Thursday, October 14, 2010

Suzanne McMinn from West Virginia

She wanted to live where chickens could be in the road . . .

Suzanne McMinn lives in the backwoods of rural West Virginia in a house she built with a wrap-around porch, on a dirt road.  To get there, four-wheel drive comes in real handy. From this remote spot, she makes her living by writing about country life in a blog she calls “Chickens in the Road.”

You may have already found Suzanne because she has one of the most popular websites about country life online. There is a recipe community (Farm Bell Recipes) and an active country living forum with a wide range of topics from animals, gardening, crafting, cooking and canning to cheesemaking (of course).

I could tell you more of her story, but Suzanne was a writer before she became a farmer. In fact, she had 26 romance novels published and translated into many languages! My point is that she writes well (much better than I do) so I would rather give you the basics by sharing excerpts from her blog. For example, here are a few paragraphs from the first article she wrote:

The Slanted Little House
It was a cold wintry day when I brought my children to live in rural West Virginia. The farmhouse was one hundred years old, there was already snow on the ground, and the heat was sparse—as was the insulation. The floors weren’t even, either.
My then-twelve-year-old son walked in the door and said, “You’ve brought us to this slanted little house to die.”

Products of suburbia, my three children wondered why there was no cable TV or Target, not to mention central heat. My daughter, hungry from the trip, tried to call Domino’s. My cousins explained gently (and without laughing) that they don’t deliver pizza out here. I think it took her a good thirty minutes to believe they weren’t making that up.

(After much more beautiful description of their new life, she finishes her story with this:)

My kids eat sandwiches sitting in apple trees. They jump fully clothed in the river if they want to. They skate on frozen creeks and they know how to pick a hoe out of the shed. They know what a low-water bridge is, and how to set a turtle trap. We don’t worry about burglars at night but raccoons. They eat corn on the cob and know they planted the seed.

People around here don’t have much if you compare them to suburbanites. Even if they can afford it, they don’t buy granite countertops or designer clothes, and there’s not much competition at the high school for the swankest car. As my son likes to say (in his exaggerated teenage way), “They’re all driving cars their grandfathers bought in 1950.”

But for all they don’t have, what they do have is each other, along with that deeply-held pride in community and family and plain living that has been largely lost in the contemporary world.

And that’s exactly why I wanted to bring my once-pampered suburban children here, to grow up knowing what matters, what is real. West Virginia is still an alternate universe from the rest of the country. Here, you don’t call for pizza. You call your neighbor.

Other people may have chosen to leave, but I chose to come, and I choose to stay. When people ask me where I’m from now, I have an answer. I’m from West Virginia. And my children, who once wondered if I brought them to this slanted little house to die, have bloomed like flowers taken from a sterile hothouse and put out in the natural sun.

We didn’t come to this slanted little house to die. We came here to live.
Since writing this article, she has moved her family into a new farmhouse she built nearby. It’s so remote, she says, “. . . you have to drive through three creeks in one direction or ford a river in the other to even get there.  
We have Nigerian Dwarf goats and Fainting goats, Cotswold, Jacob, and Dorset sheep, chickens, ducks, miniature donkeys, and a Great Pyrenees livestock guardian dog. I make cheese and candles and soap. I love to bake bread and grow my garden. I’m learning to spin wool and knit. I also love to crochet. It’s all fun. I love my life.” (Note: Since Suzanne wrote this, she has added a cow, Beulah Petunia who then had a calf, Glory Bee. Hence, her interest in cheesemaking!)

You can read all about Suzanne and her life on her website. In fact, we hope you will because it will increase your enjoyment of her new cheesemaking adventures every month in our Moosletter and here on our blog. I did ask her a few questions based on her articles:

What happened to the slanted house?

