I thought we would have had a loss of about 40 percent. I think with our herd doubling and our increase on how much milk we’re taking on, we think we can double our production from last year, and then we’re going to take it easy for a while.”