Sweetwater Valley Farm turns cheese making into big business

By KRISTIN FARLEY 6 News Anchor/Reporter

PHILADELPHIA (WATE) - A multi-generational farmer in Sweetwater is working hard to carry on the tradition and take it one step further.

John Harrison is the owner of Sweetwater Valley Farm and the producer of award-winning gourmet cheese.

Despite the fact that Sweetwater is the name of a city in Monroe County, Sweetwater Valley Farm is in Loudon County. It's nestled in the rolling hills between Philadelphia and Loudon, right off W. Lee Highway. 

On the day 6 News visited, the 1,200-acre property was bustling with visitors around the events barn and the UdderStory Exhibit, as well as inside the store.

But Harrison quickly reminded us it's a dairy farm first. "I grew up on a dairy farm, and I did not think I wanted to do that," he said. "But somewhere in my last year of school, I decided it did not look as bad as I thought it looked so I ended up coming back home and farming with my family for a little while."

Not long after, Harrison branched out on his own and started Sweetwater Valley Farm. 

He says he quickly grew frustrated with the way that milk, his main commodity, was marketed so he decided to try his hand at making cheese.

"I felt like this would give us a different direction to go in and let us market the rest of our milk a different way," he said.

Today Sweetwater Valley Farm produces more than 26 varieties of specialty or gourmet cheeses such as fajita, tomato herb and gouda.

During the 6 News visit, Harrison went back to the basics by giving a tour and educating the public about what really goes on at the farm.

Harrison started by explaining what the cows eat, then how they are classified or named during their different stages of life.

We even got to see a newly-born calf, missing the delivery by less than an hour.

Harrison says sharing what happens on the farm is important. "I guess it (the desire to educate) is driven because I kind of disagree with how most of the food industry has gone over that in the last 30-40 years."

"We seem to be very secretive about what we're doing and we ought to know what we are eating," he added.

At Sweetwater Valley Farm, the processes are very transparent. Visitors are encouraged to see everything with their own eyes.

For instance, you can see raw milk being pumped from the cows in the milking parlor. It's then shipped directly to Mayfield or sent to the cheese factory on the premises.

The cheese produced at the farm is considered Farmstead cheese, meaning the farm controls everything from cow to consumer.

"Milk is a very different product from farm to farm," Harrison said. "This lets us have a lot of control over what our finished product is like."

Technology also plays an important role at the farm. The 1,000 cows there are no longer milked by hand. Computers, along with pedometers, help those working on the farm detect changes in the cows more easily.

Of course, some people may only be interested in the cheese. If so, the store at the farm has seemingly endless samples to taste. There's also a glass wall where you can watch crews packaging the cheese, smoking it and on certain days, producing it.

Fresh milk is pumped into the plant, separated into curds and wheys and eventually ends up in 40-pound molds. Then it's aged anywhere from three to 12 months.

Harrison says cheese making has been very successful, in more ways than one. "My grandfather had customers. We've lost that in modern agriculture. It lets me know I have customers. People know where it came from. They know who I am, who we are. It's kind of restored that."

The gourmet cheese can be purchased on the Sweetwater Valley Farm website or locally at Fresh Market, Butler and Bailey and Earthfare.