The slanted little house belongs to my cousin and is part of his farm.  No one lives in it now.  My great-aunt Ruby lived in it till she died, over 10 years before I came here.  No one has lived in it since.  It is kept up sort of like a museum.  We lived in it for 2 1/2 years.
While I lived there, I fell in love with West Virginia and country life.  I bought a farm just a couple of miles away across the river from the farm where my great-grandfather once lived and built a farmhouse and built the farm from scratch, gathering chickens, ducks, sheep, goats, donkeys, and cows along my way.  (There was not a falling-over fencepost when I got here.)  My kids were 9, 12, and 14 when we moved to the slanted little house.  (My oldest is now in the Navy and I have a senior and a freshman in high school.)

At certain times of the year, 4wd is necessary to get to our house and up our driveway.  Through most of the year, it's not.  Three to four months over the winter, you can't get here without a 4wd and we are sometimes quite isolated and stuck due to the road conditions.  From our farm, you can either get out by crossing a river ford (which doesn't work in high water or ice) or the other way over two miles of dirt-rock road up and down hill (which also doesn't work too well in snow and ice).

Note:  Here's a cute little video about the road to Suzanne's house (taken during the fall when it's still quite accessible):

What kinds of cheese have you made so far?
I've made a lot of soft cheeses.  I've probably tried about 75 percent of the soft cheese recipes in Ricki's book.  (Lactic cheese is my favorite. I make it most often and use it like it's regular cream cheese, make cheesecakes with it, etc.  Lactic cheese is such an easy and forgiving recipe.)

I've made mozzarella, and farmhouse cheddar (with a homemade cheese press), and I've made a LOT of cheddar (the traditional cheddar recipe).  Cheddar is my only foray into hard cheese so far.

I was making the traditional cheddar recipe about every other day back in June and July.

That was right before I dried my cow off.  She had her baby earlier than expected (she was pregnant when we got her and we didn't know when she was bred) and had a calf about 3 weeks ago so I'm back in business.  I've just now started breaking into those cheeses I made then since it's been about 3 months.  Cheese is so cool.  I love cheese.
I also have dairy goats, of course, and have made chevre.  I like goat cheese, but cows are just so much easier to deal with--you don't have to tie them six ways to Sunday and battle it out to get a half-pint--the cow just stands there and happily gives you a gallon. 
I make my own butter regularly, and of course have all the light and heavy cream any one person (or an army) could want.  I made what I thought was a fairly fascinating "cream discovery" last spring as to how to control how much light vs heavy cream I got out of my milk after pasteurizing.

Note:  This is a great article called "On the 8th day the farmer created cream.

(The other way to get a lot of light cream is to NOT pasteurize before letting it set, of course, and I do that sometimes, too--it depends on what I'm doing with my milk whether or not I pasteurize before or after taking the cream off--or at all.

I don't pasteurize my milk if I'm making hard cheese.  I do generally pasteurize before making soft cheeses, butter, and for drinking milk and coffee cream--though I sometimes pasteurize the coffee cream AFTER skimming if I don't want the milk pasteurized because it's going to a hard cheese.  Raw milk just curds up better for hard cheese.)  

This "cream discovery" enabled me to decide daily if I wanted heavy cream for butter the next day, or light cream for coffee, sorta like a wizard.  (That little trick may or may not be interesting for you to use, I have no idea, maybe everybody already knows this!  It was a discovery to *me* anyway.)

Why are you pasteurizing your milk?
Well, when we first got our cow, we bought her (cheap, $500, discount cow!) from a hobby dealer in cows.  It was someone who had run their own dairy at a former time and had dairy connections to get cows the dairy was getting ready to sell off.  Not sure why she was being dairy-dumped, maybe her production had decreased.  (I would suspect a dairy cow has a short high production span then they're dumped.)  They'd had her for a few months and just had her to re-sell her.  (Meanwhile, they had mated her with a Brown Swiss bull.  She's a Jersey.  So we got an adorable Jersey-Brown Swiss cross calf as a bonus--and it's a girl!)
All that to say, I didn't feel as if we knew that much about her.  We got her in April and I dried her off in August thinking (guessing, based on a vet who checked her after we got her) that she might calve in October or early November.  (Turned out she calved in September, but we just had no idea when she was bred because they had her with the bull on the buffet plan.) 
I never have pasteurized my goat milk, but I know the people we got our goats from very well, so I felt comfortable there.

