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We look at life among the goats, cows and sheep, and we sample true farmstead cheeses at North Carolina’s Three Graces Dairy.
“The minute we came over that first hill and saw the sign saying ‘Jewel of the Blue Ridge,’ that was it,” says Roberta Ferguson.
Cleveland, Chicago and New York suddenly lost their allure when this dance instructor discovered the mountains, creeks, barns and farmhouses of Madison County, North Carolina. She had been an urban dweller for her entire life, but that existence was cast aside, and goats took over.
This graduate of the Juilliard School, who had worked in musical theater and had taught dance in downtown Chicago, left that life behind for the glories of the White Rock community in Western North Carolina.
She and her husband Larry, a neurosurgeon, bought Ruth Landers’ farm, where a grist mill, a grocery store and a small hospital had once served the citizens of the tiny community near Hot Springs.
Ruth Landers was born on that farm. Her mother died in the hospital there, and Landers was raised by her aunt. When Roberta and Larry Ferguson bought the place in 1998, they gave Ruth a life estate there.
From Chicago, Roberta and Larry moved to a place that did not have electricity until the 1940s or paved roads until the 1960s.
At first, they envisioned a leisurely life, raising animals to provide fiber for weaving and spinning. Six Nigerian Dwarf goats changed all that. “They were our first babies,” Roberta recalls, and a week later, those six doubled to 12.
They were the genesis of what became Three Graces Dairy, a name that came to Roberta in the car as she was on one of her many trips from Chicago to North Carolina.
“In Greek mythology, the Three Graces, who were the daughters of Zeus, brought beauty, mirth and hospitality to the Gods,” Roberta explains. “They were stewards of nature. On the farm and in business practice, we also strive to act as stewards of nature.”
Herds of goats, cows and sheep now grace this North Carolina hillside farm. The milk that they produce is transformed into a rich and varied array of award-winning cheeses, at this stop on the Western North Carolina Cheese Trail (see sidebar).
Roberta says the state of North Carolina has been especially supportive to small producers like Three Graces and the state has created a business environment that allows operations like hers to flourish.
“People who think about going into this ask, ‘What about the inspectors?’ And I can tell you that when I started, the inspector was a tremendous resource for us. And even now, we get inspections every couple of months, but we always know about them. Nobody wants to come all this way and find that we’re not at home,” she says. “But they’re also very helpful in terms of suggestions to help us improve our operation. It’s been a positive relationship.”
Shortly after buying the North Carolina farm, Roberta and Larry spent a week in the Burgundy region of France touring wineries, and they discovered French cheeses—“our inspiration,” as Roberta describes them.
Once they made the life-altering decision to start producing farmstead cheeses, the transition from their urban existence to the rural one was abrupt, even jarring at first. “We realized this is 24/7. It is very demanding. We’ve never worked harder in our lives.”