SALEM, Ore. — When the Eggert family-owned Keystone Pacific sold Pacific Foods and bought the Willamette Valley Cheese Co. last year, it vowed to take the award-winning cheese maker organic.
True to their word, the first organic cheese is now for sale at the company’s West Salem tasting room. For Rod Volbeda, founder, former owner and now manager of Willamette Valley Cheese, it’s a dream come true.
The new cheese, still made on the Wallace Road property where it started nearly 20 years ago, comes solely from Keystone Pacific-owned dairies in Wilsonville, Albany and McMinnville.
Certified by Oregon Tilth and robotically milked, the cows eat organic feeds only and live outside seven hours a day.
The barns that once housed the cows that supplied the on-farm Willamette Valley Cheese Co. are now rented out.
“I’ve wanted to go organic for a long time,” Volbeda said. “I tackled it 15 years ago when you could have a split herd, but I didn’t have the money to take the next step. We had to change a few cultures and some cleaning chemicals to switch over; the biggest challenge was all of the paperwork. It’s been a big job in the last six months to get all that done.”
Volbeda, the son of a Dutch dairyman and raised on a dairy farm in Albany, started college life as a pharmacy major at Oregon State University. After earning a bachelor’s degree in food science and making cheese for two different places in his dad’s native Holland, he spent three years working in the lab and the field for the head cheese maker at Tillamook Cheese.
He credits his mother for encouraging him to start Willamette Valley Cheese Co.
“We still have the same employees, my brother Darren makes the cheese, my mother still does the farmers’ markets and I still get to pursue my dream of taking the company organic,” Volbeda said. “We will continue to sell our conventionally made cheese until it’s gone but everything coming in now is organic.”
Volbeda says it wasn’t something he could have done on his own. While he’s excited about the future of Willamette Valley cheese and the part they are playing in Keystone Pacific’s program, his heart still lies with making cheese.
“Though I’m enjoying managing and marketing a cheese company that to date has the distinction and advantage of being the only organic cheese company in the state, my focus is still to make the best cheese in the world,” Volbeda said. “My brother Darren is the head cheese maker here and I want to watch him walk up there and get that number one prize.”