Driving through the rolling hills about two hours southeast of Nashville and taking in the perfumed air, it was easy to see how one could devote their life to the land there. Padgett and Nathan Arnold of Sequatchie Cove Creamery embrace that devotion not only with responsible stewardship of the soil, but in the creation of a product that clearly expresses that stewardship: fine artisan cheese.
Everything from the land itself, to the seasonal transformation of local milk, to the cows that provide it and the microorganisms in the air come together to give birth to what Nathan—the resident cheesemaker—conceives. “All of the lifeforce here connects back to the region,” marvels Padgett. Each cheese they create is a “snapshot of this place and time and season and this lifeforce.”
Healthy animals and healthy soil are the beginning of providing healthy food, but cheese is unique: as a fermented product, climate and altitude come into the dance. Padgett Arnold, who handles a variety of business-end variables for the creamery, finds fermented products special in their “special ability to harness these elements in a way you can’t really see.”
THE VERY BEGINNING
The Arnold’s fascination with agriculture came long before their involvement with Sequatchie Cove Creamery. In 1998, the couple helped found Crabtree Farms—an urban farm and community center—in Chattanooga. At that time their energy was largely spent on growing vegetables and flowers at the farm, which eventually evolved into a CSA. It wasn’t until 2003 that they began working in Sequatchie.
As Nathan’s involvement with the creamery grew, he handed Crabtree completely over to Padgett, immersing himself in the art of cheesemaking. On a tour of the greatest cheesemaking regions in the world — Vermont, Canada, Switzerland, and southern alpine France — he listened, learned, and practiced. Upon returning to Sequatchie, he began hand milking cows for fresh milk, bringing it home, and trying his hand at perfecting his own cheeses. This was the very beginning of Sequatchie Cove Creamery as a provider of particularly fine cheese.
In 2009, things started coming together on both ends: After many attempts, Crabtree finally established a farmer’s market called Main Street Farmer’s Market in Chattanooga. At the same time, the Arnolds were working in development with the creamery, starting with the construction of the cheesehouse. In 2010, they got a license to sell their cheeses, and both shifted their focus to the creamery more fully.
IT AIN’T EASY MAKING CHEESE
For eleven years, Sequatchie Cove Creamery maintained its own herd of pastured and grass-fed cows for the production of their milk. Unfortunately, the labor shortage of 2021 forced the farm to disperse them. While Padgett has found that the involvement of other local milk in their production is rewarding, they would like to have a herd of their own again. “We have an opportunity to build something for the dairy industry in Tennessee,” she states.
The Tennessee dairy industry could certainly use a little something. Between 1959 and 1969, farms that cared for dairy cows decreased by 72% — and we haven’t gotten them back. Part of this is due to demand and consolidation, but cost is a major factor. “Small family dairies hardly have a way to exist anymore,” explains Arnold. Because a lactating cow requires more, high quality food than beef cattle, dairy farms are on the more extreme end of the economic disadvantage. Combine with that the natural downturn in milk supply during the colder months, and small farmers will look to make their wage elsewhere.
Charles Mayfield, of the Mayfield Dairy family, notes that the beverage industry is awfully competitive. With the rise of sugary sports drinks, milk has witnessed its popularity decline. “The sports drink of choice forty years ago was milk,” he says. For years now, this hasn’t been the case. Much of milk’s decline can be explained by how our own tastes have shifted due to a misplaced fear of fat. Schools offer children skim milk (which is effectively tasteless) and chocolate milk. “[Chocolate milk] is not getting them addicted to milk,” says Mayfield. “It’s getting them addicted to sugar.” The anti-fat push coinciding with the rise of sugary drinks has meant that the last few generations have been opting for a soda or Powerade over fresh and local dairy.
There are plenty who enjoy milk, but simply can’t stomach the ultra-pasteurized stuff that is broadly available. I myself spent years believing I was lactose intolerant before I finally got ahold of the raw stuff, learning that flavorful and highly digestible dairy existed—I just hadn’t been allowed to have it. In most of the United States, raw milk is simply illegal, and where it isn’t, it is prohibitively expensive. Those who want to get some here in Tennessee have to turn to cow-share agreements, which take a bit more effort than a run to the supermarket.
SOMETHING FOR TENNESSEE DAIRY
Sequatchie Cove Creamery currently carries four special cheeses, each inspired and utilizing the beauty around them in a unique way. Expressing Arnold’s philosophy, all of them are named for a location around the Sequatchie Valley. Cumberland (as in the plateau) is their first cheese, a raw milk product inspired by French alpine tradition: an old world European table cheese known as a tomme. Every village has its own version of a tomme, which has a natural rind that expresses its environment. Coming in a three or four-pound wheel, Cumberland will take on different characteristics seasonally because of this organic process. In the spring and summer, the wheel will take on a warm, gold color due to the chlorophyll in the milk it’s made from. In the winter, that color will appear much paler. This is a feature the creamery chooses to highlight: this cheese is very much a product of the exact time and place it was crafted.
Coppinger (as in the cove) is a raw milk cheese as well, in about the same size. Its closest cousin is the old world French morbier. Both have an aesthetically pleasing line of black ash which runs through the center, making Coppinger “absurdly popular,” in Arnold’s words. Coppinger is made with a washed rind process, which means it is washed with brine regularly in a controlled environment. Arnold makes the distinction that a washed rind cheese is made by “harnessing the activity of bacteria,” and a natural rind uses the activity of natural yeast and mold.
Walden is a small format, pasteurized version of the French reblochon—where a traditional reblochon is made from raw milk and sold after forty days of ripening, United States law dictates that raw milk cheese here must ripen for at least sixty. Nathan Arnold wanted to bring this unique cheese to us and developed Walden from another cheese he made called Dancing Fern. Dancing Fern had some trouble in that it had to be sold right at day sixty, and came in a one pound wheel that wouldn’t keep for long enough once sold. It was wildly popular at the time, but these snags brought him to the decision to alter the composition. Walden was the answer to this, coming in a seven ounce wheel that has 55 to 60 days of shelf life. “It’s not brie, and it’s not camembert,” explains Padgett, “but it’s in the same family.”
The Shakerag Blue is a blue cheese, but not just any—this treat is wrapped in fig leaves (often picked by Padgett herself) that marinate in a Chattanooga whisky. The leaves are picked over three months and then set in the whisky where they are preserved and taken out throughout the year as the cheese is made. Shakerag is a star and just won first place in the Blue Cheese category at the American Cheese Society’s Conference and Competition. It’s also now my favorite cheese.
“We have a lot of struggle and turmoil in our story,” says Arnold, “but we have this dream that hasn’t changed.” Their partnership with the Keener family—the owners of Sequatchie Cove Creamery—has provided the Arnolds the opportunity they seize daily. Beyond their fantastic cheeses, the farm produces high quality meat, eggs, and vegetables. And the milk? Arnold finds that after a year of sourcing it elsewhere, the process and product are just as special. “New discoveries and appreciations have come through sacrifice,” she smiles.
The farm itself is special. Run by four generations of Keeners alongside the Arnolds, the land is beautiful, natural, and home to a family of other animals. After my chat with Padgett, I took a walk around the property, enjoying the company of beef cattle, strangely social chickens, a very sweet golden cat named Honeybun, and the chickens’ guardian: an absolutely loveable Great Pyrenees named Little Jim. Little Jim ran alongside me as I took in this land and air teeming with life, appreciating how it all came together to make the expertly crafted cheese waiting for me in my coat pocket.