I didn't feel as if I knew a thing about the cow.  Now that we've had the cow all this time, I'll probably get over the pasteurizing as I know now that she's healthy.  I started out pasteurizing all her milk all the time, just to be on the safe side.  Then I couldn't make hard cheese to save my life with it and I stopped pasteurizing milk for hard cheese.  I'm on round two with her now that she's had her calf and I'm milking again. 

I'm probably heading in the direction of quitting all the pasteurizing, even for the soft cheese milk.  It's kind of a hassle.  I feel much more comfortable with her now.  She's a really good cow in disposition, too.  We lucked out in a lot of ways with our "discount" cow, and I like to think we gave her a good home, her first real home, and she gave us a bonus future milker for free.  I've posted a few times about pasteurizing, and wow, people get very hot about it, I've found out!  (on both sides)  I'm not opposed to raw milk, just slow to go that direction with a new cow (and a new experience for me).

More to come about Suzanne . . .
This article is just the beginning of a series.  We challenged Suzanne to make a different "hard" cheese every month from our book, Home Cheese Making.  She has accepted our challenge and we think this proves that Suzanne ain't no "chicken in the road!"  So, watch for her stories to appear here every month on the 15th when our Moosletter comes out.  (Note: If you become a "follower" of this blog by clicking on the button on the nav bar to the right, you may opt to be notified whenever an article is posted.)

Here's a great little video about Suzanne and her farm:


gld said...

I am a devoted follower of Chickens in the Road and will now be following her here as well.

I have visited and ordered from you folks too. I think I originally found you on Keeping a Family Cow blog.

I have had my sweet cow, Willow, for three years now but have only ventured into cottage cheese, buttermilk, and mozzarella. My one attempt at a hard cheese was a dismal failure. I need to gear up with Suzanne and try again.

Looking forward to the Mooseletter.

Jeri said...

Welcome! Sounds like we should do one of our "Interviews with a New Cheese Maker" with you. If you're interested, contact me at

Cathy J. said...

I am very interested in learning how to make my own cheese. I have followed Suzanne's blog for quite a while and love it. I still have not tried making cheese, despite how inviting and clear she makes the directions. I think I will make it my new goal for the new year.

Prills said...

I follow Suzanne's blog. As a relatively recent retiree now farmer (goats, sheep, chickens), it helps me realize we're not alone in our exploits! I milk our goats for cheese and also use purchased milk for hard cheeses.

Jeri said...

You're definitely not alone. I extend my invitation to any of you who are making cheese-if you have pictures and you would like me to do an article about you- contact me at This is a community and we're all in it together!

angbethea said...

I have followed Suzanne's blog for quite a while now and am a huge fan. Since she is interested in this cheese making thing, so am I. Her blog is awesome and I am looking forward to this cheese challenge. I'm sure you will see a number of her devotees on this site now. On to our new adventure-Cheese.

Miss Becky said...

Oh this is beautiful. I begin each day reading Suzanne's Chickens in the Road blog. It simply wouldn't be a good day without seeing the photos of her critters, and reading about her latest challenges there on Stringtown Rising Farm. I live in the country vicariously through Suzanne, and consider myself truly blessed because of that!

Christine Hyatt said...

What a wonderful profile! I will absolutely check out Chickens in the Road and look forward to hearing updates on Suzanne's cheese adventures!

psmflowerlady said...

Hi. I'm another Chickens fan and honestly Suzanne has inspired me to try cheesemaking, but I am still @ that skeered stage. I live in a rural area with lots of dairy farms and this is just what I need to move into a new skill. I am really excited about the challenge. I think your readers will REALLY enjoy Suzanne, I know lots of people do!

The Japanese Redneck said...

Suzanne your a famous author!

I need to find out a whole lot more about cows.

Such as why you dry them off... No clue.

CoF said...

My sister just a week or two ago bought my mom her first starter kit off of your site because of CINTR! My mom was so excited to get it, she's going to try making ricotta and mozzarella :).