In 2022, cheesemaker Pete Messmer and the team from Lively Run Dairy took home three awards from the American Cheese Society's annual competition: two gold, one silver, for their goat's milk Cayuga Blue, Finger Lakes Gold, and extra aged Finger Lakes Gold Reserve. That would be a feather in the cap of any cheesemaker. In Messner's case, it's an affirmation of what we at Saxelby Cheesemongers have known for years—that he's a rapidly rising figure in the American cheese revolution!
Messmer, 34, grew up on his family's goat dairy farm Interlaken, New York. His parents, Steve and Susanne, bought the property in 1995. They continued to run the farm as a goat dairy, and Susanne began to make fresh cheeses like feta and chevre, the aged Cayuga Blue, and aged cow's milk cheeses with milk from nearby farms. After graduating college in 2010 with a degree in English education, he began working on the farm full-time and soon took over cheesemaking operations, "with a lot of trial and error" from studying books, as he put it.
Today, Lively Run makes a wide range of cheeses, but their specialty is carefully aged goat's milk styles like Cayuga Blue and Finger Lakes Gold. Messmer is fascinated by the ways a region's cheesemaking reflects its agricultural circumstances. "I have fantasies of a six-month sabbatical," he says, "to learn about transhumance," the ancient Alpine method of rotating grazing herds with the seasons, and making cheese with communal milk.
As demand for cheese grew, so did the need for goat milk—more goat milk than the 22-acre farm could support. So the Messmers decided to sell off most of their herd to focus on cheesemaking, with goat and cow milk purchased from local farms. They currently buy all their milk from a couple in western New York with a herd of 600 goats. Jennifer Gabel is a large-animal veterinarian, and her husband Kyle is a partner in a seventh generation dairy farm.
Lively Run pays a premium for this milk, "to allow [the Gabels] not to go with the lowest common denominator for feed and animal welfare," Messmer says. "For the most part, dairy is run on a large scale that's not sustainable for anybody: the people doing physical labor, the animals, or the environment. It doesn't even make much money. Most farms are struggling unless they operate at a huge macro level."
Messmer prefers "a focus on more localized production, that pays small farms a sustainable amount to do things that you wouldn't be able to set up on a macro scale," such as consulting with animal welfare specialists, and, crucially, a semblance of work-life balance for farmers.
Small farmers are often forced to take on a second job or seasonal work in addition to running their own farms, just to make ends meet. "It's one thing to have a seasonal job when you're 16," Messmer says. "It's another when you're an adult trying to live your life." One of the reasons Lively Run makes cow's milk cheese is to provide work to the farm's staff during the winter, when goat's milk dries up. Additional revenue in the slow season doesn't hurt, either.
Lively Run has four full-time workers in cheese production with Messmer. He speaks highly, and often, of them all: Ryan Dougherty, the current main cheesemaker; Valerie DeLong, the farm's longest running employee, who wears multiple hats as brand representative, leaf affineur, and quality assurance manager; and assistant cheese makers Neftali Hernandez and Lesly Contreras Lopez.
When he's not working in the creamery, Messmer is usually outdoors fishing, mountain biking, bird hunting, or skiing. He views all these activities as an extension of his sustainability work on the farm. "The more I delve into the outdoors, the more I see the connection between public land and agriculture," he says. "In order to have quality outdoor opportunities for people, we have to change the way we think of land, from a focus on use to one on stewardship. It's about finding ways to have a positive impact, and thinking about the people coming after you."
Taste Lively Run's amazing cheese for yourself!
Photos of Pete Messmer, Valerie DeLong, and rambunctious goat courtesy of Lively Run Dairy.