Speaking with Lora Lea Misterly, Co-Owner of the Quillisascut Farmstead Cheese & School of the Domestic Arts in Rice, WA
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What’s special about Quillisascut?
When Rick and I were just starting out as beginning farmers, I was 25 and he was 28. We bought Quillisascut, a bare piece of land with large land payments. Over the years, we dug a well; brought in electricity and a phone line; and built our house, barn, and cheese facility. Slowly, the farm grew to what it is now – 31 years of Rick and I growing a life on this land, 25 years running our cheese business, and ten years leading the farm school.
Building a home, farmstead, cheese business, and school is no small feat. Why not just farm, why also teach?
For over a decade, Rick and I made our living off of just our farmstead cheese business, and we were looking for another income that fit with our dream of living on the land. But dairy animals are a seven-day a week commitment and producing milk and cheese is expensive. To get to the place where we could hire help through cheese production and sales would require new infrastructure, including a bigger barn, a milking facility, cheese production and storage, and a herd of 150 goats, versus the 37 we had. But the carrying capacity of our land was being taxed due to climate change, and so growing our herd was not the direction we wanted to go. Growing the cheese production business would also mean more administrative work and employee management, which didn’t fit with our dream of living off the land. We like farm work – making cheese, growing and preserving our own food, enjoying the livestock, milking the goats, and gathering eggs. It seemed like a large dairy/cheese business would infringe on our desires for a slower lifestyle. Since we were already teaching our customers about our products and what we do, the farm school idea took hold. Farm School seems like the answer to many of our personal as well as societal needs. It feels good to be a part of the answer.
When and how did you get into farm-based education?
I believe that anyone who is direct marketing specialty product is an educator. We share with people what we do, why it is unique, and how we care for our animals. As we started selling our farmstead cheese, we had to let people know what farmstead means. It means that the cheese we use for milk comes from only the dairy animals on our farm. We share with our customers the differences in organic practices and certification, including which practices we choose utilize, which we don’t, and why.
The educator piece grew from our cheese business. Ninety percent of our market are restaurants, and 25 years ago people – including professional cooks – didn’t know much about the world of cheese. So we spent a lot of time going to restaurants and meeting with the staff to give them a background in American artisan goat cheese. We soon realized that we needed to share the story of cheese with all of our customers, not just cooks. Out of these farm culinary workshops evolved workshops for curious cooks and eaters, those interested in getting started in small acreage farming, health care professionals, and the general public.
What ways have you observed participants transformed by their farm experiences?
We feed the students who come through Quillisascut locally grown foods prepared with care, and we share our meals around one big table. I think eating food this way makes something resonate with people on an intuitive level. The power of food and dining, the civility, the humanity: these are all concepts that our society is struggling with and what the food movement is working towards, from growing new farmers to bringing people together around food. At the very core, the table is where we all come together, especially food service professionals, farmers, and health care workers. We are all concerned with feeding people healthy meals.
What is your teaching philosophy?
First, I believe we are all always learning and teaching each other. For this reason, I’m a big fan of round table sharing and discussion. When we share our dreams and struggles around farming, we have the opportunity to offer each other ideas and solutions. Next, I believe that hands-on learning is one of the most powerful ways to learn. Most people come to farm school having done a good deal of reading, whether online tutorials or YouTube videos. At Quillisascut, we give them a safe farm environment to try on what they’ve learned and have been thinking about. Many people get their first taste of actual farm work – whether gardening, butchering, cheesemaking, preserving food, or baking bread – for the first time here. And believe me, there is a difference between dreaming and actually getting your hands dirty. This is why our farm school is more in the form of practicums or labs than lectures.
You teach everything from baking bread to cheese making, sense of place to butchery, raising bees to orcharding. Where did you learn all of these skills?
We learned on the job by doing, reading, and practicing. We also call on our friends and neighbors who are experts in specialized fields and invite them to teach our students.
What piece of advice would you most want to give beginning farm-based educators?
Farm-based education seems so new, and on a small farm you are isolated from others. The internet has lessened the distance. We have used our time to discover and develop through our own experiences and are surprised how much is going on when we get a glimpse of all that is out there in the world. I also love the concept of The Edible Schoolyard Project. That might be the closest model of what we do, only we are teaching adults for week-long immersion programs.
What do you like best about your job?
I am constantly learning new things, and it’s a challenge! I like making cheese, growing a garden, and seeing all the food that we’ve preserved. Oh, and sharing delicious meals with new friends who join us at farm school!
If there were one thing you could change about the food system, what would it be?
Food systems health is intertwined with ecosystems health. I wish that more people recognized the global commons – clean air and water, access to good farm land, healthy food, and free sharing of seeds – as part as our birthright. I imagine the world as a better place without absentee land ownership and without mega corporations in the business of farming.
Interview by Vera Chang