Long before Joe Meier took his first drive down Coyote Canyon Road for his AmeriCorps service at Teton Science Schools, he was out and about exploring Wyoming’s natural ecosystems. As a geology student at Northland College, Joe spent a month traveling through Wyoming, studying and mapping different geologic sites, and a summer living, working and exploring in Pinedale. When he graduated, his heart was set on returning to the Rocky Mountains.
Joe developed a love for mountain culture at a young age. He grew up skiing, riding bikes, hiking and playing in the woods of Vermont. The AmeriCorps program at Teton Science Schools offered Joe the opportunity to use his geology degree and live in a like-minded mountain town. He applied and was accepted to the Summer 2012 AmeriCorps service cohort. For Joe, living and working in the Tetons was a dream come true. So much so, that he spent the next five years taking in all Teton Valley had to offer.
Today, Joe lives in his home state of Vermont wherehe’s embarked on a new journey—cheesemaking at Jasper Hill Farm. The place is a little different, and he’s still figuring out what it means to him, but everyday, with his arms elbow deep in curd, whey and milk, he’s crafting a product that holds every element of his place in a single bite. We got the chance to hear from Joe about what “place” means to him, how it’s influenced his work, and why cheese is probably the best, and most delicious, way to get a taste of your place.
TSS: What does place mean to you?
Joe: I think community is pretty strongly linked to the idea of place. I don’t necessarily mean social community or the human population that you’re living and interacting with, but the landscape, the wildlife within the landscape, and the effort that you put in to interacting with all of those different levels really encompasses what place means to me. I’m still trying to figure out what this place [Vermont] means to me. The more effort I put in and the more time I spend here, the more I realize how special the people are and appreciate the small things. It’s hard to get a sense of place on just one level. You’ve got to put in the leg work to get to know places more than just your neighbors and the good place in town to grab a beer; you’ve got to feel the leaves crunch under your feet while your dog runs around and hopefully meet some good friends along the way. For me, people make the place as much as the place makes the place.
TSS: How has your connection to place inspired the work you currently do?
Joe: I’m still trying to figure out the personal part of place for me here. Without really realizing it while I was doing it, cheesemaking is a really good way to think about place. That’s because I’m making a product that can’t be made anywhere else. It can be imitated, but it can’t be the same. That’s because cheese is full of these wonderful microflora that are indigenous to the areas that the cows are grazing in — in the dried and cut hay, in the barn — and all that bacteria is what truly makes the cheese. So, when you see Jasper Hill’s tagline, “A Taste of Place,” when you eat our cheese, you’re eating the bacteria that was in the barn, on the cow’s udder, and everything about that place.
Someone on the other side of the country can have the specific recipe for the cheese that I make and do everything I do everyday, age the cheese out, and it would taste very different. This is because we’re in two different places, with two different herds, two different cows, two different aging facilities, and different people making the cheese.
While I’m still definitely trying to find my place in this place, it’s cool to know that I’m already a part of it in a pretty visceral way. Most days at work I’m elbow deep in the curd, whey, and milk that’s being produced here. Vermont has a pretty storied past in cheesemaking and we make some good cheese. I feel fortunate to be here.
TSS: Jasper Hill Farm isn’t your first venture into cheesemaking. What inspired you to get your hands back in this line of work?
Joe: I had always considered my first cheesemaking job at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese as one of my favorites I’ve ever had. I enjoyed the work I did at TSS, and had a lot of good jobs in Jackson outside of TSS, but what I learned while working at the Science Schools was that I’m not a good content creator. I can teach someone how to do the mechanics of the thing, but it’s hard for me to inspire the motivation to master the skills.
I moved to Vermont for this specific job because I wanted to feel that I was on a career path that I could grow in and live in a real way. I like making cheese and like having a job that allows me to go into work, have a clear process from start to finish, and end up with a great product at the end of it. I’m doing the same thing every day, but I get different results every time. The milk changes, the cheese changes. It’s maddening and fun at the same time. Every day were aiming for certain parameters in the cheese and it changes daily; it’s a fun puzzle.
TSS: What is the most rewarding aspect of the work you do?
Joe: Honestly, being able to eat the cheese. It feels good to eat a piece of cheese that is really freakin’ good!But really, I think one of the most rewarding moments for me so far was winning best in show at TheAmerican Cheese Society’s an annual competition for North American cheeses. Out of more than 2000 submissions, the cheese that I make — Harbison — took home the prize! I wasn’t responsible for developing the recipe, but I am one of the few people in the world that knows how to make this cheese, and when it tastes good and everyone I work with thinks it tastes good, it feels great.
TSS: If it could be one thing, what would you want customers to walk away from experiencing the taste of cheese knowing or feeling?
Joe: My boss said this to me, “It takes just as much as effort to make a bad piece of cheese as it does to make a good piece of cheese.” We work really hard to make sure our cheese is excellent. I’d want them to know how much we care and how much effort we put into our cheese.
I would also want them to realize that cheese is this really weird and incredible product. Have you ever bitten into a piece of aged cheddar and felt something crunchy? Those are minerals. There are some minerals on the surface of the washed-rind cheese I make that are only found in nature in deep sea trenches — that’s the only other place in nature that these crystals are found and that’s pretty extraordinary.
TSS: What’s your favorite cheese?
Joe: I’m really enjoying the Willoughby that we make here. It’s funky, it’s weird, and it’s soft.
Interested in joining Teton Science Schools as an AmeriCorps member?